Last summer’s fires made it a season of dread.

T’is the season to harness the restorative force of fire

The Sydney Morning Herald reported that Christmas is the season of birth, of new life and of incarnation. But for us, now, it’s also the season of fire. Fire means death, like last summer’s spreading plume of destruction that seemed bent on reducing the universe to ash. Equally though, fire can mean life.

Each year, summer seems increasingly infected by fear. Please god, don’t let it happen again. What would flip that around? What would it take to resurrect summer as the season not of dread but of hope? Maybe we already have the answer.

We think fire is about fighting – all choppers and evacuation routes and PPE. But maybe it’s as simple as listening. Maybe, like the early colonists, we just need to recognise what is already here.

We’re all a bit embarrassed by Christianity, associated as it is with various oppressions, including that of nature. But still, the birth of the Christ-child carries important meaning.Advertisement

The clothing of God in human flesh is a reminder that spirit is not separate from body but embedded in it. This should bring a reverence for biology. It should send us to our knees, worshipping all creation. Yet, all too often, dominion validates destruction.

Australia in particular is ravaged by this patriarchy; exploited, eroded, denuded, depleted. So perhaps we, rather than hiding Christmas behind the red-and-green tinselled lather of cliches, beach balls and triangular trees, should reconsider. There are other views.

Two of the most compelling are from practical men who, by rights, should be worlds apart but whose message is astoundingly similar; natural farming guru Joel Salatin and Cape York fire practitioner Victor Steffensen.

Victor Steffensen says the country is suffering because we have lost the knowledge of how to look after it with fire.
Victor Steffensen says the country is suffering because we have lost the knowledge of how to look after it with fire.CREDIT:ALASDAIR MCDONALD

Their differences are stark. Salatin is a white, dungaree-wearing mid-west American, a persuasive communicator and self-described “Christian Libertarian environmentalist capitalist lunatic farmer”. Steffensen is an Indigenous Australian film-maker, musician, writer and fire practitioner, at home in the bush and resident mainly in the Top End. Their common ground? Both are on a mission, driven by a profound reverence for biology.

Salatin is the Christian, although he was brought up on Adele Davis’ Let’s Eat Right to Keep Fit and the “health freak” movement. His tenth book, The Marvellous Pigness of Pigs, sets itself to resolve the false dichotomy between “worshippers of creation” (environmentalists) and “worshippers of the Creator”. Yet it’s Steffensen’s book Fire Country that, for me, triggered the old Sunday School hymn. “All things bright and beautiful,” I found myself humming as I read. “All creatures great and small …”

Steffensen grew up in the village of Kuranda, near Cairns. At eight he started his first fire. It was a mistake, destroying the backyard chook pen and, very nearly, its inhabitants. Then, as a young man curious about lore, he met two elders, the brothers George Musgrave and Tommy George and learned to read country.

You’ll have heard the term “mosaic fire-farming”. It suggests a many-splendoured intricacy that can seem fanciful, given the vastness of our continent. But Steffensen’s descriptions restore that sense of intricacy. One by one he tells how each kind of country – boxwood, gum, ironbark, casuarina, mixed tree, storm-burn – has the right season and the right moment to burn.

An Indigenous rangers controls a wildfire in Kakadu.
An Indigenous rangers controls a wildfire in Kakadu. CREDIT:DAVID HANCOCK

The right moment, says Steffensen, can be read from the condition of the soil, the ripeness of the seeds and the state of grasses that have evolved to “customise the right fire for the country”. Such fire is neither too fast nor too slow, nor too hot, nor too high. Wisely lit, such fire will burn only the undergrowth, char a small ecosystem at a time – perhaps only as big as a tennis court – then self-extinguish.

It’s gardening, really – and therefore inherently spiritual. As Salatin says, God made a garden for humanity to begin, He spent his first night as a numan surrounded by farm animals and visited by shepherds, and chose another garden, Gethsemane, for his final earthly hours. Jesus’ parables were “a practical apologetic for earth stewardship” and the current plague of cheap industrial food is “earth rape and bodily harm” that amounts, simply, to sin.

Steffensen shows the exact same reverence. He recalls his first experience of fire lore, the old man, Poppy (George Musgrave) “dancing through the flames like some kind of fire spirit sprinkling magic dust onto the land”. He contrasts that with his experience back-burning with national park rangers, using utes and flamethrowers. “Speeding along … spraying fire everywhere” it was more an act of war than of love.

