Thursday, November 30, 2023

Quiet army follows in brigades’ wake

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Billboards throughout rural areas thank Australian firefighters for their valiant efforts during the bush fire season. Their heroism has become a source of national pride. Now another volunteer brigade is working hard and will do so for months to come. Richard Rennie paid them a visit in Corryong, northeast Victoria.
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Blazeaid is a volunteer organisation helping farmers turn their scorched properties back into farms, refencing and restoring structures devastated by the flames. 

Conceived in the wake of the 2009 Black Saturday fires, BlazeAid has 30 camps running throughout Victoria, New South Wales and South Australia. It is the country’s largest voluntary disaster response organisation, also helping after floods and other natural disasters.

Deep in the scorched country of Corryong the hills ring with the voices and hammering of dozens of volunteers helping farmers get back on their feet.

Camp co-ordinator Bill Gerritsen has had a stream of volunteers through the camp six hours out of Melbourne.

“That includes students, a judge, even some airline pilots – we have found the pilots, in particular, are very good managers so we pair them up with our skilled fencers.” 

Gerritsen, working out of a community recreation centre, is akin to a military commander with a line of whiteboards detailing teams, farms and tasks allocated. 

A big notice reminds fencers to stay hydrated with a litre of water every hour under the hot sun.

“We have about 180 farms in this district to tend to and are getting two to three inquiries a day from farmers. The length of time we are here is about the same as asking how long is a piece of string?”

The teams work gruelling 12-hour days in tough hill country with time spent on farms varying from two days to two weeks. 

What those volunteers find is farmers often still in a state of shock, trying to come to terms with where to start in getting their farms and themselves back on their feet.

“We find when we get there and we start talking to them it makes a huge difference straight off. We have had wives come in here thanking us, having been so worried about their husbands out on what remains of their farm all day alone.”

And the organisation’s work is not limited to fencing. Broken water lines, damaged dwellings, even a smoke-damaged garden have all been put right, often helping farmers as much mentally as physically.

The equipment is held in specially built commando trailers, rugged off-road units loaded with every conceivable fencing need. At Corryong the camp has two trailers and Gerritsen could find plenty of work for another four. 

Donations have included major discounts from fencing supply companies like Gallagher and Waratah. 

Gallagher animal management general manager Malcolm Linn said the firm has provided emergency fence packs in the early days post-fires and is working locally helping train farmers and resellers on new fencing methods.

BlazeAid deliberately buys most equipment in the local towns to help boost their subdued economies.

Husband and wife Lyn and Stan Rasmussen have been at the camp since late January, despite having their own business across the state. 

In that time they have had only three days off and have every intention to stay for all of February before heading back home.

“This was an area where the two big fire fronts at the time could have joined up and the damage is fairly immense,” Stan said. 

One farm they tended to had not had running water for six weeks.

“We have just been blown away by this place and these people. The farmers are so thankful for us coming. Some have lost every fence on their farm. Even if you simply sit and talk to them for a while it means a lot.”

Gerritsen said BlazeAid offers the chance for people making donations to know all the money is going directly to benefit farmers. 

“As an organisation we have only one full-time, paid employee, our accountant in Melbourne. The rest is completely voluntary.”

As volunteer numbers have started to ease up the workload has not and Gerritsen will welcome any Kiwis wanting contribute to the BlazeAid efforts.

Aside from the compulsory sheep jokes, he believes there might be a chance to share some fencing techniques between countries and for people to help restore rural communities.


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