Jessica Riley, an Irish backpacker and journalist, shares her experience volunteering with Blazeaid on the clean-up after the 2013 Gippsland Bushfires in Victoria.
The time had come, that moment every backpacker travelling Australia dreads. The moment you realise, it’s time to start your regional. Why you ask? This isn’t a choice, it’s compulsory. In order to stay in this beautiful country an extra year, backpackers have to complete 88 days agricultural work. Easier said than done.
Having done my research on the best areas to do my regional, and with the help of reading other peoples in put about where to avoid, I chose to come to Maffra in Gippsland Victoria. My timing was wrong, around the time I was setting of to start my regional in Victoria, backpackers were fleeing the floods which took place in Brisbane and Queensland.
Seven months previous to this I was living it up in Perth as a flashpacker (spending a ridiculous amount of money) and thought I’d have no problem getting regional work, I’m sure there are hundreds of paid jobs in Victoria. I came to Maffra with quit a bit of money and under the illusion I’d get a job straight away. This wasn’t the case and a month in the realisation of my situation had set in. I have no money, no job, I’m running out of time and no one to rely on but myself. What am I going to do?
While reading The Gippsland Times I read about an organisation called BlazeAid (blazeaid.com), set up in 2009, by Kilmore East farmers Kevin and Ronda Butler after the 2009 Victorian bushfires. Their fences where burnt and needing to quickly secure their 1,500 sheep, they sought assistance from family, friends and volunteers to help rebuild. Within a week, their fences were complete – a task that would have taken them months to do on their own. Grateful for the help, Kevin and Ronda decided to help others with their fencing and set up BlazeAid.
BlazeAid, made up of Grey Nomads and backpackers from all over the world has since spread to several locations throughout Australia. I decided to join BlazeAid’s Maffra camp in cleaning-up and rebuilding after the Gippsland Aberfeldy bushfire. This bushfire destroyed roughly 74,000 hectares of land, killing one man and wrecking 21 homes.
My first day helping with BlazeAid was not what I expected, I wasn’t sure what to expect really. It was 7am, and I was to be honest not too happy that I was awake so early. Knowing I was volunteering and not getting paid, left me unmotivated. I knew why I was there or more I thought I knew. Feeling nervous and questioning whether I should just leave and give up, I was snapped out of my self-pity trance by a voice greeting me. It was Angus and he was pointing towards the breakfast buffet and telling me to help myself. All you can eat fry, that’s a change from Coco Pops, things are looking up.
Angus Guild is the Maffra base camp coordinator and a retired bank manager. Angus has dedicated his time to helping those in need, “I don’t know why I decided to help. The volunteers are just like family to me, on average we have around 35-50 volunteers and we’ve several basecamps around Australia. I’m very motivated about the whole thing. The farmers are lovely people and very grateful for the help. There are several BlazeAid camps around Australia and more opening up soon, we work every day including bank holidays, if the farmers will let us”.
BlazeAid hire camping accommodation for up to 50 people. Rent office space, telephone lines and any equipment needed to help people rebuild their lives. They rely on donations from other organisations and hold fund-raisers. At the time I couldn’t understand why Angus would go from working in a high earning position, to the stress of organising something he doesn’t get paid for. Is it worth the stress?
After breakfast everyone was put into groups of between 5 and 6 people. We packed up the equipment we’d need for the day and off we went to our given destination. Driving up towards the farm located in Seaton, it was eerie and dark, nothing I’ve witnessed before. You could smell the burnt essence of scorched land coming through the car vent. Black dead trees went on for miles and it was at that point I stopped feeling sorry for myself and started feeling sorry for the people who lost property destroyed by the fires.
When we arrived we were welcomed by a farmer whom I remember thinking was cheerful considering he has just lost 60acres of land, his home and reptile collection. Laurie McGregor is his name and he told me, “I lost a lot of things I’ll never be able to replace but they’re only materialistic things, as long as I got out with my life. I’m very lucky. I sold off the cattle in September, so I had no livestock except my horse who I found wondering the roads the next day”. I admired this man, even after everything he is staying positive and he was so grateful that we were there to lend a hand, I found my motivation.
We got to work, tearing down fences and rebuilding them. The work was physically demanding and you left the farm covered in debris. Knowing we were making a difference and helping a community rebuild what they’d lost, made it worthwhile. It was starting to heat up, and I thought I was going to die of dehydration (slight exaggeration) so we decided to have lunch and work for another hour, then finish up.
What touched me even more was that people from all over Australia, all over the world come to help. People, who have retired and decided to buy a camper van, carry out this selfless act of helping someone rebuild their life. Backpackers like me come into this wanting to get their days but coming out of it with respect for what the volunteers do. They camp at BlazeAid grounds for week’s even months. BlazeAid provide breakfast, lunch and dinner, along with washing people’s clothes, and the use of showers and toilets.
With so much disillusion with people today it’s good to know humanity isn’t a lost cause and there are people out there willing to help you pick up the pieces. One thing I never felt in Australia in the time I’ve been here is a sense of community, having spent a week in Maffra and seeing how BlazeAid is run, gave me that perceptive.
By Jessica Riley