“The country is suffering,” says Steffensen, “because no one knows how to look after the fire anymore.” And because Western culture’s insistence on separating knowledge into areas – hazard reduction, biodiversity, escape – dilutes that knowledge, weakening it and depriving it of sacred force.

When Salatin asks “what does a food and farming system look like, that exemplifies spiritual truths?” his answer could easily be in Steffensen’s recipe for using gentle, restorative fire to heal land, encourage food plants, nurture grasses, reduce weeds and reinvigorate animal populations.

Those early colonists saw smoke threading into the sky: not the black billows of canopy destruction, the plumes of dread. Rather, these were the thin white spirals of healing smoke, native grasses being burnt with love and intense specialist knowledge to enhance flowering, benefit seed production and improve canopies.

Although the settlers didn’t know it, this was “medicine smoke for the trees”. Maybe we don’t need the choppers and the funding buckets. The fight. Maybe we just need to learn how the gardening is done.

Taking cultural burning to the next level

The Echo Net Daily reported that earlier this month, indigenous communities from across the country came together for the Firesticks virtual conference on promoting cultural fire practices.

Cultural fire practices are a range of traditional techniques employed by Aboriginal communities for thousands of years to help control the fire hazard.

Held over two days, the conference provided an opportunity to showcase the important work that indigenous groups had been doing throughout the year as well as exchange ideas and information to aid in planning for the future.

Victor Steffensen, Co-Founder of the Firestick Alliance, an indigenous-led network that aims at reinvigorating cultural burning practices, kicked off the conference with a determined message to set the tone.

‘This [conference] is about taking [cultural fire] to the next level.’ He said.

‘We’re calling on agencies, universities, private landholders, all communities to work together and put our shoulders behind what is already working.’

Current fire management practices are failing to keep up with the rising severity a consistency of bushfires.  Mr Steffensen believes that cultural burning is the answer, but a lack of trained individuals is hindering the massive uptake in traditional fire management methods across the country.

‘“The healthier the land, the less likely it is to burn with wildfires. But we don’t have enough skilled practitioners to manage the country…a two-day fire certificate [is not enough]. We’re talking about 3 years to get started with a simple training program that is tailored to each region.’

Building a mechanism for investment

A funding mechanism for investing in traditional fire management was also introduced. Known as ‘fire credits’, the mechanism would work as a separate currency that would provide a direct investment pathway to individuals and organisations.

As explained by Rowan Foley, CEO of the aboriginal carbon foundation.

“Ordinary mums and dads who want to look after Country and are sick to death of having Country burned down could buy Cultural Fire Credits…corporations such as insurance companies are keen to invest [in preventative measures] because it is much cheaper to invest in Cultural Burning than it is to replace a house…landowners could buy credits to support a local Aboriginal ranger team implement cultural burns on their property,” he said.

Cool burning has been happening locally on Bundjalung Country at Dorroughby Grasslands near Lismore Northern NSW photo by Julie Ryan

Ancient Solution backed by Modern Research

Australia is blessed to have a unique solution to this growing issue. One that has been tried and tested for thousands of years and continues to garner the support of the scientific community.

A study conducted by the federal government in conjunction with the CSIRO and Landcare Australia found that traditional land management had a number of benefits on both the environment and local community.

This included the revitalisation of local flora and fauna, improved soil quality, local employment opportunities, beautification of the landscape and reduced wildfires.

On the Fish River Station in the Northern Territory, the use of cultural burning was found to have reduced the area of land that had been historically burnt each year by late dry-season wildfires from 69% to 3%.

A study conducted by Stanford University also found similar results. By analysing a number of satellite-images, the Stanford team found that aboriginal cultural burning in Martu tribal land in Western Australia had moulded the land into a patchwork of spaced vegetation that radically reduced bushfires whilst simultaneously increasing biodiversity.

Cultural burning in Tathra NSW has also been reported to have reduced bushfires whilst creating many employment opportunities for local indigenous people.

Valla RFS firefighters and support team honoured by NSW Premier

Valla Brigade NSW Premier's Citation recipients and Zone representatives. Photo: Darryl Aldridge
 Valla Brigade NSW Premier’s Citation recipients and Zone representatives. Photo: Darryl Aldridge

The Nambucca Gurardian reported that as the rain teased, tickled and occasionally thrummed at Valla Hall today – the mood couldn’t have been brighter, nor the smiles wider.

