Blaze Aid volunteers lend a helping hand to victims of the Bundarra and Bonnay fires

LIFTING SPIRITS: Blaze Aid vice president Brian Carr is helping property owners in Bundarra to rebuild after fires tore through the area.
LIFTING SPIRITS: Blaze Aid vice president Brian Carr is helping property owners in Bundarra to rebuild after fires tore through the area.

IN THE SLEEPY town of Bundarra, population 400, there’s a small hive of activity in the Country Women’s Association hall.

A faded picture of Queen Elisabeth II and Prince Phillip hangs on the wall above a table strewn with papers. 

At the head of it sits Brian Carr, sergeant in charge of the Bundarra Blaze Aid efforts.

Him and his team of Grey Nomads set up camp in the caravan park three weeks earlier, after the Bonnay fire devastated more than 10,200 hectares of country.

HARD WORK: The makeshift headquarters at the Country Women's Association Hall in Bundarra.

HARD WORK: The makeshift headquarters at the Country Women's Association Hall in Bundarra.

The average age of Blaze Aid volunteers is 66.6, Mr Carr tells me.

Slowly, they’re rebuilding the properties that were damaged in one of New England’s most significant natural disasters.

“Our main role is to lift spirits,” Mr Carr said.

“I tell that to all the volunteers – we are not going out there just to do fencing.”

Most of them live on the road and keep an ear to the ground for communities that need help.

Often volunteers will be set up in a town before Mr Carr arrives, as soon as they hear of a big fire, cyclone or flood they pack their bags and off they head.

“Some of them are waiting here when you arrive and they’re still there when you pack up three months later,” Mr Carr said.

“We’re not just there for the farmers we’re there for the community – I’ve already put the feelers out and there’s a few people here who could do with a hand.

“Elderly people, disabled people, they might need a little job done but if we don’t do it nobody else will.”

Known to seek out a town’s war memorial, Mr Carr will give it a new lick of paint or do some weeding.

Once he and a team of volunteers painted a local pub, just to brighten up the main street.

“It probably means more to the community than working five kilometres away from a road fixing Farmer Brown’s fence,” he said.

“When people lose their cattle, lose their income, the whole town suffers.”

In the main street, it’s quiet bar for the occasional cattle truck rolling through.

Standing on the side of the road, the sole police officer in town pulls over and hops out of the car.

“You look like a journalist,” he tells me.

The camera likely gives me away.

He knows the man who lives in the old bank across the street and tells me Bundarra is a much more calm place to work than Tingha –a result of a less transient population.

Everyone knows everyone, as we chat the man next door pops his head out for a squiz.

The Blaze Aid volunteers might be some of the only new, semi-permanent visitors to town in months.

Every day they wake up at 6am and head down to the Bundarra Arts Hall, where breakfast is ready and waiting for them.

CLEANING UP: Blaze Aid volunteer Dorothy McManus cleans the toilets and showers while her husband works on properties.

CLEANING UP: Blaze Aid volunteer Dorothy McManus cleans the toilets and showers while her husband works on properties.

After packing their lunch, they travel to properties in small teams, roll up their sleeves and get to work.

That can be anything from fencing, moving cattle or just having a natter with the property owner.

“If the farmer wants to sit under the tree for an hour and talk that’s what we’ll do – forget the fence we can do that later,” Mr Carr said.

“I say to a lot of the women volunteers, “Remember the lady at the house”.

The turn-off to Rob Aitken's properties Craighsleigh, 25 minutes out of Bundarra.

The turn-off to Rob Aitken's properties Craighsleigh, 25 minutes out of Bundarra.

“While the blokes are out fencing she can be sitting alone five kilometres away, sitting down with her for a cup of coffee probably does her far more good.

“It’s about helping the community.”

Sifting through the ashes, property owners rebuild

MOVING FORWARD: Property owner Rob Aitken is grateful to the Blaze Aid volunteers that lift his spirits and help him to rebuild after his land was devastated by fires.

MOVING FORWARD: Property owner Rob Aitken is grateful to the Blaze Aid volunteers that lift his spirits and help him to rebuild after his land was devastated by fires.

RETURNING home Justine Aitken found the road to her property blocked.

She panicked.

“We had a little pact between us that Rob [her husband] wasn’t going to put himself in danger,” Mrs Aitken said.

“I couldn’t get past, the neighbours said, “It’s okay, Rob’s safe.”

“I thought, “Where the hell is he?” and they told me he was at the house.”

Flames had already engulfed the neighbouring property and were moving quickly toward their weatherboard home.

A perfectly timed drop by Lucy the helicopter was the only thing that saved the house.

Now, green grass covers the ground around blackened trees, fallen fence posts and rusted wires.

With the help of Blaze Aid, the Aitken’s are trying to rebuild.

“We didn’t really get time to think about leaving,” Rob Aitken said.

The Aitken's backyard, trees charred by fire stand just 20 metres from the house.

The Aitken's backyard, trees charred by fire stand just 20 metres from the house.

“All of a sudden it was here, it’s pretty well taken all the fences – 33 kilometres of fences.

“Some of it I can’t even get to, there’s too many trees down.”

The pair have sold their weaners early and will sell their cattle next week – there’s no paddock for them to return to.

Two weeks ago Mrs Aitken fell off a horse and crushed three vertebrae in her back, she won’t be able to work for the next six months.

But, there’s a light at the end of the tunnel – every morning Blaze Aid volunteers arrive at 7:30 to start pulling the broken fences down.

“Not only do they help on the farm, they tell us funny stories that help cheer us up – about places that have been destroyed that are now back on their feet,” Mrs Aitken said.

“It’s really helped us, if we had to do all of this on our own we would be overwhelmed.”

Their story isn’t unique, there are at least sixteen properties in Bundarra alone affected by the fires.

FENCING: Property owner Rob Aitken with Blaze Aid volunteers Ellen Paulin, Laurie Dansey and Richard Goodall.

FENCING: Property owner Rob Aitken with Blaze Aid volunteers Ellen Paulin, Laurie Dansey and Richard Goodall.

It’s just been declared a natural disaster, despite their situation the Aitken’s remain positive. “It will take us 12 months to get back, but we couldn’t do it without Blaze Aid,” Mr Aitken said.

This story Sifting through the ashes, the Grey Nomads helping Bundarra blaze victims first appeared on The Armidale Express.

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