BlazeAid helping to pay it forward

12 April 2018

At the start of each morning, volunteers from across Australia gather for breakfast before receiving their assignment for the day. This group of great community minded people have only just met, but the days, weeks and months they will spend together helping farmers rebuild, will result in lifelong friendships.

Before they even get to know each other they have something in common – the desire to help, and for many, give back and pay it forward.

No one knows this better than Kevin Butler, who following the 2009 Black Saturday fires, Kilmore East farmers Kevin and his wife Rhonda were among those who lost fencing and had 1500 sheep that needed securing. Thanks to help from family, friends and local volunteers their fences were back up within a week, something that would have taken months to do on their own.

Grateful for the help, Kevin and Rhonda decided to help others with their fencing needs.This gesture was the beginning of what has become the well-known volunteer organisation BlazeAid. BlazeAid establishes base camps in areas that have experienced natural disaster to help in the recovery process by removing damaged and burnt fencing and rebuilding it. The physical rebuilding is only part of the recovery, with the assistance in getting people back on their feet giving much more.

The organisation and its reach has spread across Australia, and the world, with volunteers coming from interstate and overseas to help.

“We are a big country with a big heart,” Kevin said. “Our volunteers just love it. People will say BlazeAid is life changing, not only for the recipients but also for the volunteers. And people pay it forward, those who have been helped end up helping others.”

Kevin tells the story of a farmer who BlazeAid had helped came to dinner at the camp. “He stood up and thanked everyone. He shared his story as a volunteer in 2009. He said he never thought BlazeAid would come to his farm. He had the whole room in tears. It’s a very emotional thing. For anyone to understand BlazeAid without being there, it’s a family.”

Most recently, Blaze Aid has set up three camps in the South West of Victoria following the four devastating fires that destroyed farms across 15,000 hectares of farming land. These fires are the South West Victorian fires that occurred on Saturday 17 and Sunday 18 March 2018. The initial fires broke out after dark at 9pm at night and quickly spread through farm land. While this was happening, 260 kilometres away in Kilmore, BlazeAid coordinator Kevin Butler was monitoring the fire and its impacts.

“The first indication I had that this was significant was at 7.15am on the Sunday morning. I was listening to the radio and heard about the fires in the south west. Being a farmer and knowing the landscape out there I quickly got onto Facebook to see some of the local impacts,” Kevin said.

“I immediately put my camp coordinators on alert having seen the windy conditions forecast that day.”

In the days following, it was clear the impacted communities needed BlazeAid’s help and Kevin put a call out on ABC regional radio and Facebook to secure a location for the base camp. The base camp becomes home to the camp coordinators and volunteers, often for months.

Within seven days of the fires, three camps were set up in the south west – Cobden, Terang and MacArthur.

Seasoned volunteers Christine and John Male from Toongabbie jumped at the opportunity to pack up their campervan and head to the other side of the state to coordinate another BlazeAid camp. Their work with BlazeAid has taken them from their first camp at Laharam in the Grampians, as far north in Biloela working on flood recover and, most recently, as far west as Grass Patch in Western Australia. They were at Green Patch from December 2015 to April 2016 and enjoyed the area much they ended up staying until December 2017.

The Males had been itching to hit the road again when they saw the call out for Cobden’s base camp.

“We rolled into Cobden on 21 March, we had the first crews out by 9am the next day and we’ve been going flat out since then,” Christine said. “We’re happy to be here and it’s a privilege to be here the way these people treat you.”

As camp coordinator, she ensures things a run smoothly as she facilitates the coordination of volunteers and the work they do on properties. There are about 80 volunteers out on the fence line each day and another 40 in support roles.

Christine doesn’t underestimate the significance of the clearing and rebuilding work BlazeAid and its volunteers do.

“We’re able to get the burnt stuff out of the farmers’ sights. It’s a psychological leap for them, and with tiny little sprinklings of rain there’ll be some green tinges coming through. That’s going to make a huge difference to people’s outlook. When they come out of their homes it won’t be all black and rubbish everywhere.”

Christine and John’s volunteering with BlazeAid started in 2013 after a serious car accident involving their son and daughter in law.

“They recovered and are now raising our grandchildren. Our theory is that we have to give something back to this country that gave us so much,” she said. “I just love it. I love the simplicity of the organisation. We’ve been camp coordinators for a few camps now and once we’re sent someone we have responsibility, we’re trusted.

“All our volunteers have come from all over, we’ve got one from Perth, people from New South Wales, all across Victoria and a lot of locals. The local support is unlike anything I’ve seen at other camps, it has been amazing.”

Kevin said at each camp, the local support and knowledge is fundamental. “The local help is our oxygen, we rely on the local knowledge to continue our operations,” he said. “There are many local people who can’t go out on the fence line but want to help in other ways.”

Retired farm manager and viticulturist Iain Coombs from Leopold headed to Cobden for his first BlazeAid gig.

“I’ve known about them for a number of years…It was always going to be something I did in retirement so have kept an eye on the BlazeAid website.

“I have skills that can help in this work such as fence building, pasture management, pasture re-establishment or reconstruction so in my retirement they are skills I can use and put back into the community where people need it,” he said.

Iain joined the BlazeAid effort at Cobden shortly after the camp was established and intended to come and go until the clean-up was complete. He said the comradery shone through from the beginning.

“There is a common feeling, we’re all here to help people in distress, in a dire situation, to help them get back on their feet as quickly as possible.”

Similarly, Bill Rutherford felt an inclination to help having experienced the devastation of floods as a farmer himself. However his journey to Cobden was a bit different.

“I’m from Marlborough in New Zealand. We were travelling in our campervan around the Great Ocean Road and heard about the fires here. I thought, I can do something here. I’m an ex farmer, I’ve been through floods and I know what it’s like to be devastated. If I can lend a hand, sure. I’m quite happy to,” he said.

While Bill volunteered on the fence line, his wife was back helping at the camp. They have continued their holiday and are now in Western Australia but intend to return to Cobden to lend a hand at the end of their journey.

Emergency Management Commissioner Craig Lapsley was very clear when he said “Rhonda and Kevin Butler are amazing people. Their drive, passion and commitment is very special. Their desire to make a difference and to care for others is something very special and BlazeAid is a volunteer army of community members that are the quiet achievers that are very special and so valued. This is volunteers acting making a huge difference.”

It is estimated that BlazeAid will be in the south west for at least four months. After that, there will undoubtedly be another emergency that will see farmers in need of help. And BlazeAid will be there to lend a hand.

As Kevin reflects....“I’m a working person, I have a farm and a business to run, when I hear there has been a fire or a flood and I know I have resources to pour into that area I know it’s incumbent on me. It’s a sense of duty,”

“Not many people get the opportunity to get to do so much for so many with just a couple of phone calls. It’s an honour. I grabbed a tiger by the tail in Kilmore East in 2009 and we can’t let that tail go. We’re hardwired with BlazeAid and we have thousands who depend on us and we love dearly.”