12 months ago many of those assembled in the hall were on the ridges and valleys for weeks on end in a pitched battle against the Kian Rd bushfire which brought so much damage and grief to the Nambucca.

Yet without the efforts of the Valla Rural Fire Service Brigade – and those of other RFS units and firefighting agencies – the loss would have been more profound.

Today it was the Valla brigade’s turn to receive NSW Premier’s Citations, a certificate and a commemorative cap – awarded to those who were operational in the 2019-20 year, and those who were crucial in support roles.

Special guests were RFS Lower North Coast Zone Officer Christian Yanni and Group 2 Captain Graeme Adair.

Christian mused that it was the biggest box of citations he had hoisted – a compliment to the number of those from Valla brigade involved in last year’s campaign.

He read a letter in part from Trina Schmidt, an executive director with RFS:

“As you would be aware the 2019-2020 fire season was the most extraordinary ever seen in NSW.Group Captain Graeme Adair and Lower North Coast District Officer Christian Yanni+30

“This event saw the NSW RFS respond to more than 11,400 bush and grass fires that burnt more than 5.5 million hectares: the equivalent of 6.2 per cent of the State.

“These fires destroyed 2448 homes, however the efforts of our firefighters saw 14,481 homes saved.

“I … pass on my personal thanks for your unwavering commitment throughout this time. Whilst none of us wants to see a season like this again, I am proud that we have such passionate and dedicated people on our team.”

Christian added that the local district office was thankful to brigades who were able to “get crews out day after day after day, for three months – it was exceptional”.

As rain finally abated the threat from Kian Rd and the Carrai East fire at Kempsey, Christian found himself on the South Coast which was getting shredded in the New Year.

And even there, he was fielding inquiries from members up north as to when the 2020 firefighter training calendar would be released. “And I thought, are you nuts, we’ve been going since July (fighting fire),” Christian said.

Speaking on behalf of the local Group Captains, Graeme commended Valla on a “great job, and a fantastic turnout”.

He also made special thanks to the partners and families of firefighters, as they were a key part in the ability to maintain a protracted campaign.

After the formalities, the brigade, family members and friends enjoyed a brigade Christmas barbecue – explaining the proliferation of Hawaiian shirts instead of firefighter clobber.

Deputy Commissioner Preparedness and Capability, NSW RFS

Seek has advertised this position.

  • Provide forward-looking and responsive leadership
  • Enable the protection and resilience of our communities across NSW
  • Ensure capability and capacity for community protection

The NSW Rural Fire Service is a frontline service delivery organisation of significant standing in the protection of our community and environment. We are the world’s largest volunteer firefighting service with over 76,000 members proudly built on a strong tradition of service, trust, resilience, respect, and teamwork. For over 100 years, we have been a vital part of the community, working hard to protect life, property and the environment from bushfires.

To hear more about us and prepare the RFS of the future, go to https://vimeo.com/484264044

We are dedicated to serving and protecting communities across the State and have established a new role of Deputy Commissioner Preparedness and Capability to ensure we are well equipped to protect life, property and the environment.

Reporting directly to the Commissioner, and working in close collaboration with field operations, this critical leadership role will establish frameworks to prevent, mitigate and suppress bush and other fires. You will lead a multi-faceted team responsible for ensuring the NSW RFS maintains response-ready capability and capacity and collective understanding and management of community risk.

The 2019-20 bush fire season was like no other before it. Together we experienced the worst fire season in in our history, a new extreme of bush fires that we can and will encounter. This role is your opportunity to be part of an executive leadership team helping to shape the NSW RFS of the future by ensuring that we are well prepared and equipped for the next decade of challenges and extremes.

We are seeking a purpose-driven executive who is passionate about making a difference and genuinely appreciates the value of a volunteer-based emergency service. You will be forward-thinking and pragmatic, outcomes focused and change oriented, and an authentic leader committed to creating an environment where people can do their best.

To eligible for consideration you must have significant emergency management (fire) leadership experience at a senior level and a degree in a relevant discipline (e.g. emergency management, management).

If you’re up for the challenge and want to be a part of something special, you should contact Pat Hart at Hudson on (02) 8233 2229 for a confidential discussion and role description. Applications close 10 January 2021.

From lawnmowers to kids: How do Australia’s bushfires start?

A firefighter works to extinguish a fire in December last year in Western Australia. Source:
Nine different ignition sources have been identified by the Australian Institute of Criminology. Source:

Yahoo News repoted that although bushfires that are started by arson are widely reported, there are a number of other much more common causes.

