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‘It still gives me nightmares’: the firefighters on the frontline as the world burns | Wildfires

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Babis Zacharis
Hellenic fire service volunteer, Athens

In Greece, fires take up a lot of resources. There isn’t enough money to recruit the number of [firefighters] needed or to buy the necessary equipment. Volunteers plug the gaps.

To become a volunteer firefighter with the Greek fire service, I had to do 120 hours of training. Volunteers work in urban environments dealing with accidents and rescues, house fires, factory fires, as well as tackling wildfires. We have to work at least three days a month; I have a full-time job as a civil engineer.

A volunteer with the Greek fire service tackles a wildfire in near Athens.
A volunteer with the Greek fire service tackles a wildfire in near Athens. Photograph: Courtesy of Babis Zacharis

For the past five to six years, wildfires have become the norm in Greece. The last one I was involved in was in early August. Many buildings were burned, a lot of forest was lost and all of Athen’s fire services, and some from other regions of Greece, were called in to help. There were bad wildfires in other parts of the country at the same time.

The work was difficult and emotional. When I saw the fire, my first feeling was anger – I saw it as an enemy. I could not accept that it would destroy something I love. As the blaze grew, sometimes we felt helpless. At one point, we ran out of water and electricity, and had to retreat.

It is also dangerous. One of the volunteer firefighters involved in that fire just died. He suffered burns when the vehicle he was in caught fire. Firefighters have a very strong relationship with each other; we are like a family. We see ourselves in each other. It’s extremely emotional.

Volunteers get paid nothing. The state provides those in the Greek fire service with some equipment but not everything that is needed, so I have bought my own. I’m happy to do this, but not everyone can. Unlike employed firefighters, our families get no compensation if we die in the line of duty.

When a volunteer firefighter with the Greek fire service died last year of a heart attack while responding to a fire, there was a small ceremony and a tweet from the fire service. When someone offers themselves to the public and dies in the line of duty, the least they deserve is proper recognition.

Scott Vinen
Tasmania fire service, Australia

Are bushfires getting worse? I can’t answer with any scientific basis but they’re getting more frequent – the bushfire season tends to start earlier and run for longer. We seem to be having longer dry spells. There’s a lot more public scrutiny on us to do a better job.

Firefighters at the scene of a Tasmania wildfire
Firefighters at the scene of a wildfire in Tasmania. Photograph: UFUA Tasmania

During wildfires, there are trees falling down, you’re out in the bush and in danger. In 2016, I was fighting a fire in a remote location. We had to fly in and out by helicopter. They weren’t able to land so I had to jump out with my backpack, tools, food and water. As I got to the ground, lightning struck a tree and lit up the sky like nothing I’ve seen before.

In 2019, I was in charge of groups tackling a fire near the Great Lake. One of my seconds in command was fighting a fire and a gust of wind meant it went over the top of his head, melted the guideposts and damaged some vehicles. They weren’t hurt, but it was quite scary.

Another time, a helicopter got its bucket caught in a tree and went to ground. Flying conditions are always tough because there’s a lot of smoke and fire creates wind. We had to get the operator out because the fire was all around him.

We’ve just set up a remote rescue capability as part of the remote area firefighting operation. We are gearing up for rescuing our own people and those from other services.

Sonya Kosacheva
‘We had to cross a river and then it was a two-hour walk,’ Sonya Kosacheva recalls of one fire. ‘We worked for 10 days.’ Photograph: Greenpeace Russia

Sonya Kosacheva
Greenpeace, Russia

I discovered a love for firefighting in 2010 when a friend asked if I’d be interested in volunteering. The opportunity also opened my eyes to some huge problems we have in Russia.

There are various services dedicated to fighting fires in cities, forested areas and nature reserves. Our country is huge and there isn’t enough money to provide a firefighting service throughout. There are ‘zones of control’, which are remote areas with few people living there, where regional authorities do not have to put out fires [if the cost of doing so exceeds that of the fire damage]. This means wildfires get out of control. We saw this in 2019 when smoke from fires burning in Yakutia, Siberia, covered cities thousands of miles away.

