During the height of the Black Summer fires, she spent many days volunteering with the Red Cross team at the Batemans Bay evacuation centre on the New South Wales’ South Coast.
She helped people register and linked them with support – from clean clothes to a place to sleep to financial assistance. But one of the most important things she did was listen as they told her what they had been through and offer comfort and reassurance.
“Listening is vital at that early stage,” says Deb, who is trained in providing psychosocial first aid. “Listening and smiling, just saying ‘Do you want a cup of tea or coffee?’ People will cry, they will break down. You can hold their hand or listen to their story … and just smile and just keep nodding.
“People underestimate the benefit and the emotional healing that can come initially, or be started, by having a cup of tea, by offering that help, by seeing someone who’s there for (you).”
Deb, who lives in nearby Sussex Inlet, had to evacuate her own home because of the fires. Once her house was safe, and the nearby fires settled down, she went to help at the evacuation centre at Batemans Bay’s Hanging Rock Sports Complex.
“I guess in that way we cope with our own stuff too. But it’s about them – wherever they’ve come from, whatever country, whether they’re born here, what age, it doesn’t matter – they’re here, and we’re together, and we look after each other. I haven’t met one Red Cross worker who feels differently.”
Deb has been a Red Cross volunteer for some seven years but this is the first time she has helped in a disaster of this magnitude. “I wanted to be part of the rebuilding, not tearing down. And I wanted to help people. I want to see them succeed. I’ve been very blessed and it’s good to give, we need to give.”
During her days in the evacuation centre, Deb supported many people. She says it was not only an honour but humbling to listen to their stories. “People thank us but my goodness they’ve gone through a dreadful experience.”
One man she met told her how the heat was so overwhelming he felt his skin melting as he fled the fires. He described to Deb how he returned to his home a few days later and found lying undamaged on the ground the photos he had dropped. “It helped him and it gave him hope.”
She heard of twin brothers who had lost everything but were going back to their property and planning to start again. “The people they’re so resilient … the courage they’ve shown in the face of a disaster on this scale.
More than 2,800 people like Deb Egan have been deployed to help as part of our response to not just the Black Summer bushfires but other fires that have hit Australia since July.