For example, lightning – the majority of fires that burned during the 2019-20 Black Summer were caused by lightning.

“The old fireys joke goes; ‘There are three main causes of bushfires: men, women and children’,” says Roger Underwood, chairman of practical bushfire specialists, Bushfire Front.

“It’s true that many bushfires are started by humans, either accidentally or deliberately or stupidly.”

Here, we take a look at the causes of bushfires, and what can be done to prevent them.

Can bushfires start naturally?

Yes.

The majority of ignitions in remote areas are caused by lightning strikes,” Adjunct Associate Lecturer in Wildfire Investigation with Charles Sturt University, and Director of International Wildfire Investigation Consultancy, Wildfire Investigations and Analysis, Richard Woods, said.

“Positive lightning strikes only make up 10 per cent of all strikes, but they have a high potential to cause a bushfire.

“If lightning strikes a tree or log, it may start a fire immediately or remain benign, smouldering for weeks if not months until the fire danger increases and the revived fire spreads to surrounding vegetation.”

Sun rise during bushfire season in Australia.
The sun rises over bushland on the eastern seaboard of Australia. Source: AAP

What causes the majority of bushfires?

There are nine recognised categories for the ignition sources of bushfires, according to research by the Australian Institute of Criminology.

These are:

Smoking

Yes, cigarettes can cause fires, but conditions for a successful ignition must align.

“When someone discards a cigarette on the ground, there have to be quite specific conditions for a fire to start,” Mr Woods said.

“The cigarette needs to have 30 per cent of the burning tip in contact with the fuel [fine matted grass], there has to be low humidity of around 22 per cent or less, an air temperature of at least 26C, and low fuel moisture content, generally less than 14 percent.

“Importantly, there also needs to be wind influence at ground level.”

Man holding a cigarette while at the wheel of a car
Yes, cigarettes can cause fires, but conditions for a successful ignition must align. Source: AAP

Despite this, you should never throw a lit cigarette on the ground.

“There’s always the potential for a fire and cigarettes have been found to have caused bushfires,” Mr Woods said.

“It’s important to remain vigilant and for smokers to act responsibly.”

He adds, that while people assume most roadside ignition sources are due to cigarettes, vehicles are also responsible for these fires.

“For example, carbon can build up in a diesel vehicle exhaust and cause a fire,” he said.

Burning off

Agricultural burning off and land clearing can lead to accidental fires, Mr Woods said.

“It can be an issue if landholders aren’t well versed in managing fire and don’t prepare adequate fire breaks, have insufficient suppression equipment; or they ignore the weather forecast,” he said.

“For example, burning a pile of logs without adequate safeguards can result in fire escaping, sometimes many weeks after the main pile has burnt down.

“Residual heat can lead to an escape when high winds occur, which can result in embers being carried into surrounding grassland and starting a fire – often when the landholder assumes the fire has been extinguished.”

NSW Rural Fire fighters establish a backburn in Mangrove Mountain, New South Wales
Agricultural burning off and land clearing can lead to accidental fires, Mr Woods said. Source: AAP

Railways

“Heritage steam locomotives pose a risk when the fire danger rating is heightened as a result of hot windy weather.

“Escaping carbon from coal-fired locomotive exhausts may land in dry grassland fuel, then ignite. This is the reason most heritage tourist railways don’t operate on days of Total Fire Ban,” Mr Woods said.

However, modern locomotives can also pose a fire risk.

“Diesel locomotives can also eject fragments of carbon which can land in grass as far as 14 metres away from the rail line,” he said.

“Railway causes are also related to a maintenance issue; failure of brake shoes can result in ignitions on railway easements if they land in dry vegetation fuels.”

A campfire at the Darling River at sunset in the NSW outback town of Bourke
Many National Parks only permit cooking fires in designated areas, but even then, it’s important to be careful. Source: AAP

Campfires

Many National Parks only permit cooking fires in designated areas, but even then, it’s important to be careful.

“It’s common for bushwalkers to attempt to extinguish their campfire by just smothering it with soil,” Mr Woods said.

“But this creates an oven effect, retaining heat under the layer of soil. Then if the crust of the soil breaks down, the coals can ignite and the fire may then escape, particularly if it is impacted by strong winds.

“The best way to extinguish a campfire is to break up all remaining coals, drench it with water and check for any residual heat.

