Red Cross volunteers in the heart of bushfire country

As bushfires rage through the hills of Kempsey, Red Cross volunteers create a warm and welcoming place for people whose lives have been disrupted.
Volunteer Judith shares a lighter moment with evacuees Paul and Pam.
As a blood red sun rises through a heavy smoke and dust haze, around 170 people are waking up to their sixth day of camping at the Kempsey showgrounds.

They’d evacuated as the unprecedented November bushfires raged through the hills they call home. They’re in tents, campers and sleeping in their cars. Quite a few are even sleeping on a mattress under the stars, if they could see them through the smoke.

Inside the showgrounds hall the first thing you see are a couple of friendly Red Cross faces. They’re at the entrance greeting people, registering everyone, providing information, advice, linking people in to specialist services, and being generally the listening ear many folks need.

They’re trained in psychological first aid. Research has found that the earlier people can have this type of support at the time of a trauma, the better their recovery will be.

Emotions are understandably high.

Some people have lost their homes. Sadly, there have already been two deaths in the district. Some people are still unaccounted for.

This is the busiest evacuation centre in New South Wales during the current bushfire emergency. Already Red Cross volunteers have registered more than 1000 people.

One of the nice things about this centre is that animals are welcome. There are dogs, cats, horses, pet birds, donkeys, even a buffalo at the adjoining saleyards.
Paul and Pam Scanlon, who self-evacuated when the fires got too close for comfort, say the environment in the showgrounds is helping them. Just knowing that so many people, like the Red Cross volunteers, are there to help is like “the sense of people wrapping around you,” Pam says.

Tracy Ayrton has been volunteering with Red Cross for 10 years. She also has a full-time job. Since the fires began, she’s been donning the Red Cross uniform on weekends, nights, and now she’s taken time off work to lend a hand.

She’s already been at the Laurieton evacuation centre, where 1200 people were sheltering from the fires. Then she was called to Taree where a large number of fire-affected local people had gathered. Some 300 people had slept there the night before she arrived.

“There were a lot of people who had lost everything. There were people who had self-evacuated and people feeling guilty about leaving their property behind. We had to work with departments to find them emergency accommodation,” she recalls.

She’s only just begun her shift at Kempsey and already she’s taken stock.
Volunteer Tracy at the smoke-filled showgrounds where evacuees have set up camp.
“There are a lot of people here realising what has happened, the enormity of the situation, and a lot of people are coming to get some assistance. They’ve lost fences, they’ve got animals that have no feed and things like that.

“We’re actually just helping some people in there at the moment that have lost everything so it’s the same situation again and it’s pretty random as to who has lost a house or who’s lost fences, or who’s got injured animals and things like that.”

Why did Tracy put up her hand to volunteer?

“The reason why I’m a Red Cross volunteer is the empathy we can show people and that we really do care about them and their mental health, their family, making sure that they are in a safe place.”
"We haven't seen stars for a week. We haven't seen blue skies for a week. It's just been smoke."
Earlier we caught up with Cilla who evacuated along with her two dogs, and has been sleeping in her car at the showgrounds ever since.

She says she was in a remote location in the Willawarren district when she found herself suddenly in the middle of a rapidly moving fire.

“The front came through. It was so scary. It was just red and the dogs were going berserk,” she says. “We were breathing all this black smoke.

“Nobody knew it was coming and I didn’t feel safe out in the bush.”

Cilla says she and her dogs were in the first group of people to arrive at the Kempsey showgrounds in the middle of the night.

“And since then there have been thousands coming through here.”
Cilla in front of the car where she and her two dogs have been sleeping.
As to the fate of her house, she still has no idea.

“My mountain is gone. My mountains are gone. The only thing that will save me is I live in a rainforest area. The only thing I’m hoping is the green will resist the fire – but oh, them embers!”

She has nothing but praise for the Red Cross volunteers in the showgrounds, who she says along with the other agencies and departments, have worked together to help affected people find their feet again.

“I always think at the end of the day, there is going to be a solution,” she says.

Story: Susan Cullinan. Photos: Dilini Perera and Susan Cullinan.

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