Whether it’s flood, fire or drought, volunteers are a vital part of Australia’s road to disaster recovery, as ERLE LEVEY discovers.
“We put a lot of hard work into it but what we get out of it is to see the smile on the farmer’s face at the end of the day.”
BlazeAid. There is so much behind this name – yet few people are aware of the phenomenal work this organisation undertakes.
Those who have experienced BlazeAid’s assistance talk of their valuable work in fixing broken fences and farm structures after floods and bushfires.
Yet Blaze Aid is also about fixing broken people.
What started out as a desperate call for help from a farmer impacted by the devastating Victorian bushfires in 2009 has turned into a nationwide volunteer organisation.
People donate their time, their skills, equipment, food and a place to camp.
Not only do they lend a hand but they lend an ear … someone there to listen and talk to when their world seems so dark.
The loss of stock, of feed, of houses, sheds and fences has left them wondering how they will recover.
That’s where BlazeAid steps in.
The idea came about after Kilmore East farmers, Kevin and Rhonda Butler, were devastated by the Black Saturday bushfires that swept across Victoria.
Since then, BlazeAid volunteers have stepped in for all sorts of disaster relief.
More than 15,000km of fencing has been repaired – that’s more than the distance around Australia.
Last week I caught up with some volunteers at the Woolooga BlazeAid base camp at Brooyar Station.
Sitting there in the early morning light, over a cup of coffee, you soon become aware of the many facets the organisation – indeed, volunteering itself – can take.
The longest journey of recovery starts with the first step. So it is with Blaze Aid – making that call for help.
When the Blaze Aid volunteers turn up, they start the massive task of clearing up the fence lines and building not only new fences but hopes and dreams.
Clearing the fence lines can be a giant undertaking. There can be tons and tons of silt covering the posts and wires. Otherwise massive amounts of trees and branches washed down by the flooding rains.
Woolooga BlazeAid co-ordinator Kerrie Bennett is at the camp, along with Margi Buckley who is doing the cooking.
They have just set volunteers John and Jenny Baker up for the day – the ute and the trailer are packed, breakfast is finished and lunch has been prepared for them to have on the farm.
They will be working at Scotchy Pocket with two other volunteers from from Gympie. Dinner will be ready at the end of the day.
The camp is based at Brooyar Station and Tony Dingle, an owner of grazing property, will be down to talk when he has fed the calves.
Woolooga BlazeAid has been helping farmers from Murgon to Gympie. Now there are plans to start one at Imbil to serve the Mary Valley.
Kerrie is from Redcliffe and been based at Woolooga for six weeks.
She reaches for her phones to make sure they are both in her pockets.
“I’m just putting the guns in,’’ she laughs. “I’d be lost without them.’’
It’s this infectious personality that tells you Kerrie would be handy to have in any situation – from managing work rosters to arranging a campfire get-together at the end of a big day.
“The team members come down to the camp kitchen of the morning.
“I have the paperwork ready and break them into teams, tell them where they’re going and give them a safety tour on what they should be looking out for – look out for each other, drink plenty of water, sunscreen, hats, and anything that’s relevant to the property they’re going to that day.
“Once breakfast is done I go up and check the trailers, check the vehicles and then we’ll head off.
“John and Jenny are going to Scotchy Pocket today – that’s about a 35-40 minute drive and the two people that drive out from Gympie will meet them at the farm gate.
“The farmer will show them where they’re going to work, what needs to be done and any particular ways they want it completed.’’
Volunteers come from all areas and backgrounds. A lot are grey nomads travelling around Australia, others are simply from nearby towns.
Margi Buckley is a retired teacher from Brisbane and has been helping for a couple of weeks before setting off on a road trip down through central New South Wales.
A couple were arriving at Woolooga on Anzac Day and another from Cowra.
John Baker is a retired newspaper production worker from Maryborough.
They stay in their own caravan and have been doing BlazeAid since 2019.
“We started at a property west of Winton,’’ John tells me. “We did three weeks out there after the big floods in the February, I think it was.
“A lot of cattle died and a lot of fencing was lost.
“We did eight weeks last year at the Texas camp, doing flood repair work. This is our third BlazeAid and we’ve been here for two weeks.
