GRASSROOTS RECOVERY has outstripped official government responses during and after the bushfires that hit East Gippsland.
While roads were closed for some weeks because of the danger from bushfires and falling trees, halting commerce, it also isolated individuals and communities.
Local businesses, organisations and individuals, BlazeAid and Lions clubs are among those who rallied to support those affected by bushfire since mid-November and, particularly, in the period December 29 to January 15.
Hay and silage
The Boisdale Drought Breaker and Bushfire Appeal and Lions Need for Feed has kept truckloads of hay rolling into the region, many donated by farmers and stockfeed merchants in central Gippsland, from further afield in Victoria and from interstate.
The Boisdale Appeal, in partnership with Elders Maffra, received so many donations from their customers and the local community, on January 3 they were able to donate 10 pallets of fencing, perishables, pet food and animal fodder to farmers in the Buchan Valley.
Many of those farmers were still dealing with bushfires, while simultaneously trying to clean up fences and sheds burned in late December.
On January 5, more than 70 trucks delivered hay to farms at Omeo, Tambo Crossing, Swifts Creek, Bruthen, Buchan, Newmerella and Orbost.
The effort was co-ordinated by Elders Bairnsdale and included 25 trucks under the Lions Need for Feed banner. The hay has continued to roll in since, from all over Australia. Lions Club Need for Feed program has delivered $5 million worth of donated hay to bushfire affected areas.
In mid-February, 700 rolls of hay and silage were donated by King Island farmers to East Gippsland cattle breeders. The collection, transport across Bass Strait and delivery were organised by the Lions Club of King Island.
Mossiface dairy farmer, Craig Calvert, has been co-ordinating local hay deliveries, including from AgForce Queensland, Victorian Farmers Federation and Lions Need for Feed.
“Our farm is a central repository for fodder and other supplies for other farmers,” he said.
“Some of the feed is waiting to go into Bemm River and Wallagaraugh.”
While East Gippsland is in its fourth year of drought, recent rains have produced two flash floods in the Tambo and Bruthen Valleys.
For Bruthen dairy farmer Peter Jennings, it means he has to use a truck with two, 2500 litre tubs, to bring in water for his house, dairy and livestock.
Normally, Mr Jennings relies on the Tambo River for his water supply. Ash, burnt trees and other bushfire debris washing out of the mountains into the river has contaminated his domestic and farm water supply for the past month.
Fresh food and cooked meals
The Australian Sikh community arrived in Bairnsdale to assist at the local refuge centre in early January, providing 1000 freshly cooked meals three times a day. It was a move that forged strong links with Bairnsdale Neighbourhood House and the local community.
“The Sikh community was here for 17 days, cooking meals for the refuge centre,” Ms Jennings said.
Funding for the ingredients was provided by the Australian Sikh community and largely spent in Bairnsdale supermarkets and grocery stores. The team worked out of the kitchens of Bairnsdale Neighbourhood House.
“We provided them with cooking facilities, rubbish collection and disposal,” Ms Jennings said.
“They also provided emotional support to a lot of people at the refuge centre.”
BNH also utilised their van and cool room, to provide cooked meals and hampers of fresh food — meat, vegetables, fruit, bread and dairy — to communities that were hampered by road closures, including Club Terrace, Clifton Creek, Sarsfield, Gelantipy, Tambo Crossing and Ensay. It was fresh food that supplemented the dry goods dropped into communities by the Australian Defence Force personnel.
“We aimed to deliver food that met people’s individual dietary and medical needs, including allergies and health issues such as diabetes,” Ms Jennings said.
“We also delivered buckets with sugar soap and cleaning cloths so people could start removing smoke stains from their homes that survived.
“Resources were donated by Bunnings, FoodBank, Second Bite and local supermarkets and purchased with donations given to the House.
“People very much appreciated the individual response to them. We also did home-cooked meals and delivered these to people who were living in their communities, rebuilding fences and feeding livestock.”
About 375 hampers were delivered, many with the assistance of a Dutch woman, Emmy Broch, who arrived from Holland after seeing international coverage of the bushfires.
Focus on local economic fabric
Ms Jennings has been involved in disaster recovery in East Gippsland for more than two decades and was scathing of the official response.
“I found the co-ordination of this bushfire recovery response was appalling. Every time we have had a disaster, we have reviewed what happened and developed procedures for next time. What happened to those plans this time?” she said.
“There was a lot of food donated from outside the area, which has to have affected our local supermarkets and grocery stores. Same with the amount of dog food and pellets donated from out of the area.
“If we over-give, which is what has happened, that destroys the economic fabric of the local community.”
Mental health workshops
Bairnsdale Neighbourhood House has received Commonwealth government funding to support the Rural Minds program, a mental health program for people affected by the ongoing drought and the bushfires.
“They are mental health workshops designed for the farming community, delivered by the farming community,” Ms Jennings said.
Co-ordinating donations and a listening ear
In Bairnsdale, Wendy McPhan and Jodie Crane thought they might collect a few donated goods to help people affected by bushfires on December 30 and 31.
Their idea rapidly escalated as it became apparent hundreds of people needed help. With friends, family and strangers, they built a small supermarket at Lucknow Hall, that included a supply chain, three warehouses, a distribution centre, transport and delivery service, along with a volunteer staff of more than 100 people.
“They built it in just two days and it operated for 14 days straight,” said Simon Walsh, local paramedic and one of the volunteer organisers.
“We helped around 800 people who walked in to the Lucknow Hall with only the clothes on their backs. Many had lost homes and many, many more had been evacuated from their homes with little time to grab anything.
“We provided clothes, food, water, toiletries, bedding, fuel, breathing masks, pet food, stock feed, accommodation and, probably most importantly, we provided an ear to listen and a shoulder to cry on.”
Bulk orders of emergency supplies
Along with Bairnsdale Neighbourhood House, the group supplied bulk orders of emergency supplies to 22 East Gippsland communities. Like the livestock agents who co-ordinated fodder transport into farms, they were able to freight supplies in on the back of CFA convoys and used local knowledge to avoid dangerous bushfire activity areas.
“We were able to provide new socks to CFA firefighters who had been away from home for weeks, we supplied toilet paper and P2 masks to the official relief centres,” Mr Walsh said.
“We supplied 200 bed sets upon the request of authorities, to be flown in to Mallacoota.
“Thank you to the ‘personal shoppers’ who took so many traumatised people under their wings and provided the shoulder to cry on, as well as help with the task of shopping.”
Local businesses provided vehicles and logistical support and donated goods were delivered from across the Victorian community.
While the bushfire clean-up and recovery continues, BlazeAid, a volunteer organisation that removes and repairs fences after bushfires and floods, has five camps open in East Gippsland, co-ordinating volunteers at Sarsfield, Bruthen, in the Buchan Valley, Ensay, Omeo, Noorinbee and Cann River.
Kevin Butler, founder of Blazeaid, said about 500 km of new fencing has been erected and 700 km of burnt fencing has been cleaned up, in bushfire-affected areas between Kangaroo Island and northern NSW.
“That’s a conservative figure,” he said.
“We’ve had about 1000 volunteers working each day, for 60 days in January and February.”
The map for BlazeAid camps is at blazeaid.com.au/map-of-blaizeaid-camps/