As a woman, it’s very hard to work as a professional firefighter in Russia. Until recently, women could work in city fire service support roles but could not work directly with fire – it was believed the work is too dangerous for women. Two years ago, the professional standard of a forest firefighter was modified to include women, but in practice, nothing has changed.

This year was a record year, in terms of the scale of wildfires, after we had abnormal heatwaves in the Arctic region. Many fires are started by people but the climate crisis enables them to spread.

In June, I was called to a fire in the Denezhkin Kamen nature reserve in the Urals. The fire had started due to lightning. The reserve authority realised that the few rangers they had would not be enough to stop it and asked for help from the state aviation service. Sometimes it can take a few days for them to arrive because there’s a lot of bureaucracy and money involved. This time can be critical in terms of managing the fire.

In the meantime, the reserve called us. I had three hours to gather all the stuff I needed before driving 48 hours from Moscow to the reserve. We rotated drivers so we were constantly on the move. When we got there, the fire had spread over 50 hectares [124 acres]. We set up camp and changed into our firefighting clothes.

First, we had to cross a river and then it was a two-hour walk up to an elevation of 600 metres. The aviation service arrived quickly this time and there were about 50 people working on the fire. As the nearest water source was two hours away, we decided to dig a line around the fire to contain it. We worked for 10 days. In the end, about 100 people were involved in putting out the fire.

firefighters tackle a blaze amid birch trees
Greenpeace firefighters work with volunteers, park rangers and natural resources ministry staff in the Lenskiye Stolby (Lena Pillars) national park, Siberia. Photograph: Julia Petrenko/Greenpeace

As well as the director of the nature reserve, there were two other women involved. Our male colleagues said to us on quite a few occasions: “Girls, you must be tired. This is a man’s job. Stay at the camp.”

We were all tired and had the same bruises. I and the other woman told them: “You’re also tired from wearing heavy equipment. Why don’t you stay at the camp?”

Tjalle Boorsma
Asociación Armonía, Bolivia

The worst experience I had still gives me nightmares. It was in 2016; it was intense; we didn’t have the right equipment and we made mistakes. No one got hurt, but most of us were dehydrated with a severe headache for two days afterwards.

I work for a Bolivian organisation focused on protecting the country’s most threatened birds. It owns an 11,000-hectare nature reserve that is home to the critically endangered blue-throated macaw.

I started working on the reserve in 2015 and since day one, fire has been the biggest threat. That year, a fire started on neighbouring land got out of control and burned the whole reserve. We had no system in place to protect against fire and none of us were trained in how to fight fires.

The land surrounding us is used for grazing cattle. The ranchers set fire to grassland the cows refuse to eat hoping it will burn a small area before the rain comes. Often, rain doesn’t arrive or the wind shifts and the fire gets out of control.

firefighters trying to beat out fires in Bolivia’s grasslands.
Trying to beat out fires, the main threat for breeding blue-throated macaws, in Bolivia’s grasslands. Photograph: Asociación Armonía

Every year there are weather extremes. We’ve had some intense flooding, followed by a longer dry season. There is a fire service managed by the government but very little funding for conservation and habitat protection. Park rangers and firefighters are often trained by, and receive equipment from, non-governmental organisations. It has been left up to me to work towards a management plan for fire and fundraise to protect the reserve from fire.

Now we create firebreaks by ploughing the ground with a tractor so there is no fuel for any fire. This year we have a 4km-long [2.5 miles] firebreak that is 20 metres wide, and on either side of that we burn a 30-metre to 50-metre section so if a fire reaches it, there’s nothing left to burn and it will go out.

We are well-prepared but I worry when we reach the dry season. It’s always a stressful time.

Anna Mattila
Jokilaaksojen rescue services, Finland

I always knew wildfires were going to be a part of the job as we have a lot of forests in Finland. Ten years ago, I’d maybe tackle two to three each year; now it’s between five and 10. My service has to deal with 20 to 30 every year now.

In July, I was involved in fighting the worst one of my career, and the worst our service has seen for 20 years. The fire in Kalajoki, in a remote area of north-west Finland, destroyed more than 300 hectares. There were 100 firefighters working around the clock for almost two weeks. Firefighters were called back from holidays and off-days, including me.

