Erin Christie interviews Hatch alumni Lily Mayers about her job covering NSW bushfires for the ABC.

Lily Mayers: ‘Running on adrenaline’ as an ABC bushfire reporter

In among the flames of Australia’s unprecedented bushfire crisis, teams of journalists, photographers and camera crews, threw themselves into their jobs to keep the public across the unfolding disaster – often in very dangerous conditions.

Multiplatform reporter Lily Mayers was on the frontline for the ABC, spending the summer constantly on the move across NSW. She was at Bees Nest, Mogo, Goulburn, Gospers Mountain, to name a few, facing flames 70ft high and watching falling trees crush cars.

The whole time she was writing and filing, while also tackling dangerous conditions to report across radio, TV and digital platforms.

“The heat is just so intense, there’s no way to describe it,” she told Macleay students.

“You can’t run as fast, you’re short of breath because of the smoke.”

Showing a video she took while on the firefront, Mayers explained how quickly fire moves, with the flames jumping rapidly across a row of 70 ft tall trees.

“A minute later there’s no sky, and you know – you’re struggling to breathe and it’s like 50 degrees…” she described.

Mayers visited college to speak about her summer reporting on Australia’s bushfire crisis, and to pass on reporting tips.

“Also, sometimes you have no choice. You’re just told you’re going to the fires,” she said.

The Macleay graduate said she fell into the role because of her safety accreditation from the RFS that allowed her to go to the fires.

Mayers reported from Armidale down to the NSW South Coast during her time working on the bushfires, in a period that lasted from September of 2019 through to January this year.

Across her time reporting, she filed stories every day consistently across all platforms.

“You’re constantly writing. If you’re driving from one location to another, you’ll be writing in the car,” she told students.

The type of story is also dependent on the platform.

“If ABC News 24 is desperate for a live cross, it needs to be fast so that you continue writing, filming and preparing for the nightly news,” she added.

Because so much content needs to be filed on a consistent basis, there are barely any breaks during a crisis like this summer’s bushfires.

“The hours are non-stop. You wake up around 3am, and you’re lucky if you get home at around 9pm.”

She explained that breaks were rare, and there was often a lack of food and amenities.

“You’re running on adrenaline,” Mayers said.

In terms of direction given to Mayers in the thick of the crisis, she explained it was often more common that she forged her own path.

Each morning, journalists will call the RFS media office, and take direction from there. Mayers told of how she would funnel that information back to her news editor, or chief of staff, and then make her own decisions throughout the day as the weather conditions changed.

“You’re essentially your own boss in that situation,” she said.

This mindset was heightened by the lack of a crew around Mayers during her reporting. She was often on the road with just a cameraman, an experience she said teaches people to be malleable in their attitudes towards working with others.

“Sometimes you’ll get stuck with someone who’s not your best friend, but it teaches you to think on your feet. If there’s any difficulties, you need to come up with a plan B that suits everyone,” she added.

As for her proximity to the fires, Mayers told students about the experience in great detail.

With safety being an obvious priority, she said she was constantly decked out in a hazard suit, helmet, goggles and a mask.

Close to the fires, the temperature often reached 50 degrees.

Also, due to ash and smoke, those at the front can often barely see. 

Mayers explained how ‘it can look like 9pm at night at 2pm in the afternoon.’

“You’re sweating, and you can barely breathe,” she said.

She added that in these situations, it is important to know your limits and when to step away from dangerous conditions if you’re not required to be close to them.

Student Erin Christie interviews Lily Mayers. (Photo: Nour Ahmed)

The danger in the situation gave Mayers a new level of respect for the fireys, and those working along containment lines and amongst communities to keep others safe.

Although Mayers felt the pull to help others, she described her role was more to report on what was happening and to document the momentous event unfolding before her.

She also told the stories of those affected, who had lost homes or loved ones.

When asked about keeping recovery efforts in the mind of the public who were not affected by fires, Mayers replied that this was an important aspect of bushfire coverage.

“Recovery reporting is different from active bushfire reporting. You don’t get the adrenaline. House after house is flattened … people are crying in the streets. Women come up and hug you,” she said.

In terms of approaching affected individuals, she warned students to be authentic and kind toward others.

“You’re getting a quick story from them, but after that you walk away. They have to keep dealing with this.”

Students were also enthusiastic to hear Mayers’ best advice, given that Mayers is a successful Macleay alumni.

The Macleay journalism cohort pictured with Mayers. (Photo: Nour Ahmed)

She was interning at the ABC at the time of the Sydney Siege, where she proved herself an asset to the news team.

Before that, she worked as a story producer for ABC Radio while still at university, and then worked her way into reporting.

Mayers told students the best thing to do in a newsroom is to be quiet, listen to what is going on around you and imitate those who are doing the job well.

She also advised students to be easy to work with and not take themselves too seriously.