“We put a lot of hard work into it but what we get out of it is to see the smile on the farmer’s face at the end of the day.
“When he sees a bloody nice straight, clean fence, that’s all we need.
“We heard about BlazeAid while listening to Macca on radio one Sunday morning .
“I’ve always been pretty handy – I can fix most things and love working with my hands, so a lot of it came naturally to me but a lot of it is just observing and watching.
“It’s a matter of asking the farmer how he wants things done, bearing in mind every farm is different … you have just got to be careful when you go into a property and check.’’
Another benefit is being out in the fresh air all day and the satisfaction of completing a hard day’s work.
“We spend a lot of time not only fixing the fence but talking to the farmer.
“A lot of them are down in the dumps after the flood or other disasters, and need a bit of a pick-me-up.
“We can talk, let them get it off their shoulders.
“Sometimes that’s a lot healthier than actually fixing the fence.
“They might say they’ll be fine, but we found in drought it was important just to just get them away from the farm for a week – to say someone cares.
“The disaster here has been so great that they go out and look at it and just shake their head.
“They don’t know where to start. That’s where we come in.
“The truth is just get into it straight away and then by the end of the day their spirits have been lifted.
“There is actually an end in sight.’’
The amount of fencing that can be repaired in a day varies according to the damage and the terrain.
It depends on the amount of plant debris that needs removing and whether the fence has been buried in silt.
Some days a team can navigate 100m to 200m but if the fence line is clean they can manage 500m.
The barbed wire needs to be dragged out of the dirt, the posts straightened up and wire restrained.
For Kerrie Bennett the decision to pitch in with BlazeAid was easy: “After a lifetime of work in retail I wanted to give back … and I don’t do retirement very well.
“I heard a lot about BlazeAid when the Black Summer bush fires were on in 2019.
“I would’ve liked to have gone down to New South Wales to help but Covid stopped me doing that.
“Now I live permanently in my motorhome and I was going to travel around Australia but I saw that they needed help here at Woolooga.’’
Kerrie rang and asked what she could do to help and was told to simply come on up.
After a few days working in the field, they asked if she would help with the administration.’’
“I’ve been organising the farmers and the actual volunteers … matching them and making teams, and sending them out to farms.
“So, there’s a lot of paperwork involved – it’s a big thing to match them up with the farmers, matching the different personalities and teams.
“It is fun but I worked in retail for 40-50 years in Brisbane – all over actually.
“My last job was with RSEA, a safety company, and I did that for 15 years. It was a very interesting but mentally demanding job because there were always so many rules changing.
“You had to keep on top of that to actually help advise customers – that’s what I loved about it the most.
“That I could learn something every single day, and the people you’re meeting.
“I love working with people and that’s one reason I’m doing this job – I don’t feel like I’m actually retired any more.
“The farmers are just amazing. You get a broad spectrum – from small farms to large grazing properties.
“One gentleman was so amazing. He had been given some pretty devastating news while we were there helping him.
“But he is resilient and will just keep going.
“He told the most incredible story of finding a carpet snake in his Landcruiser.
“They encouraged the snake to leave the vehicle and it went up a tree for a few days.
“Then it disappeared so after he checked all the vehicles he drove into Gympie to pick up some feed for his sheep.
“But at a big set of traffic lights he was about to turn right, glanced sideways and coming in the window at eye level was the snake.
“By the time he got to the produce store it was wrapped around the rear-vision mirror.
“They asked if he needed any help.
“He told them they could help get the snake off the ute.
“It was the funniest thing. We were all in stitches.
“So that’s taught me something about people getting on with life, and the admiration that I have for them.’’
It’s amazing to watch farmers when BlazeAid volunteers go out to a property, and see the devastation, Kerrie said.
“They just don’t know where to start. I do not know where to start either because it’s just so much, and then to see them when you’ve been out there for a few days. The gratitude that they show.
“I’ve had handwritten cards just to say ’thank you.’
“So many times they are unaware of what BlazeAid can do.’’
The organisation is always on the lookout for extra volunteers, preferably those with some work skills and who won’t tend to sit around and do nothing.