“Only then is it safe to cover with soil. Ideally, seek advice from the National Parks or Fire Service officers on where and when campfires can be lit,” he said.

Specific restrictions also apply during the Fire Danger Period and no solid fuel fires are allowed during a Total Fire Ban.

Man mowing his lawn
Slasher mowers used to mow grass can cause fire when the metal blades strike rocks resulting in sparks, Mr Woods said. Source: AAP

Equipment that can cause bushfires

“The use of equipment in bushland areas can be a source of ignition for a bushfire,” the analyst told Yahoo News Australia.

“For instance, the steel tracks of bulldozers can grate against rocks and cause sparks, slasher mowers used to mow grass can cause fire when the metal blades strike rocks resulting in sparks landing in dry grass, and diesel engines cause ignitions when hot carbon is ejected from exhaust systems.

“Using any powered equipment has the potential for the slightest spark, so operators need to be particularly vigilant in dry conditions.”

Seek advice from local fire agencies on the safe use of equipment during the Fire Danger Period.

Children light sparklers during New Year celebrations. Source: Getty
Children light sparklers during New Year celebrations. Source: Getty

Children

“There’s no malicious intent, but children can be curious about fire which leads to experimentation. They are often not aware of the potential danger of playing with fire in reserve areas,” Mr Woods said.

“The key is to ensure they are made aware of the danger in playing with fire, and that they don’t have access to matches or cigarette lighters.”

Lightning can cause bushfires

The majority of significant bushfires in Queensland, NSW, South Australia and Victoria during the 2019-20 bushfire season were caused by lightning.

“When lightning strikes vegetation, and there’s insufficient or no rainfall accompanying these storms, it can result in ignitions,” Mr Woods said.

“This is a big risk for fire agencies, as it’s often a challenge for ground resources to access these remote ignitions rapidly. Often they need to deploy firefighting aircraft as the first step to containing these fires in their early stages,” he said.

Lightning strike in the late evening with strong wind and heavy rain.
The majority of significant bushfires in Queensland, NSW, South Australia and Victoria during the 2019-20 bushfire season were caused by lightning. Source: AAP

Miscellaneous

“Powerlines have been responsible for causing bushfires on days of heightened Fire Danger Rating,” Mr Woods said.

“High winds can cause conductors to clash, trees to impact on conductors, or cause the failure of powerline hardware. This results in arcing and molten remnants coming into contact with vegetation, resulting in ignitions.”

Arson

Deliberate lighting of wildfires is a worldwide problem.

Malicious actions of an arsonist can result in significant risk to the community, threaten lives and cause damage to infrastructure and the environment.

However, as Mr Woods points out, Fire and Police Agencies are now better trained and prepared to investigate fires and identify those responsible.

“There has been a marked increase in the number of arsonists being identified and prosecuted,” he said.

However, the issue is ongoing, and the community has a key role in providing information to authorities to help prevent this criminal act.

A man walks past an intentionally set fire
Deliberate lighting of wildfires is a worldwide problem. Source: Getty

How many bushfires are started by arson?

Around 13 per cent of bushfires in Australia are deliberate, according to Australia’s National Centre for Research in Bushfire and Arson.

In the 2019-20 bushfires, around one per cent of the land burnt in NSW was attributed to arson, and even less in Victoria.

“I can confidently say the majority of the larger fires that we have been dealing with have been a result of fires coming out of remote areas as a result of dry lightning storms,” NSW Rural Fire Service (RFS) Inspector Ben Shepherd said during the height of the Black Summer.

That doesn’t mean the one per cent should be overlooked though.

“Arson is over-rated in terms of numbers, but not in terms of impact,” Underwood said.

“A skilled arsonist can play havoc, especially as they often pick a remote spot and light several fires.”

The sun rises over bushland on the eastern seaboard of Australia. Source: AAP
Bushfires can be ignited at any time if the conditions are right. Source: AAP

Can bushfires start at night?

“Yes. Bushfires can be ignited anytime when the fuel (grassland/forest) is in sufficient quantity, has lower moisture content and the weather (temperature, wind and humidity) results in a heightened Fire Danger Rating,” Mr Woods said.

What should I do if I see something that could start a fire?

“Fire and Police agencies rely on the eyes and ears of the public to help them in detecting bushfires and in providing any information regarding the cause,” Mr Woods said.

“And don’t assume your information is irrelevant. All States and Territories in Australia also use Crime Stoppers to assist in identifying those responsible for lighting fires. If you see something report it.”

