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Kids teaching community to be prepared

"Imagine sitting at your office, getting a text and fearing that your house, your pets, your kids are trapped," says Rebecca Newton, Red Cross Recovery Coordinator.

That is how many residents of Molesworth felt when severe and unpredictable fires swept through the area in February 2013. A small country community with one road in, one road out, the community was taken by surprise.

Over a number of long, hot weeks, fires endangered the community again and again, threatening to cut off the only road and escape route out of the town. While no homes were lost, many people suffered emotional trauma from repeatedly feeling that the fires were about to get them.

A number of families were not prepared for the fires.

"One woman, who nearly lost her property, had a son, who was at school with us last year, a really capable boy. The woman didn't read the information, but if the son had known what he needed to do, he could have done a lot of the work that was needed to prepare their property. I thought we could do better than this," says Jill Armstrong, Principal of the Molesworth Primary School with 120 students.

Jill believed that the school, as a hub of the diverse Molesworth population, could do more to help the wider community of Molesworth recover and be prepared when fires came again.

The children at the school were also looking to help their families and the community. One of the students at the school, Colby, 11 was frightened when he saw the fires. What was even scarier was when he saw his mum distressed, not knowing what to do. "We didn't have a plan," he says.

Jill knew that a community fire recovery and preparedness day was the answer, but didn't have the resources to make it happen. She approached Red Cross for help.

Red Cross staff were enthusiastic about the initiative and worked closely with the school, Tasmania Fire Service and the local community for months to develop an event that would address local recovery needs.

Three months later, more than 230 community members affected by the fires attended the 'Molesworth Fires Up' event.

The highlight was the bushfire preparedness training presented by Colby and 24 of his classmates. These included workshops on First Aid, instructions on how to operate fire pumps, planning on how to evacuate pets during an emergency and planting a fire-resistant garden.

Leading up to the event, Red Cross staff and volunteers were there to help kids to develop the training or put them in touch with local services that could.

The training empowered the children to feel less vulnerable about future fires and also helped their parents, neighbours and community to be ready for the coming summer.

"You'll know what to do instead of being a sitting duck, panicking," said Colby. His classmate Justin, also helped train people on the day, "I feel better now knowing how to help," he says. Justin is now confident that he will feel less worried and more in control the next time the fires come.

On the day, many Molesworth residents also picked up copies of 'RediPlan', a Red Cross resource that helps individuals and families to make a plan to prepare for disasters.

Trained Red Cross volunteers attended the event to provide personal support to people who wanted to talk about their feelings after the fire and the possibility of fires in the area in the future.

"In bush communities like Molesworth, it's not only about recovering from the previous fires; it's also about helping the community to be emotionally prepared for the fires ahead. Often there is a lot of anxiety amongst community members at the prospect of another fire season. Giving people the tools to reduce some of that anxiety is critical and a key part of what Red Cross does to help communities recover," says Rebecca Newton, Red Cross Recovery Coordinator.

With the training, resources and support provided, the feedback from the day was incredibly positive. "The community is better educated and better prepared. No doubt about it," said Jill Armstrong after the day. As people walked away, "they have a better understanding of what it takes to be prepared."

The Molesworth community is taking charge of its own journey to recovery and has decided to make the day an annual event. Red Cross will continue to be there.

"It couldn't have been done without Red Cross. It was really important in getting it up and going. You need services like Red Cross you can turn to and lean on," says Jill.

Disasters can strike at any time. You can help children, families and communities better prepare for, respond to and recover from disasters. To ensure dedicated people like Rebecca are there when needed most, donate to support Red Cross emergency relief and recovery work.


Photos: Australian Red Cross/Rodney Dekker