We had to ask for help from other fire departments. All 22 regional rescue services in Finland helped – from Helsinki to Lapland. I think this is the first time this has happened in Finnish history.

firefighters in a forest amid smoke and scorched earth
The fire in Kalajoki this year was one of the worst Finland has experienced in two decades. The video footage above is from the same fire. Photograph: Pertti Piispanen/Handout

The fire was in the middle of nowhere and we had to use all-terrain vehicles and walk to get to the frontline. When I arrived, trees were burning and toppling over. That was the scariest bit. It was dangerous for the firefighters. Luckily, there were no serious injuries. There were about five helicopters dropping water on the flames.

I worked a 16-hour shift. It was almost 30C [86F] and the terrain was difficult. My eyes stung and watered because of the smoke. But for me, it was more stressful mentally. I was in charge of making sure firefighters weren’t going to get hurt and that they got enough rest, had eaten and that new ones would come to take over.

After that shift, I had to go back to my normal duties before I returned to Kalajoki two weeks later. Life goes on, whether there’s a big fire burning somewhere or not.

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‘They see it in corridors, in bathrooms, on the bus’: UK schools’ porn crisis | Pornography

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Barnardo’s works directly with children who are victims of abuse or display signs of harmful or risky sexual behaviour. In 2020-21, they worked with 382,872 children, young people, parents and carers.

In a recent survey of their frontline workers across England and Wales, staff reported a rise in the number of children participating in acts they have seen in pornographic videos, despite feeling uncomfortable or scared. They describe porn as having a “corrosive” effect on child wellbeing.

Child sexual abuse expert Sarah works with children who are displaying signs of inappropriate sexual behaviour. She also trains other professionals who work with children

“I started out as a primary school teacher eight years ago, and I’ve been worried about children seeing porn ever since. Children don’t have to be able to type to see porn – it can be sent to them or shown to them on someone else’s phone. They see it at school, in the corridors, in the bathrooms, on the bus. There is just no censor on any of it – one video leads to another. If you can imagine it, it exists as porn, and children are seeing it.

“I am working with a teenager who was sexually abused by a family member. This young person had been exposed to porn and it was perpetuating what the abuser told them – that this is normal, that it’s not abuse.”

She is particularly concerned, as are her colleagues, about the increasingly extreme nature of the porn freely available on mainstream sites.

“A common role play theme on porn sites is intra-familial abuse – on mainstream sites you will see fetishisation of grandad and granddaughter sex, or stepfathers and stepdaughters. This may lead to a young person not disclosing or getting the support they need. From both angles it is dangerous; it puts the child at risk and encourages the perpetrator.

“The impact of porn shows in children harming others or themselves because they either don’t understand or are so ashamed of sexual urges. Shame is very prevalent and is often hidden.

“We are working with a seven-year-old who has been exposed to porn and is now displaying sexualised behaviour. They had free rein on a device, and someone hadn’t deleted a browser history. Once a young person sees porn, they may feel a need to come back again and again – porn is designed to meet a need. That is a form of sexual abuse against that child.”

Brian* is a senior social worker who has worked with children for over 30 years

“Unfortunately, porn is a feature for the majority of the children who come into our service. The children we support are very damaged. They would be likely to have experienced multiple forms of abuse – sexual, physical and domestic. Porn in and of itself is not the cause of their behaviour but it becomes a compounding factor when it hits that history of vulnerability.

Adult sex offenders can give children a distorted rationalisation for their behaviour, and the messages that are given through porn then fit with that distortion.

Lucy* has worked within the field of child sexual abuse for 16 years.

“We know children find porn distressing – they are telling us that themselves. We have done research with children in schools so that we have a cohort to compare our vulnerable children to, and they are saying the same thing.

“This is not what could be described as erotic or soft porn. They may start on porn sites and quickly begin to see very hardcore material. Or [extreme material] lands in their social media feeds, and they can then feel compelled to go back and look again.

