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Courage and resilience bring hope amidst devastation

NSW & ACT Director Poppy Brown recently visited bushfire affected communities in NSW. Here she talks about why that gives her hope. “My father told me men don’t cry.”
Kempsey residents had to evacuate and have been camping at local evacuation centre. Photo: Dilini Perera/Australian Red Cross.

I listened as one of our emergency volunteers recounted his story to me. Of a farmer. A man who recently found himself in one of our evacuation centres in NSW. 

He was forced to evacuate due to the fires. Here he was, after experiencing what can only be described as intense trauma – talking with us. Grasping onto his grief. Held together seemingly and only by a life-long lesson passed down from father to son.

We have seen a devastating start to the bushfire season. Ferocious fires have decimated large swathes of New South Wales and Queensland. It has been reported that 1.6 million hectares of land have been burnt. 

Four people have died, hundreds of homes have been lost. Huge numbers of wildlife have perished, as well as many stock animals, and with them, family and community livelihoods. 

The scale and speed of these fires is unprecedented and took many by surprise. People are extremely anxious, those who have lost homes are in a state of shock and many are grieving and traumatised. 

We will stand alongside each and every person as they cope and recover, every step of the way.

I’ve spent the last few days visiting with communities in NSW who have been affected by these fires. From Port Macquarie to Taree, from Kempsey to Coffs Harbour, from Grafton to Glen Innes. And despite all the devastation, it is the incredible courage, strength and resilience I have witnessed that gives me hope. 

Over and over I’ve heard astonishing stories of communities coming together. Of people defending not only their homes, but the homes of their friends and neighbours. Of those who lost everything, and were left with nothing but the clothes on their backs, offering comfort and support to others. 

Red Cross volunteers manning the Myall Creek evacuation centre. Photo: Adam Hourigan/News Corp.
The Glen Innes community has donated an enormous number of vouchers to people who have been impacted. These vouchers mean that families who have lost everything can buy what they need to survive and cope: from groceries to clothes to toiletries. These vouchers also help local businesses who have suffered considerably as a result of these fires.

Across NSW we’ve had children coming into our evacuation and recovery centres, white-knuckled, clutching their pocket money asking to donate it to those in need.

I’ve heard countless stories of our incredible volunteers, many of whom have been working day and night, sleeping with their phones next to them, ready to help at a moment’s notice.

Volunteers like Angela from Bellingen, who after being forced to evacuate and leave a carload of her possessions in a friend’s garage, went and spent the following days volunteering at the Macksville evacuation centre.

And volunteers like Bob Carr, who witnessed the fires come within 50 meters of his home. After arriving at Maclean Showground evacuation centre, Bob, who was called up to be part of the Red Cross evacuation team, then spent the next week putting his own needs aside to do just that.
Red Cross volunteers at Kempsey evacuation centre. Volunteers have been registering people, providing psychological first-aid and conducting outreach services. Photo: Dilini Perera/Australian Red Cross.

With every centre I visited a new story would be told, and my hope would grow. 

And so when I was told the story of the farmer who said “Men don’t cry”, I asked our volunteer what she said to him in response. She told me, she looked him straight in the eyes and said, “Well, my father told me that the men who cry have the biggest hearts.” And with that he started to cry, and for 15 whole minutes he let the grief, shock and trauma flow out of him.

He was no longer held together by a lesson from a lifetime ago, he was held together by his courage and strength and the compassion and commitment of one volunteer. This is the power of humanity. What it can achieve is truly extraordinary. What a privilege it is to be a part of it. 

This farmer’s journey, like so many others, will be long and the road to recovery will be arduous. But I have no doubt his community will continue to hold him, as will we at Red Cross. We will stand alongside each and every person as they cope and recover, every step of the way.

As I write this on Friday 29 November, there are 147 fires burning across NSW, and the weekend forecast is for hot, dry and windy conditions. We’re in for a long, hot summer. NSW Rural Fire Service has warned us of difficult months ahead.

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