Sometimes both volunteers go out in the field but quite often one will help with the cleaning or the cooking at the camp.
“The farmer will tell them exactly where the fences go, and how they want the wire done.
“But the troops will also offer suggestions … because they’ve done so many, they can actually offer a lot of assistance and give them new ideas.
“There’s quite a few women on the land in this area, and they work just as hard alongside the volunteers.’’
Among the volunteers Kerrie has met, was a man who brought his 15-year-old son with him, and they drove from Victoria towing a bobcat.
It took them two days to drive up and they were at Woolooga for eight or nine days.
“They were just absolutely amazing.
“The son was a bit of a troubled teen and yet he could work like a full adult male.
“Getting away from the life he was leading was so uplifting … he was offered three jobs while he was here.
“So I would not be surprised to see them come back.’’
Brooyar Station owner Tony Dingle said making the property available was the least they could do.
His family originated from Mount Perry and he has been working properties out at Roma.
Two years ago he decided to semi-retire.
“I was going to live on the Gold Coast but saw this place and my life changed.
“I’ve always been a person that loves helping, so that’s why it was so easy for me to give support to BlazeAid.
“It’s a great organisation. There are so many young retirees that just want to go out and help.
“They are getting food and a place to stay. That’s saving them money and they’re contributing in a variety of ways to the community.
“There are so many old landowners around here, and with the two floods this year they were just knocked around so much … they are just not knowing what to do.
“They find it very hard to do something and don’t really have enough money to go and employ people to do the job – then they’ll be waiting 18 months to get the work done.
“With BlazeAid, if a farmer wants to have a talk, they will sit down with him. I think that’s very important.
“So that’s that’s the main reason why I gave my place.
“There’s nothing like security and there are people that help from the goodness of their heart, I think that’s fantastic.’’
Margi Buckley was born in Sydney but has lived in Brisbane for close to 50 years.
The retired high school teacher loves being outside and keeping busy.
“When I discovered BlazeAid back in 2019, after the bushfires, I was pretty interested in what they were doing so I went and worked at a few camps.
“There were fires all around – they were pretty terrible times.’’
The first BlazeAid camp Margi worked at was Ewing, west of Casino, then at Nymboida, west of Grafton, and at Ebor, up near Dorrigo.
There was terrible damage after those fires and much of her time was spent working in the field, pulling down the fences and supporting the farmers.
“They definitely needed a lot of support,’’ she said.
“There were farmers who when you talk to them they cry … they had no-one who could come and help until BlazeAid arrived.
“So it’s really wonderful work to do – very satisfying in the way that you can see that you’re helping people.
“We pull the fences down and then rebuild them. I knew nothing about building fences before I started.’’
This is Margi’s first stint with the floods but she has been doing kitchen mostly at Woolooga.
It’s still satisfying but in a different way – tangible is the word that comes to mind.
“There is the real satisfaction in that you can see reward for your effort, and I see the reward in a couple of ways.
“I see a personal reward – that feeling of doing something that really benefits someone else – but also I see that with cooking I’m feeding those who are going out to do a pretty hard day‘s work.
“There’s nothing quite like a hard day‘s work, good food and sleep.’’
Kerrie said there are still a number of farmers who don’t know about BlazeAid and that the service can give them a much-needed hand.
“They have experienced so much damage – all they have to do is call in and we will register them, and go out.
“So, it’s not hard. There’s no contract.
“It is all voluntary work, it doesn’t cost them anything. We just go out and at least give them a start on what they’re doing.
“Then they can see there actually will be an end, and that’s the whole thing. That makes a huge difference.
“Anyone who needs help, all they’ve got to do is ring BlazeAid and we will certainly put them on the list.
“Then we get out and help them as soon as we can.’’
Giving back to the community and meeting people is a huge buzz, Kerrie admits.
“I suppose you get the adrenaline junkie that jumps off mountains or whatever – but this is how I get that.
“It’s a bigger benefit to me – I feel as if I’m a drop in an ocean – but if that little drop helps someone out there, then I’m doing something towards society.
“I suppose that’s why I keep doing this.’’
For further information search: https://blazeaid.com.au/