Red Cross at the fires' front line
From September 2019 to February 2020, fires impacted the Australian coastline from southern Queensland all the way down to Mallacoota and along the south coast of Victoria. Fires also threatened lives and homes in the Adelaide Hills in South Australia and north of Perth in Western Australia.
I felt helpless as I watched footage of the devastating fires from my home. I am a volunteer with the Australian Red Cross, a volunteer firefighter and co-founder of the Australasian Women in Emergencies Network. I had forged a career out of disaster resilience and emergency management at local, state, national and international levels, yet here I was, sitting at home, doing nothing. I felt anxious for the people out there, facing their worst fears, standing side by side with neighbours to protect homes — the firefighters and emergency service workers doing all they could to help.
I finally received a call from the Australian Red Cross Commander asking me to deploy the next day as the field operations officer in the Bairnsdale Relief Centre. My role was to coordinate the Australian Red Cross presence in the centre and provide support to the volunteers working there.
Australian Red Cross volunteers are experienced in the set-up and running of relief centres. We provide advice, support and guidance to the relief centre managers and other agencies and support people as they arrive at the centre and during their stay.
People at the centre had evacuated or lost their homes. The mass evacuation order following forecast catastrophic bushfire conditions also brought people who were on holiday or had homes further east. Some were passing through to get information or something to eat — others were staying, camped on the ovals surrounding the relief centre or sleeping in their cars with their belongings and pets.
Nothing prepares you for seeing people so vulnerable, but equally, nothing is as heartening as seeing so many people helping out, in formal and informal roles. The inundation of donated goods to the relief centre was evidence of people’s innate compassion and need to help others.
Information is key
The Red Cross registers those who come to the relief centre so their friends and family know they are safe. As well as ensuring people have access to basic needs like food, water and somewhere to sleep, we provide psychosocial support, helping people feel safe and calm. Information is really important to people impacted by disasters, so we bring as many agencies, people and current news into the centre as we can to answer people’s questions and get them started with planning their next steps.
The weather forecast predicted worsening conditions overnight, with potential ember attacks on Bairnsdale. Qualified firefighters were asked to bring their gear to the Incident Control Centre (ICC) the following day, just in case they were needed for firefighting duties. I sourced a set of firefighting overalls, boots and helmet and was ready to go.
The decision was made to let the people in the relief centre know what may unfold overnight so they could prepare and head further west if they wanted to, while the conditions were still safe.
Nothing was held back. People were advised that at around 3 am the following morning, increasing winds and a cumulonimbus cloud forming over the fire ground not far away may lead to an ember attack. Maps indicated where the fire currently was and where it might move. People asked questions about their safety and about particular towns and suburbs. It was very sobering, but I am glad we told people what was happening so they could make whatever decisions they needed to.
I returned to the relief centre at around 10 pm to see if the retiring team needed anything. A few lingered to watch the news, charge phones or be around others.
At midnight, as I was about to leave, a man came into the centre looking lost and curious. I left my colleagues to offer him help. He told me that he was sleeping outside in his car with his three dogs. He had seen people coming in and out of the building so he came to see what was going on.
I explained what happened in the relief centre. That he could get food, water, essentials (there were plenty of things people had donated — toys, toilet paper, dog food, clothes, bedding, toiletries) as well as a cuppa and a chat. He settled on the latter.
He shared his story… His wife had left their property with their cats earlier in the day when conditions had worsened. He wasn’t sure where she had gone and hadn’t made contact with her yet. He had stayed longer with the intention to defend their property. He was most concerned about his shed, tools and heavy machinery. He told me about his work and all the things he had in his shed. When I asked him where his property was, he got tears in his eyes as he said the name of his town. He didn’t know if his house would survive — he knew it was in the path of the fire. I knew from the briefing earlier that evening that his property was in the impact zone.
I stayed with him until 1 am, hearing his story and sharing mine. I imagined there were many people who were not getting much sleep that night. Sometimes the best thing to do in these situations is just be with others, to listen, share and hope.
Tragedies, triumphs and heartache
To witness others’ stories — their tragedies, triumphs and heartache — is a privilege I will never take for granted. To sit beside people on what could be the worst day of their life and provide friendship, support and someone to confide in. That’s why I volunteer at the Australian Red Cross.
As it turned out, the ember attack did not occur later that day — the thermal layer kept moisture in the air and stopped the convective cloud from forming.
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