Warning system update

By Deniliquin Pastoral Times

Improvements are being rolled out in the way bushfire incidents are displayed to the Mid Murray community, including through the NSW RFS website and Fires Near Me NSW smartphone app.

The icons used to display bushfires have changed as part of a major national initiative to improve the consistency of warnings across the country.

Mid Murray Superintendent Tony Whitehorn said it’s one of a number of changes to help people better understand the dangers of fires, and knowing what to do when there’s a fire nearby.

‘‘The alert levels of Advice, Watch and Act, and Emergency Warning, have been in place for more than a decade for bushfires, and are well understood by the community,’’ he said.

‘‘As part of the new Australian Warning System, the icons used to describe each level are changing to yellow, orange and red triangles respectively.

‘‘These new icons are being progressively rolled out for bushfires right across the country, so no matter where you live or travel, you can expect to see the same approach.

‘‘Over time, the icons will be used for other emergencies including severe weather and cyclones.’’

The Australian Warning System has been developed following extensive research across the country. There has also been a number of updates to the Fires Near Me NSW app ahead of summer.

‘‘Fires Near Me New South Wales was a valuable tool for so many people last season, and behind the scenes there have been a range of improvements to better display the location of fires.

‘‘By downloading or updating the app, you can now set up a profile which means you can share your watch zones across multiple devices, and there have been accessibility improvements for people who are vision impaired.

‘‘Last fire season demonstrated the importance of being prepared, having a plan and taking action so we’re encouraging everyone to know what to look for, and know what to do.’’

Call to raise funds for local RFS brigades on NYE

Mogo businesses hope the community will help raise funds for the Mogo Rural Fire Service brigade.

Narooma News reported that Mogo businesses hope the community will help raise funds for the Mogo Rural Fire Service brigade.

A Mogo business owner is calling on residents, visitors and other businesses to get involved in supporting the Mogo Rural Fire Service brigade on the anniversary of the fire storm.

Will Procter, of In and Out at Mogo, hopes others will recognise the efforts of the local brigade through a fundraising event, “One Year On” on Thursday, December 31.

Participating Mogo businesses will donate a percentage of their takings on the day directly to the Mogo RFS brigade.

We cannot let the efforts of the volunteer firefighters go unappreciated.

“We cannot let the efforts of the volunteer firefighters go unappreciated and the anniversary seemed to be the perfect time to recognise their efforts,” Mr Procter said. “Whereas the local brigades have no control over how money donated to the Rural Fire Service is spent, they can spend money donated directly to them to purchase whatever they need.”

Customers can simultaneously support local businesses who were also heavily affected by the fires and COVID-19. Alternatively, customers can place a donation in red fireman’s hats throughout Mogo village on the day.https://9e43db44f0fc9f52db07a77aa9748a48.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-37/html/container.html

“We think that it is such a good idea that it could be taken up by other areas to support their own local brigades,” Mr Procter said.

Six months after the fires, Mogo RFS brigade captain Frank Ziegler said he wanted better communications, better-maintained roads in the bush, more volunteers and tools replaced to help cope with the fire storm.

RFS pays tribute to community, quick response this season

Farmers and RFS volunteers gathered to quickly contain this fire that broke out during harvest. Photo supplied.

Parkes Champion Post reported that Farmers and RFS volunteers gathered to quickly contain this fire that broke out during harvest. Photo supplied.

The Rural Fire Service Mid Lachlan Valley has paid tribute to community as a busy harvest season winds down.

Good rain finally broke the drought’s hold on our region this year, but as it paved the way to harvest it created an increased fire danger and brigades have been on alert.

In a message to RFS brigade members, Superintendent Ken Neville said ignitions caused by farm machinery and lightning had “kept us on our toes” over the past six weeks. There have been numerous fires.

But the amazing response from brigades kept the fires small, with the largest fire under 200 hectares.https://7f7b3ed33fc580089e6f98b8fca9a0a0.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-37/html/container.html

“A feature of the response has been the support of neighbours and contractors who have dispatched private units at the first sign of smoke and assisted brigades with mopping up and patrolling,” Supt Neville’s message in the December newsletter said.

“This whole of community approach to fire suppression is a wonderful reflection on the friendship, camaraderie and goodwill that exists within the communities of the Mid Lachlan Valley and we know that those who were impacted by fires were very appreciative of the assistance.”

