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!