Baptism by fire – Batlow’s filming fire fighter turns focus to regrowth

Divided opinions remain about Batlow man James Zimmerman (pictured here, left, with Adrian Vanzella) who spent his fire fighting breaks filming updates on the Dunns Road fire and sharing them online. James said he’s learned from the event and is focusing on regrowing.

James Zimmerman is an anomaly in Batlow; he’s the fire fighter everyone’s been talking about, but he’d prefer to be the mower man no one knows. At 25, James left his home in Brisbane to move to the Snowy Valleys based on a throwaway conversation with a friend, some footage of the region’s beauty he saw on TV and a free driz-a-bone and akubra from a neighbor, along with some ‘adventurous’ faith. He’s the guy everyone knows, but few really feel like they understand.

“I have been misunderstood, but that’s why I’ve got to win my enemies over by sticking around for the long haul,” said James. 

“They’ll see, ‘maybe he is a normal bloke who has the odd beer and will talk about Jesus, but he doesn’t carry on or do this or do that.’

“People can call me whatever they want, it doesn’t bother me. I’ve got to have thick skin and not get bitter and angry and give up.”

James got in trouble during the Dunns Road fire for filming while he was working as a paid fire fighter. He says he was careful to be discreet, only filming when he wasn’t physically able to “fight that monster” and careful not to show anyone’s home or any dead animals. 

In the intensity of the firefight, he wanted people to know what was happening and he wanted people to pray. Fire fighting organisations have strict policies when it comes to media coverage of fire events.

James says he didn’t disobey any direct orders on the day, but was aware it could be an issue.

“I knew that I could get into trouble with the video footage, but I felt it was the right thing to do,” he said.

“Hundreds of people have personally thanked me for doing it since then.”

At the same time, James says he still believes it’s important to honour authorities and says he did not break rank on the day. 

“It is really important to follow orders and trust leaders even in the midst of such a challenging event,” he said.

“We’ve got to encourage a teamwork attitude and not be bitter and angry. That’s not going to build anything.”

The ‘higher ups’ asked James to leave town after his online videos started causing a stir. It was a much-needed step away from the fire for James, who spent a week in Tumut, taking stock of the situation and thinking about the best way to move forward.

A photo taken by James Zimmerman as the Dunns Road fire approached Batlow.

“It was while I was resting, taking some time out that the idea was formed for starting a charity to show the process of recovery,” explained James.

“The idea is to combine social media and charity work and show people where their [donation] money would go. We want to follow a family’s story and let people get invested in their story on Instagram and Facebook and on our website.”

‘Regrow Batlow’ is a grassroots effort, funded mostly through the sale of black t-shirts donated and designed by friends of the movement who work in the design industry. Willing families’ stories will be featured through www.regrowbatlow.com.au and shared on social media.

James hopes to use the funds raised by Regrow Batlow to meet fire victim’s immediate needs and fill the gaps left by some of the larger organisations and grants. 

It’s a story of resurrection; not just for Batlow, but also for James. The now-34-year-old was equally loved and hated for filming the fires, and he’s well aware of the mixed feelings that people have about him.

“I want to move on, to leave behind any issues or rumours that were sparked at the time of the fires,” said James.

“The main thing is that we didn’t lose the whole town and we need to focus on helping each other now and regrow our beautiful town.” 

Regrow Batlow hopes to help ease both the bureaucratic problems and raise the profile of Batlow nationwide. James says that starts with building a strong community foundation.

“I have a whole new love for small local businesses and how I can support them,” said James.

“To spend money locally is the best way we can do that. I have a bigger mindset now.”

The fires have drawn a lot of community goodwill and cooperation, but they’re also highlighting problems which existed long before the fires and will continue to trouble fire victims for some time yet. Victims continue to battle the procedures of government agencies, insurance companies and endless reams of grant applications and official reports. Some are dealing with it better than others, some are better positioned for government help than others, and some simply understand the procedures better than others.

The other concern which has been highlighted for James through this event is the long-term future of Batlow.

“If Batlow doesn’t get the right help, in the future, it won’t be here,” he said.

Part of future-proofing Batlow is engaging the town’s kids and teenagers in the process of rebuilding. Regrow Batlow is hoping to host a children’s day in the next few months, with games, food, competitions and prizes, all revolving around Batlow’s proud apple-growing culture.

James says that helping people and engaging with the community keeps him positive, and he hopes this positivity will be contagious.

Rio Olympic Gold medalist Sharni Williams adds her support to Batlow’s recovery, alongside Olive Domoney.

“These tragedies can cause some people to get depressed and they can get stuck,” said James. “We’ve got to help each other and the kids process the fires and look forward to better things.”

The fires have left their mark on Batlow, with homes and people changed by the intensity of the disaster which swept through the town with little that could stop it. 

There will always be divided opinions on how the fire was fought and the decisions made by fire managers and fire fighters on the ground, like James. He says the event has given him a much bigger perspective.

“It was a very difficult time. I’m scarred for life, but those scars are healing now and I will never be the same,” said James.

“I am believing that good can come out of this tragedy for Batlow.

“One of the positives from all this chaos is that it brings people back to what really matters.

“Stuff doesn’t matter. Money comes and goes and things don’t last. In the end, it’s our people and our environment that matter.”