Helping people pick up the pieces in bushfire-hit Batemans Bay

Red Cross volunteer and Batemans Bay local Lin Barnes knows it will take time for people to recover from the Black Summer bushfires.
Bushfire damage on the New South Wales South Coast. Photo: Ian Barnes

The South Coast tourist town has been hit by bushfires before but not this bad, says the retired social worker. “It will be a big job for our community for quite a while to get us all back on our feet and looking forward to the future.”

She was part of the Red Cross team who worked at the town’s evacuation centre. Trained in psychological first aid, she provided comfort to people fleeing the fires, helped them register so their families would know they were safe, and lent a hand with everything from unpacking supplies to essential services.

Lin, who is now volunteering at the local recovery centre, has seen firsthand the impact of the fires on her community.

The worst of the bushfire crisis hit on New Year’ Eve. “I was due to come in at 2pm to relieve … I got a call at 8pm and it was chaotic. Everyone who had heard this was an evacuation centre came in trying to register. We did try our best, along with the other agencies, but there were virtually too many people to register.

"At that time we didn’t have room for anyone to sleep, we just had to arrange it as best we could."
Lin Barnes

The area around the centre was filled with vehicles with people sleeping in their cars and caravans. “It was a sea of cars. We had a lot of animals, many of them loved pets . It was very noisy and chaotic. Afterwards, we heard in adjoining buildings it was packed solid too.”

She also later learnt how, with the fires threatening the seaside town, thousands of locals and tourists took shelter on any vacant coastal land they could find.

Lin Barnes (left) and fellow volunteer Sally Dowse at the Batemans Bay evacuation centre. Photo: Australian Red Cross/Dilini Perera

Lin remembers the sheer number of people who arrived at the centre. “We ran out of food, we ran out of drinks. It was very hot in the centre. Power and communications were down so we didn’t really know what was happening out in the community. We were just surviving.”

At one stage a fire ignited nearby, she says. “We were watching helicopters put out that fire. That was an anxious time for everyone … we were in the safest place possible but it was still very stressful.”

During it all, Red Cross volunteers provided a listening ear and comfort to those who needed it. And once the immediate crisis was over they helped people to find the services and the support they would need to move forward.

“People have lost work, they’ve lost their houses. Tourism is the biggest part of Batemans Bay’s economy and we’ve lost that this year and at the end of last year – and so the casual staff have been laid off and people can’t pay their mortgages. They’re worried and stressed.”

The community is helping one another but they also need professional mental health support down the track, she says.

"We want to get the community back on their feet as quick as possible. Sometimes we just need a little bit of a hand up to do that and that’s what we’re here for."

Red Cross volunteers are now working at Batemans Bay’s recovery centre – one of three on the South Coast. Every day about 170 households – around 100 of them first time visitors – call in for advice, emotional support or to apply for Red Cross emergency grants.

We have also teamed up with other agencies to run a mobile recovery outreach service that is visiting communities around nearby Mogo, Moruya and Narooma. Here too our volunteers do what they do best – providing emotional support, advice, helping people apply for grants and connecting them with other vital services.

Lin says it is a good feeling to be able to give back to the community as a volunteer. “We’ve got a great team here in Batemans Bay and we’ve got names of some, perhaps, future volunteers … they’ve seen what we can do and would like to be part of that.”

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