Bushfire recovery one year on

Canberra Weekly reported that the idea that the bushfire recovery efforts one year on have our coastal neighbours recovered and moved into new homes is a misconception, according to the national online charity GIVIT, who say that has happened for only a very small number of people.

GIVIT is a needs-specific charity brought onboard by the NSW Government in January to take away the headache of unsolicited donations entering affected areas.

GIVIT regional manager for the ACT and South East NSW, Caroline Odgers, said these donations were dumped at evacuation centres, charities and even on people’s properties as the fires were still burning.

“GIVIT provides a coordinated approach to donation management to ensure frontline services get what they need, when they need it,” she said.

Since January, GIVIT has coordinated almost 300,000 items to support the rebuilding of NSW communities; from gas ovens and converted shipping containers for families camping on their properties to hardware and snake bite first aid kits for towns with distant medical assistance.

Caroline said one year on from the fires, the majority of GIVIT’s clients were still unsure of their future.

“They don’t know whether to stay on their land in temporary accommodation, rebuild from scratch or move away altogether,” Caroline said.

“Almost 12 months on, we’re still receiving requests for donations to get power and water onto people’s properties.”

While the thought of losing everything is overwhelming, Caroline said it was often the simple things that made a huge difference to a person’s recovery – such as a piece of beekeeping equipment for a gentleman to rebuild his livelihood, or a pair of school shoes for a child to go to school feeling confident.

Caroline reflects on the most powerful donations she has had “the privilege” of coordinating, including that of a retired couple who sold up in the city to start a new life on the NSW South Coast.

They joined the local RFS, completed basic firefighting training and literally weeks after moving into their new home, which they had renovated over a couple of years, the fires tore through and they were forced to defend their property.

Their caseworker said months later, they were waking up in the middle of the night worried a fire had started in the darkness.

To compound this, because of COVID they were unable to receive support from their family.

Caroline said this couple didn’t ask for much, just trestle tables, some bags of cement and fairy lights, to make their makeshift accommodation a little more comfortable.

She also tells the story of a small school in the Bega Valley that was inundated with donations, mostly with items they didn’t really need.

Caroline said when donations began to slow, they came to GIVIT with a few key items to support their students’ recovery, as every child at the school had been impacted.

“Some kids had been playing up in class, so we sourced outdoor furniture and bean bags so they could move lessons outside,” Caroline said.

“They also identified sport as a positive outlet for their anxious energy, so we sourced a basketball hoop.”

An elderly couple in the Shoalhaven lost their home, belongings, and a loved one during the fires.

Their caseworker made a request through GIVIT for a dinner or accommodation voucher to add a little joy to their lives, after such a devastating year.

Within a week, a donor from a corporate in Sydney donated an accommodation and dinner voucher to a local winery.

Caroline said it was donations like these that showed fire-affected communities they had not been forgotten, and people were still thinking of them.

GIVIT still needs more than 5,000 donations across fire-affected communities. In addition to essential items such as water tanks, generators and hardware to support rebuilding, there has been a surge in donation requests to assist people’s mental health and wellbeing.

Caroline said items such as canoes, surfboards, musical instruments and trampolines are all needed right now.

Donors can head to givit.org.au, search for these requests and pledge the item or funds for GIVIT to purchase the item. Or they can donate to GIVIT’s NSW Bushfires Appeal at GIVIT.org.au/nsw-bushfires.

100% of donated funds GIVIT receives are used to purchase items, from local businesses wherever possible.

GIVIT encourages all charities and community groups supporting bushfire-affected communities to register with GIVIT for free, so they, too, can request and receive the specific items their communities need.

Photographer captures Australia’s worst bushfires in her rookie season as volunteer firefighter

Selfie of woman in RFS uniform standing on side of road with firefighter colleagues smiling behind her.
Angi High and her Rural Fire Service crew take a break from defending the Kings Highway in December 2019.(Supplied: Angi High)

The ABC reported that joining the New South Wales Rural Fire Service (RFS) had been in the back of Angi High’s mind for a while.

“Being a city girl then moving to the country was enlightening,” Mrs High said.

“I learnt living on the land, and having to deal with drought, that bushfires are obviously going to be part of where we live.”

But juggling family life on a small farm and her career as a professional photographer, it was hard to find the time to commit to becoming a volunteer firefighter.

“Then after the [2018] Tathra fires hit, I remember seeing the fire trucks and how exhausted everyone was and thought they obviously needed more people,” Mrs High said.

