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Six days in Mallacoota

 

Pamela became a Red Cross Emergency Services volunteer last December. Her first emergency experience was in the communities in East Gippsland, Bairnsdale and Mallacotta impacted by the devastating and unprecedented bushfires that have burned across the country. This is her story.

 

I had been thinking about volunteering for some time but hadn’t considered emergency services, when I saw Red Cross advertising for volunteers on Facebook. Red Cross piqued my interest because they offered a variety of roles. I felt I had enough life experience to offer those in need practical support so I applied.

I did one day psychological first aid training in Traralgon. This included lectures and role-playing, but in no way prepared me for what was to come.

Then the fires hit.

My first deployment was in Orbost. I was very nervous driving up there, as I knew next to nothing about what I had to do and the smoky surreal conditions didn’t help.

During the day, some fireys came around, lights flashing, to survey the building we were in. They were working out a plan to defend it if the fires came. I found that a bit disconcerting.

Within days, I was deployed to Bairnsdale Football Oval relief centre. As part of my deployment I was sent to Omeo for one day. The drive on Great Alpine Road brought home just how ferocious the fires had been. The landscape was completely blackened, just smouldering stumps and charred trees. The road was closed at one point, but they let the Red Cross through. I wondered what I was going to encounter if the road was in such bad condition it had to be closed. It wasn’t too bad though, mainly burnt road signs.

I spent the day mainly helping people access financial assistance, gave psychological first aid support to those who needed it, and handed out some trauma teddies. The mums love the trauma teddies as much as the kids do! The feeling in town was mainly one of trepidation, as the fires weren’t over yet.

Back in Bairnsdale it was packed with people and every aid agency you could think of, and yet it ran like clockwork. It eventually filled to capacity so the racecourse was opened to take the overflow. The fire was getting close to Bairnsdale at this stage, with the black billowing smoke clouds, the army out in force and chinooks flying over, it felt like a war zone.

I spent two days at the racecourse and three weeks on and off at the oval. I was on shift when it closed so was on call for the next two days.

I got called.

“Be at the airport in 25 minutes!” I was told. I didn’t even know where the airport was, but managed to get there with minutes to spare. Having no idea what to expect, I got to fly on a Chinook helicopter!

We had to fly out to a little isolated community called Norinbee to drop supplies. We had ten minutes to find out what the local community needed most, which turned out to be pet food and veterinary supplies.

Then we delivered hay, three of those big round bales at a time suspended from the chopper, to three different places.

My next deployment was six days in Mallacoota with four ladies from Horsham. We flew out from Sale RAAF base on an Airforce Spartan, which wasn’t built for comfort I can tell you, it had tiny little windows you couldn’t see out of and webbing seats attached to the side of the plane. All the luggage was piled down the centre, there was only just enough foot room.

We flew with some returning evacuees. I couldn't see from the air, but as soon as I got on the bus to town the devastation was obvious. Roads and signs were impacted by fire, and trees were still smouldering.

There were five of us and we stayed in some log cabins where the fire had burnt right up to the door. With no car we had to walk everywhere. We worked between the cinema recovery centre and neighbourhood house, with Centrelink and DHSS. There was a lot of walking! It actually felt like miles because in the mornings it was all uphill to the neighbourhood house. The cinema was on the foreshore, which was a much easier walk.

The foreshore was surreal, packed with cars, caravans, campers and tents but dead silence, not a soul in sight. Even some of the campers, vans and tents had ember damage, that’s how close it came to taking out the whole town.

A few people had started trickling in to pick up their gear when I left.

There were community meetings at 4pm every day, which were very well attended. We took the opportunity to provide psychological first aid and general support. The feeling was Mallacoota is a town divided, not just by the bushfires, the chasm ran deeper than that, but loosely united in the face of disaster.

A lot of people were devastated and feeling totally lost, all they wanted was a chat and some information, which was provided. They were informed of any grants they were eligible for, and given general information. The question that came up constantly, which we couldn’t answer was, “When will the road open?”

We met an an elderly German woman who had been seriously affected by the fires just out of town. She was there for over two hours and just talked and talked, about how she came out from Germany alone when she was sixteen, to the current fires bringing back terrifying memories of Berlin burning during the war. She was quite young at the time but she remembered. The fire had brought the nightmares back. She was a lovely lady, and I would have liked to talk longer as she was fascinating but she had to go home. She hadn’t lost her house, but everything around it had been destroyed.

As well as the daily meetings, we hand delivered newsletters to local businesses every day. These were very well received.

We worked well with the local Red Cross team. Right through town there had been ember fires, a back fence here, a tree there with nothing burnt around them. Then there were the homes and properties lost.

One of the local Red Cross volunteers drove us around the worst affected areas where the devastation was vast. I really don't have the words to describe what I saw. Houses reduced to bits of twisted tin and ash, forests of dead black trees. I can only describe it as horrifying. I was there to try and help the people who has suffered these devastating losses, what a huge responsibility.

The response to the Red Cross was positive, by giving psychological first aid, listening and just being there, we became a part of their recovery story. I felt humbled at the way the community was dealing with such tragedy, and that I could play a small part in that recovery.

The worst story I heard was from a firewoman who had seen twenty kangaroos hopping around in circles because fire was coming from all directions. They were engulfed in flames because her hose wasn't long enough to reach them. She said eight of them survived, that’s a miracle in itself.

On our last evening we were walking back to the lodge when we heard a deep bellowing sound, I must admit, I jumped in fright, I’d never heard anything like it! It turned out to be a koala in a tree.

I knew then that Mallacoota would be ok, if the wildlife could survive, the people could too.

Red Cross is powered by volunteers just like Pam. Over the last few months they have put in countless hours to support the bushfire relief effort. To all our volunteers: thank you!

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