“Children are less able to manage sexual arousal, and this material is designed to be arousing. Lots of children can feel guilty and distressed by what they see. We have 14-year-olds telling us they have to watch it as soon as they wake up. They describe being preoccupied with accessing porn to an extent that impacts upon their day-to-day life.

“We also regularly work with children with learning disabilities, another group vulnerable to the harm of porn. They may be shielded from sexual information and then reach 13 or 14 and take away the wrong learning from porn. They may learn that no means yes, that if you persist, women will enjoy forced sex. These messages are harmful for any child but for children with learning needs or who have developed unhealthy beliefs around sex as a result of abuse, it’s particularly bad.

“After lockdown, we began to get more calls from parents where there is no other obvious trauma, just the exposure to porn. I’ve been doing this 16 years, and children have far more access to porn now.”

* Names and some details have been changed to protect identities

In the UK, the NSPCC offers support to children on 0800 1111, and adults concerned about a child on 0808 800 5000. The National Association for People Abused in Childhood (Napac) offers support for adult survivors on 0808 801 0331. In the US, call or text the Childhelp abuse hotline on 800-422-4453. In Australia, children, young adults, parents and teachers can contact the Kids Helpline on 1800 55 1800, or Bravehearts on 1800 272 831, and adult survivors can contact Blue Knot Foundation on 1300 657 380. Other sources of help can be found at Child Helplines International

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French centre-right tilts toward Pécresse

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Valérie Pécresse, a moderate conservative who has likened herself to former British and German leaders Margaret Thatcher and Angela Merkel, has emerged as a front-runner in primaries in France’s centre-right Les Républicains party, Reuters reports. “I won’t flinch. I have a project for a clean break, a project for the unashamed right,” she said Thursday, ahead of elections against liberal incumbent Emmanuel Macron and far-right contenders in spring.

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Poland plans to set up register of pregnancies to report miscarriages | Poland

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Poland is planning to introduce a centralised register of pregnancies that would oblige doctors to report all pregnancies and miscarriages to the government.

The proposed register would come into effect in January 2022, a year after Poland introduced a near-total ban on abortion.

This has raised serious concerns among women’s rights activists, who believe that in light of the abortion ban, the register could be used to cause legal difficulties for women who have self-administered abortions.

The draft legislation is part of a wide-ranging project to update the medical information system in Poland.

“It’s about control, it’s about making sure that pregnancies end with birth,” Natalia Broniarczyk, an activist from Aborcyjny Dream Team told the Polish weekly Gazeta Wyborcza.

The plan prompted online protests. A social media initiative titled “I’d like to politely report that I am not pregnant” encouraged Polish women to email photos of their used sanitary pads, tampons and underwear to the Polish ministry of health.

The ministry has strongly denied the project amounts to a centralised pregnancy register, with a spokesperson saying the changes are simply part of wide-ranging digitalisation project that will update the way data about a multitude of conditions, including allergies, is stored.

The spokesperson said doctors always had information on pregnancies, but before it was stored on paper by hospitals, rather than centrally by the government.

The concerns of activists about the register grew considerably after a bill proposed by the government that would establish an “institute of family and demographics” passed first reading in the Polish parliament by one vote on Thursday.

The institute would aim to monitor family policy, pass opinion on legislation and educate citizens on the “vital role of family to the social order” and the importance of “cultural-social reproduction” in the context of marriage. The institute would have access to citizens’ personal data and prosecutorial powers in the realm of family law, prompting worries it could be used to enforce the country’s strict abortion law.

The project has drawn widespread criticism from Polish academics and civil rights advocates.

“Maybe just call it the ‘Red Center of Rachel and Leah’,” a feminist organisation from Łódź said in an Instagram post, referencing Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale. In the novel the Rachel and Leah Center is a training facility for women designated to be “breeders” by the authoritarian regime.

The committee of demographic researchers at the Polish Academy of Sciences has issued a statement expressing concerns that the “pro-natalist propaganda” would take precedent over scientific research at the institute.

“The project aims exclusively to promote traditional model of family,” Adam Bodnar, Poland’s former ombudsman for citizen rights, told the Polish news website Oko.press. “It could also become a tool against those who fall outside this model, for example those who do not conform to heteronormative norms.”



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