Simon Reeve is no stranger to daring travel; he’s ventured through Mogadishu with armed soldiers, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan to the edge of Afghanistan and Russia, and to politically unstable lands such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo, plus countless others. In his new show he travels to Australia. Not a nation known for being particularly dangerous, but Reeve manages to find it. He puts himself in the line of fire (quite literally).
“It did feel like playing fireman in a very difficult, hostile landscape,” said Reeve ahead of his new series Wildfires 2014: Inside the Inferno. With his co-presenter, Kate Humble, the traveller visits New South Wales to learn how the Rural Fire Service contends with as many as 100 bush fires a day. He gets kitted up and goes in search of fierce blazes, which are frequent and hard to control.
“I’ve always been a bit of a pyromaniac. I’ve always had a slightly unhealthy fascination with fire,” says Reeve, explaining that us Brits, on our little island, don’t fully understand the power fire can have. “Our world has been shaped by these great natural forces like earthquakes and floods, but also massive fires as well.”
In Australia, these destructive blazes can reach the size of Manchester, Birmingham and Edinburgh combined. “They rage with a force that I’d never really fully appreciated,” says Reeve. “You hear about fires burning and you hear about the damage they can do, but you imagine that people can move faster than them and control them – sometimes it just doesn’t happen, because a blaze can move at 45 miles an hour.”
Australia’s hot, dry environment offers the exact conditions a fire needs to thrive. Lightning is a big problem for the nation, bolts can spark up a fire, and if a fire catches in a eucalyptus tree in New South Wales it’s particularly dangerous. Slow burning eucalyptus wood can stay alight for up to three months. “The tree will often topple over and the fire will almost literally spill out of it into dry bush,” explains Reeve, “and then a blaze begins.”
Another major problem is the wind and the thermals in the air, which carry embers for miles and miles to other patches of land, which ignite as a result. Daring Reeve gets kitted up in uniform and joins the Rural Area Fire Team, who go in search of hidden blazes burning in the bush. “We were dropped down into really, really tricky impenetrable forest and had to trek through the forest to the site of a blaze that was burning inside a tree,” says Reeve. As Reeve helps the firefighters chop down the burning tree, helicopters drop waterbombs on the area. “They bombed the blazes out of the fire, it’s all very dramatic and exciting, but absolutely knackeringly shattering. I left with a completely new understanding of how tricky the job of a real firefighter is; I have real respect for them.”
Unfortunately for the Rural Fire Service its work is never done. The number of extreme fire events that are affecting Australia is on the rise, and experts believe this is a direct result of global warming. Kate Humble travels to the headquarters of the fire service, where they’re deploying thousands of firefighters, and hundreds of vehicles to tackle more than a hundred bush and grassfires of different sizes and intensities. “It’s like fighting a war,” says Reeve. “It is an ongoing battle, particularly during the wildfire season and not just in Australia but in other areas, in other parts of the world, in continents of Europe or North America, Latin America, across the former Soviet Union.”
We ask Reeve if Wildfires 2014: Inside the Inferno is a sign of things to come. Will he now go travelling in search of extreme weather conditions like tornadoes and hurricanes across the globe? “I’d love to,” exclaims Reeve. “The opportunity to get up close with these natural phenomena is an incredible privilege. Of course there is the element of risk, but I think where it’s controlled, yes, I’d love to have that opportunity, frankly.”
Watch Wildfires 2014: Inside the Inferno 9pm, June 8, on BBC2