IF ONLY THE TEARS WERE RAIN:
TOUGH FIRE VOLUNTEERS UNITE IN THE TRENCHES

Volunteer Brett Robin, a fifth-generation logging contractor from Gippsland, Vic, breaks from fire-fighting duty to comfort a baby koala.

WHEN the going gets tough the tough get tougher. The forest industry and its communities, savaged by flame, are fighting in the trenches with a toughness matched only by the firefighting services, Army reserves and volunteers – men and women – who are waging a ferocious battle at the front.
Two volunteer firefighters died six days before Christmas when their fire truck hit a tree before rolling over.
A veteran firefighter, Bill Slade, was killed at the wekend while battling a bushfire in Victoria, bringing the toll from the bushfires to 28 nationwide. A veteran of the 2009 Black Saturday fires, Bill, 60, was struck by a falling tree while on duty fighting a blaze in East Gippsland.

War time conditions … as thousands in our industry prepare to count the cost and casualties – and reasons – for one of the nation’s worst natural disasters.

Five weeks after early fires started on Christmas Day and worsened across three states, an accurate assessment of the damage is still impossible as they continue to engulf communities on all fronts.

By the end of last week, fires had burned more than 10.7 million ha of land, destroyed an estimated 480 million animals – including the loss of 25,000 koalas on Kangaroo Island with 50% of the island burned to ashes – and ravaged an eco-system that will take decades to recover. And Australia’s summer is only just beginning.

In an email from Buenos Aires, Australian forester Evan Shield said smoke haze from the bushfires had been seen on the border between Argentina and Uruguay and was visible out into the Atlantic.

The Australian Forest Products Association has commended all fire-fighting services and coordinators at a local, state and federal level, but with many more weeks of the fire season still to run, is appealing for a clear national consensus that the priority for deployment of resources should be to save lives first followed closely by livelihoods and jobs. The revived Friends of Forestry network, initiated by Healesville-based Kersten Gentle, former Victorian manager and national coordinator of Timber Communities Australia, is providing a united ‘grassroots’ response to the state’s fires working within the industry to coordinate volunteers and their forest machinery and equipment.

As an example, Kersten said Brett Robin, a fifth-generation logger from Gippsland, and Powelltown contractor Peter McConachy, were hand falling and working in the fire areas in Mallacoota. Also, Colin Robin, Grant McConachy, Sam Wilson, Peter Barker and Brett Robin contributed to emergency measures at Mallacoota Beach in the east Gippsland.

Colin and Brett Robin and Peter Barker of Robin Logging and Grant McConachy and Sam Wilson of McConachy Logging were working their machinery to help unload Navy vessels.

Kersten said Friends of Forestry was designed to support and empower timber workers, their families and timber communities.

“It’s vital to have a voice at the grassroots level so governments at all levels understand the importance of rural industries such as the timber industry to rural and regional communities,” she said. “This is for the whole timber and wood products sectors. We want to educate across the full supply chain to unite this wonderful industry.”

Kersten said one aim was to grow the volunteer network … “to have representatives as a voice in various areas such as the wonderful David Endacott, who is a long-time advocate and retired forester in the Midlands region, and Garry Squires in East Gippsland, an experienced forest management planner.

Meanwhile, a crew of 20 veteran firefighters based in California are in Australia to help fight the fires and replace a group of personnel sent to Australia in early December. They include hot-shot and helicopter crew members with experience attacking fires early before they grow into large infernos. Australia and New Zealand have been sending firefighters to the US for more than 15 years, most recently in August 2018 when 138 came to help battle fires in northern California.

Business Council CEO Jennifer Westacott said it had been a devastating, frightening and shocking time for Australia.

“Our hearts go out to all of those who have lost so much,” she said. “We are so grateful for the efforts of our brave volunteers and emergency services personnel, just as we are proud of the efforts of the entire Australian community to support those in need,” she said.

The council will establish a five-year community rebuilding program that will work with the federal government’s $2 billion Bushfire Recovery Agency to create employment for volunteers and victims who have lost their livelihoods, as well as help with the reconstruction and provide financial relief. It will be chaired by former governor-general and chief of defence Sir Peter Cosgrove.

The Australian Volunteer Support Trust will be permanent and will focus on funding the education of children of volunteers who have died in the fires and in future disasters. It will be backdated to be effective from the start of the last financial year and administered by a board of independent trustees.

Former Victorian Premier Jeff Kennett will oversee the advisory panel comprising Jennifer Westacott, former governor-general Dame Quentin Bryce and businessman David Gonski. The recovery fund will assist with lost income, rebuilding infrastructure, wildlife care and mental health support, which will be administered by the new National Bushfire Recovery Agency.

Volunteer firefighters in NSW who work for private businesses will be eligible for up to $6000 in compensation under a federal-funded scheme, following weeks of debate about paying those on the front lines. Other states and territories have been invited to enter similar programs to compensate volunteers who have spent weeks or months at various fire fronts over summer. If only the tears were rain.