“I thought: ‘You know what? I can stretch myself’.

“My children had grown up and gone to university, and they and my husband Andrew were all supportive of my decision.”

Mrs High qualified as a firefighter last November, and three weeks later joined a three-day strikeforce working to contain the Currowan fire, north of Batemans Bay on the state’s South Coast.

“Putting on the uniform for the first time, knowing that I was going to be in the thick of it, it was quite surreal,” he said.

“I felt a lot of emotions; camaraderie, fulfilment, awe in the fierceness and power of fire. But never fear.”

Silhouette of two firefighters with the sky lit up behind them as a flaming tree is pushed over.
Angi High says “it was a firestorm, there was just fire everywhere” at Myrtle Mountain.(Supplied: Angi High)

“We were defending people’s properties, there were some properties that were on the brink of people losing it, so for me, it was a fulfilment of, ‘Wow, I can help you out, I want to help you’.

“We were there to support our neighbouring towns and help protect our Far South Coast.

“It’s not something you’re thrust into on your own — I was with trainers and friends on the brigade who continually provide training, encouragement and strong support.”

‘Fire is a living, breathing thing’

The strikeforce experience was a trial by fire, but the worst was still to come on the Far South Coast.

Mrs High’s Merimbula brigade was called out to help crews battling the Myrtle Mountain fire on December 30.

“When we got out of the trucks, it was a firestorm, there was just fire everywhere,” she said.

“That was my first 12-hour night shift.

“It was an environment unlike anything I’d ever seen before. Everything’s an orange glow, everything’s alight, everything’s hot.

“Fire is a living, breathing thing, it just devours everything in its path.”

Rear of person in Rural Fire Service uniform watching as large helicopter is serviced, entire scene is tinged red by bushfires.
“Everything’s an orange glow, everything’s alight” Mrs High says of her experience fighting bushfires.(Supplied: Angi High)

Over the summer, Mrs High spent 20 days on duty on the fireground, helping to contain fires that claimed close to half a million hectares in the Bega Valley Shire.

At home, her son Alex and husband Andrew prepared to defend the family’s house and farm as fires erupted across the region.

Whenever she had a moment of downtime on the fireground, Mrs High captured the experience of the frontline.

“I didn’t have my camera gear with me, but I did have my phone,” she said.

“I picked and chose my opportunities so that I could grab an image without endangering the situation.

“It wasn’t just about capturing the fires and their intensity, it was about capturing the moments of brigades, RFS volunteers, doing their utmost.”

Firefighter in RFS uniform holding hose, surrounded by a forest of blackened trees.
“Considering we were small brigades, we managed to defend a lot,” Mrs High says. A firefighter damps down fires in Wonboyn in January 2020.(Supplied: Angi High)

‘It’s imprinted in my head forever’

For Mrs High, taking photos was a way to share an indescribable experience with those closest to her.

“I do believe you need to share those images with people, to grasp the bigger picture of what was happening, and what could happen again,” she said.

Mrs High witnessed firsthand the devastation of some of the region’s most beautiful forests, with more than two-thirds of forests and bushland in the Bega Valley impacted.

“You know it’s real, but when you’re immersed in it, it is a totally different experience,” she said.

“Every inch of my body smelt of fire. And the devastation that you see around you, it’s imprinted in my head forever.

“We don’t want to be seeing it as our future, to be dealing with all these fires.”

Wide shot of five firefighters in uniform stand on a rock positioning fire hose to refill truck from a beautiful creek.
Mrs High says she felt “camaraderie, fulfilment and awe” as a volunteer firefighter. Here, firefighters refill their truck with water from a creek in the Timbillica State Forest near the NSW-Victoria border.(Supplied: Angi High)

In the wake of last season’s fires, the Far South Coast RFS has seen more than 400 new volunteers sign up, the highest number of recruits the region has ever seen.

Mrs High is committed to continuing serving with her brigade in Merimbula, and says locals can be proud of what firefighters achieved last summer.

Hand holding home-made cake with note 'Stay Safe', person in RFS uniform in background.
Mrs High says, once a city girl, she stretched herself to become a volunteer firefighter — a job much appreciated by locals in Merimbula.(Supplied: Angi High)

“Every session when we met up at the station, the maps were down, and you could see the updates of what had been lost and what could potentially be lost,” she said.

“Considering we were small brigades, we managed to stop a lot, defend a lot, and stop it progressing.

“In terms of what was saved, it was pretty tremendous.”

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