The bushfires that have blazed throughout Australia over the past few months have kept firefighters working around the clock as they try to contain the damage done to the affected land, people, and animals. The jiu-jitsu community has rallied around the country, donating profits from products and seminars to firefighting services and wildlife rescue organizations. “Everyday heroes” doing their part to help have appeared all throughout the global jiu-jitsu community, but some of them are on the frontlines battling the fires head-on.
Among them is Jimmy Russell — a jiu-jitsu practitioner from New South Wales and firefighter for Rail Fire & Emergency NSW. Russell is a four-stripe white belt and has been training for nearly a year, and even though he’s been working crazy hours to put out the bushfires, he’s still making time to train.
Russell’s jiu-jitsu journey started with a search for a place where his 12-year-old son could learn self-defense and learn additional skills for rugby. After finding Gracie Barra Wetherill, Russell also decided to take a free class, which Russell says he “enjoyed immensely”… until he suffered a broken rib from being stacked. The day after his first jiu-jitsu class ever, Russell was already out for eight weeks. No one would’ve blamed him for deciding that jiu-jitsu simply wasn’t for him, but Russell wasn’t one for quitting. “I was already hooked and had never run from a challenge before, and so I was back on the mats as soon as my injury was healed,” he says.
Finally healthy again, Russell continued to learn under the instruction of black belt David Willis, who won Australian Nationals last year. Russell speaks highly of Willis, giving him credit for both his technical improvement in BJJ and the real-life applications of what’s taught in his classes. “Professor has not only showed me how to use my strengths, but also how to adapt standard BJJ techniques to suit my game,” he says. “Professor Willis maintains a competition level atmosphere in his classes; this both inspires people to be the best they can on and off the mat, but also prepares people not only for competition but the prospect of having to defend themselves on the street should there be a need.”
Russell now trains 3-4 days a week, and he sometimes gets the opportunity to train at work as well. He also has a few coworkers who do jiu-jitsu as well. “I’m lucky enough to have Rob Schilder, a workmate on my platoon/shift under Will Machado… to occasionally try out some techniques with and discuss all things BJJ with. Of recent, my platoon/shift teams leader, Nathan Evans, has also started training BJJ with us. It must be one of the only workplaces you can choke out your boss and not get in trouble for it,” he says.
While Russell may still be in the beginning of his jiu-jitsu journey, he’s been working as part of emergency response units since 1999, when he started working as an Army firefighter. The career runs in the family — his grandfather, father, and twin brother Scott (who is exactly 19 minutes older than Jimmy) have all worked as firefighters as well. The job is physically and mentally exhausting, and Russell’s free time has been especially limited during this year’s bushfire season.
“With an all-hands-on-deck approach to this campaign, we are currently working our normal shift rotation (two days, two nights) and deploying to bushfire areas in assistance of other state fire and emergency services on our rostered days off,” he says. “Although taxing, it has been fulfilling being able to do something directly to help aid people in need. Typically, our ongoing response has been to link in with the other agency/forces consisting of four or more other fire appliances directly operating in life and property protection mode for life and property under threat. We have also participated in helping to conduct emergency hazard reduction burns (back burning) to strengthen containment lines and buffers between active fires and our communities in the urban interface.”
If that sounds like a lot of work, it’s because it is. Russell has had to prioritize what’s important to him during his downtime, dividing it between his family (wife Gina and three sons Lachlan, Connor, and Billy) and jiu-jitsu. He says that his time at the gym has been “vital” to both his physical and mental health during this particularly chaotic time.
“BJJ has given me the ability to separate myself completely from the bushfire emergency, allowing me to be in a state of mindfulness that revitalizes and energizes me. This has been so important in maintaining a high operational emergency response tempo. It has also been great to be around my friends at BJJ most of which don’t have a frontline connection with the bushfires. The entire gym has been such a support, checking in on me regularly and offering help and support should me and my family require it.”
As someone who’s lived in Australia his whole life and has spent the majority of his adulthood dealing with the country’s fires, Russell has seen firsthand how bushfire season has changed over the years, and he implores others to pay attention to how climate change affects the spread of these deadly and destructive fires.
“Australia has had unparalleled periods without rain, with higher-than-normal temperatures and low humidity — all of which are contributing to and motivating fire spread, record levels of dryness, and the reduction in long-term rainfall. It has also contributed to low humidity, high temperatures, wind speeds, and fire danger indices. All these conditions are contributing to early starts and late finishes of Australia’s bushfire seasons. With this in mind, it’s no secret: long-term trends show that we will continue to live in a continual[ly] drier climate. The numbers don’t lie, and the science is clear.
“Even the counter-argument doesn’t stand up in my opinion: that “these conditions form part of a normal cycle” or “these fires are just like the ones we have had before.” These people, I feel, need to re-evaluate their position and acquaint themselves with the latest factual information from our expert scientists. This information needs to drive a re-look at our strategies from right through the full gamut of emergency management principles — Prevention, Preparedness, Response and Recovery — and then readjust how we manage these problems. For me, this is the only way we can keep people, property, and ultimately our environment safe moving into the future living with climate change.”
Whether he’s training jiu-jitsu, battling bushfires, or balancing the two, Jimmy Russell has proven that he’s a fighter. He has no plans to give up on jiu-jitsu or his country, and as the Earth changes around us, he hopes that we don’t give up on our planet either.