As a Senior Consultant at Shine Technologies here in Melbourne, Australia, I get to work on some great projects, with great technology and great people. But working at Shine isn’t always just about the technology. Recently, I got to work on a project that is just about as far away from my normal day-to-day role as you can get…
Ask any Australian about the Aussie summer, and they will tell you it can be “bloody brutal”. This year was no exception. It had been hot and dry with barely a drop of rain. So hot in fact, that heatwave records were being re-written across the country. Melbourne, the capital city of Victoria, struggled through four consecutive days of temperatures in excess of 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit) – a stretch the likes of which had never been seen before.
On the 9th February 2014 a fierce northerly breeze brought a tree branch down on power lines near the town of Mickleham, not too far from the northern suburbs of Melbourne. Sparks flew and the earth ignited. With strong winds and tinder-dry country – the impact over the next few days was devastating.
The Mickleham-Kilmore fire, as it came to be known, burned in various degrees of out-of-control for the next three to four days, leaving in its path displaced communities and destruction. In excess of 23,000 hectares of land was burnt, stretching over a distance of 40 kilometres. Stock losses were in the vicinity of 20,000, with thousands of kilometres of fences destroyed or damaged.
Somewhere in the middle of all of this, was my home. We evacuated on the Sunday, grabbing as much of the important stuff as we could fit in the car. For four days we nervously waited, glued to the emergency services website, phone app and radio. It’s a very weird kind of limbo to be in – not knowing if your house is still standing, not knowing when you are going to be able to go home. People say “it is safer to get out”, and “you can always rebuild your house”. But can you really? Would it ever be the same as it was? What memories would be lost forever?
Here’s a screen shot from my phone that shows the fire activity around my house during the fires. The orange peg in the middle is my place. The numbered red circles represent how many fires are burning in those locations at the time. As you can see, my place was pretty much surrounded by fire. Luckily, and with many thanks to the Country Fire Authority (CFA), my house and property made it through unscathed. Much of my local community was not so lucky. And so I thought, how can I give back something to my community? What could I do to help the people who have not been as fortunate as myself?
It’s probably best to let BlazeAid describe themselves in their own words:
BlazeAid is a volunteer-based organisation that works with families and individuals in rural Australia after natural disasters such as fires and floods. Working alongside the rural families, BlazeAid volunteers help to rebuild fences that have been damaged or destroyed.
Equally important, volunteers also help to lift the spirits of people who are often facing their second or third flood event after years of drought, or devastating losses through bushfires. BlazeAid volunteers work in a disaster-affected area for many months, not only helping individuals and families, but also helping rebuild the local communities.
BlazeAid first started back in 2009 in response to the destruction caused by the Black Saturday bushfires. Within two weeks of the Mickleham-Kilmore fire, there was a BlazeAid basecamp up and running in Wandong (a small town not far from my home). I negotiated some time off, checked the BlazeAid website, made a call and volunteered my services.
What a great experience!
For four days I worked alongside some truly inspirational people from all over the country – Perth (WA), Rockhampton (QLD), Gladstone (QLD), Tamworth (NSW), Bowral (NSW), Mildura (VIC), Templestowe (VIC), Strath Creek (VIC), Kilmore (VIC). I could not believe how far they had traveled to come and help. Some had come just for the day. Some were planning to stay for months. And virtually all had volunteered for BlazeAid before.
We were assigned to a property where the farmer had lost about of 50km of fencing, along with roughly 6,000 sheep. We were pulling down the damaged fences so that new ones could be erected in their place. Gloves, wire-cutters, pliers and hammers were the essential tools of trade (not a keyboard or mouse in sight). Each day we cut wire, bent wire, rolled wire. Sometimes on gentle slopes. Sometimes on ground that felt like mountains. I lost count of the number of scratches I got – working with high-tensile barbed wire is not without its challenges.
50km is a lot of fence, and it seems like we barely scratched the surface. And this is just one property of so many. But that didn’t matter. Every little bit helps, and the whole time the BlazeAid volunteers smiled and laughed and chipped their way through the mountain.
And here is one of the most amazing statistics I learned whilst working for BlazeAid – the average age of a BlazeAid volunteer is 65. Can you believe it? These people are truly incredible.
It’s very hard for me to put into words just how rewarding an experience this was. I met some amazing people. I helped a community in need. I wish I could do more.
I would like to extend a big thanks to Shine for accommodating my leave request at such short notice, and for their generous donations to BlazeAid.
So, what are you doing this weekend or next weekend, or next month. Can you find a spare day in your calendar to help out at BlazeAid? No experience is necessary – all you need is a willingness to help, and a sense of humour. Check the BlazeAid website – there are base camps operating in various parts of Australia and they could use your help.