As Australia continues to burn, the nation is united by the questions, “how can we help?”, and “what can we do?”
Current requests for donations of money and food have been responded to from around the world and are valuable to the recovery process.
As I type, an ABC presenter is working her way through an extensive list of watch and act and evacuation notices for localities in my region. This is being repeated across the nation.
Last year, BlazeAid set up camp in Tenterfield to help them rebuild after bushfires. Image: Greg Conlon
Communities will need assistance long after smouldering logs are cold and the ash has settled.
Many of us long for a practical way to assist, one means to consider is BlazeAid.
This volunteer organisation works alongside rural families to rebuild fences and other structures that have been damaged or destroyed.
Fire-ravaged Tenterfield in 2019. Image: Greg Conlon
Am I eligible?
I’ve often considered working for them while travelling, although never confident my skill sets will match their needs. I’m sure I’m not alone.
In recent months, friends Greg Conlon and John Heath, along with their wives Kerry and Penny, have volunteered with BlazeAid numerous times.
I asked them to help me write this blog, and without hesitation, they rushed to my aid.
As some of John and Penny’s friends had assisted after the Queensland floods, they knew it was a professional organisation and a rewarding cause.
Greg and Kerry were looking for a way to contribute practically, rather than just donating money.
BlazeAid welcoming volunteers. Image: Greg Conlon
Rewards and benefits
Each couple was rewarded far more than the effort it took to volunteer.
“The highlights were the smiles on the farmers’ faces at seeing their fences repaired or replaced,” said Greg.
John said we even got a call on Christmas Day from a farmer we’d helped earlier in the year.
“They’re all so appreciative of BlazeAid and the volunteers,” he added.
Both confirmed support is readily available from coordinators, other volunteers, local communities, and the farmers themselves.
All four were confident any questions they had would be generously answered readily.
BlazeAid works in consultation with farmers to rebuild their fences. Image: Greg Conlon
Another question I had was how long was I needed, and would I have to commit for a minimum set of days?
The simple answer is no.
“Kerry and I only had 4 days available to help out at the Tenterfield camp,” said Greg.
“If we’d known how fulfilling it is, we would have planned to stay longer. Some volunteers are there for weeks or months.”
John’s shortest stay was two days.
“You can help for however long you want. Initially, we did two days, but later seven- and five-day stints.”
Volunteers hard at work in the field. Image: Greg Conlon
How hard is it?
I was also interested in the training and how strong you need to be to assist. Turns out there are so many different roles, I needn’t have worried.
It’s not all about fencing, but that is a major component of the work they do.
Many fences need to be cleared of debris before they can be rebuilt.
Kerry was deployed to assist with shopping, cleaning, washing clothes, and making lunches.
At another camp Penny worked with a fencing team.
“The work was as hard as you wanted it to be, we worked to our own capacity”, she said.
“John and I put in a 3-kilometre fence line of star pickets on our last camp, we couldn’t quite believe it when we looked back at what we’d done.”
The work rebuilding begins. Image: Greg Conlon
From sadness, joy
Of course, working with people who have lost so much and need assistance can be emotional.
“We felt frustrated with some difficult situations, yet experienced satisfaction at having done a good and valuable job, and also joy at being thanked for what we had done.”
All agree they weren’t expected to bust-a-gut on site.
In fact, you’re encouraged not to, but rather to do what you’re comfortable doing and asking for help if needed.
This is key to the success of BlazeAid. It is certainly what makes for repeat volunteers and the friendships formed.
Those who have volunteered have formed strong friendships. Image: Greg Conlon
The logistics and duties differ from campsite to campsite.
Everyone is required to supply their own accommodation at all locations.
Volunteers are working with wire and other debris, and are asked to ensure their Tetanus immunisation is up to date. They are also strongly advised to have Ambulance Cover when they come to the basecamps.
BlazeAid provides – a site for your setup, all meals, toilets and hot showers and relevant personal protective equipment or (PPE). This is protective clothing or equipment required for the tasks you are assigned.
The site is filled with everything from caravans, campers, fancy motorhomes to rooftop and basic pop-up tents.
Food is often prepared by the local organisations, like Rotary, Men’s Shed, and show societies who are appreciative of the generosity offered to their community by strangers.
Preparing food for hungry volunteers is just one role you can take. Image: Greg Conlon
Willing and able
Everything you need to know is readily available on the well thought out BlazeAid website.
BlazeAid founder and president, Kevin Butler, says all that’s needed to join the work is to contact the Camp Coordinator a few days before you’re ready to come to the basecamp
“You don’t need any fencing experience, just a willingness to give it a go and learn on the job.
“Each day starts after breakfast with Morning Muster around 7:30 am. Here you’ll be assigned to a team, with a team leader who knows how to fence.
“The Camp Coordinator will welcome everyone, and run through a safety talk, then you’ll head out with your team.
Each day you’ll be welcomed and briefed for the day ahead. Image: Greg Conlon
“Camp coordinators and team leaders help everyone learn at a pace to match their skills, and everyone’s safety is paramount”, Mr Butler added.
Greg was impressed with the rostering.
“It’s an interesting challenge for the coordinators, with people of different levels of skill and experience coming and going day-by-day.
“Some long-term volunteers are there for a couple of months, and understandably people want to take rest days at different times.
“They generally try to keep a team together if they’re working well,” noted Greg.
The BlazeAid team working together. Image: Greg Conlon
Something for young and old
It is clearly stated on the website that the organisation’s insurance only covers volunteers aged 12 to 85.
Anyone under 18 years must be accompanied and supervised by a responsible adult. If you have children or pets, please check with the camp coordinator before bringing them.
Greg who created this video of the days he spent with BlazeAid says some he met were on their 20th camp.
“We were amazed by how far from home some of the volunteers were, and for how long they were away from home helping.”
Volunteers of all walks of life coming together to rebuild after the devastation. Image: Greg Conlon
What Penny and John remember most is that it was great to meet so many people with different backgrounds all working together for a common cause.
“Everyone involved was so friendly and welcoming,” he said.
BlazeAid is a registered charity and welcomes financial and equipment donations. Details of how to donate and what is needed are on their website on this page here.
Just one of the fences built by the hardworking volunteers at BlazeAid. Image: Greg Conlon
With so much work to be done following the devastation of the 2019 and 2020 fires, I hope you, like me, will make some plans to assist BlazeAid.
What more could you want than to be welcomed, appreciated and not expected to do any more than you are capable.
I always look forward to seeing folks on the road, but now look forward to meeting you at camp.
For more information about how to volunteer with BlazeAid – head to their website here.
About the writer...
Based in Victoria’s High Country, Emma and her husband have been enjoying touring with an off-road camper for the past 15 years. An award-winning exhibiting photographer Emma is never far from her camera and is inspired by Australian landscape and fauna. Her images can be seen on Instagram @emcamproductions.