Our communities recovering from fire
This summer, Australia was ravaged by one of our worst ever bushfire seasons – burning more than 7.7 million hectares. As the smoke clears, regional communities are gearing up to rebuild.
Across the country, and among the heartbreaking stories of loss, uplifting tales of resilience, selflessness and camaraderie are starting to emerge as farmers, families and communities begin the path to recovery. We spoke to some of our own people about the affects of the fires on their communities and how they are rebuilding.
The Gippsland region in Victoria was one of the worst hit. Elders’ Gippsland Area Manager Colin Lane was on the ground defending his home from fire and says the damage has been extensive.
“Every road that leads out of East Gippsland has been affected and most towns have been impacted or under threat,” Mr Lane said.
But despite the community being tired, and Christmas feeling like years ago, Colin said morale remains high and the community is getting on with the challenge of recovery.
“Once the fires had eased, we moved to get 120 loads of hay to go into remote areas and directly onto farms – and coming up we will be working with BlazeAid to bring together a team of Elders people and volunteers on-farm for two to three-day stints.”
However, Mr Lane said the biggest challenge will be maintaining the livelihood of each business in the region.
“Farmers are resilient and there’s opportunities to help farmers day-to-day with their families, but it’s the small businesses in town that are going to fold and walk away.”
For areas heavily reliant on tourism, the fires couldn’t have come at a worse time with many small businesses losing up to 80 per cent of their usually significant summer trade.
“Within the Gippsland district and through our connections with the Elders family, we have fundraised significant funds through rattling tins and social media drives – we are just doing all we can to get behind them.”
“On the ground, people are just getting on with it and just getting the job done.”
Moving across to South Australia, more than a third of Kangaroo Island was destroyed by fires in January.
Elders Kingscote Branch Manager Marty Kay said that overall people have been overwhelmingly positive. However, for those that have lost almost everything, the enormity of the task ahead is daunting.
“We felt quite helpless those first few days. We got a couple of hundred pairs of Rossi boots and we went out to people whose work boots had melted – we have tried to think functionally about how we can assist,” said Mr. Kay.
Many lost their own homes while out defending their neighbours’ and the close-knit nature of the community has meant those who avoided loss have been left with an impending sense of guilt over being spared from the fire’s wrath.
Recovery efforts are in full swing with 250 army troops helping to move trees, roll up fences, and remove burnt infrastructure. Neighbours and friends are pitching in to help those affected by burying livestock, putting up fencing, and providing much needed emotional support.
“Our biggest focus is to help the people affected get back into production, mainly for their mental health, so they’ve got a job to focus on each day and a structure that can begin to restore some sense of normality to their lives,” said Mr. Kay.
“I have lived and worked in a few regional communities but I reckon this would be one of the strongest ones I’ve ever seen. It’s amazing.”
Upper Murray River
The Upper Murray region in North East Victoria was one of the worst affected, with the Green Valley and Dunn’s Road fires joining up to destroy nearly half-a-million hectares of forestry, farmland and private holdings.
Elders Albury Branch Manager Tony Killalea said losses have ranged from small grazing blocks to entire farming enterprises including infrastructure like Homes, sheds, stockyards, fencing and livestock, and the rebuilding task facing affected residents is enormous.
“Seeing that much ground burnt, it’s hard to see what didn’t get burnt. Bigger properties are somewhat more fluid in the rebuild process and seem to be able to bounce back but smaller land holders have a bigger task to recover and need more support,” Mr Killalea said.
With the Upper Murray area being highly populated and multiple communities being affected, particularly east of Albury, recovery efforts will need to be far-reaching and long lasting.
“The sheer magnitude of the fires requires a comprehensive community effort to get people back on their feet. Local and state government have been providing assistance, as well as individuals, organisations and rotaries who have banded together to organise charity and fundraising drives.”
Mr Killalea and his staff have been hands on deck throughout the early stages of the community rebuild, making sure they are always available to assist in whatever capacity is required.
“They’re helping out in any way possible. Some of our staff are even doing online applications for government grants for our clients due to power being out for up to three weeks” Mr. Killalea said.
“In the end this tragedy has enhanced friendships and relationships. They’re doing it for their friends, not just their client.”