From the Gong, to the Bay, to the Harbor: A Bush Fire Recovery Effort - Part 2/3 - Character Care
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From the Gong, to the Bay, to the Harbor: A Bush Fire Recovery Effort – Part 2/3

From the Gong, to the Bay, to the Harbor: A Bush Fire Recovery Effort – Part 2/3

Matthew Bates

In late 2019 and into early 2020, hundreds, if not thousands of fires had broken out across Australia. At the time of this blog, fires are still burning across the nation with areas in New South Wales facing more fires and weather to come. Character Care, in partnership with LifeWorks by Morneau Shepell, visited fire affected areas. In September 2019 we sent two therapists to Stanthorpe Qld and we have now just returned from rural NSW to provide therapeutic support to the local communities in affected areas. We were equipped with an RV to provide a space for people to chat about anything they felt might be helpful in the next stage of their recovery. We were mobile and self-sustaining, so we did not create any extra load on the communities. Tarini (counsellor) headed from Brisbane to meet with Matt (counsellor) later in the week. Matt started in Sydney and headed south-west in a loop back to Sydney. The intention of this blog is to share the stories of the journey and provide a different view of what is happening in these areas. This blog is in 3 parts, each one released separately every couple of days…




After Balmoral, the RV took me to a little town called Wingello, an area prone to bush fires due to the gullies, winds, and mountains. My location for the day was next to the local store and restaurant, a family operated place where the community would come together for a variety of reasons. I witnessed people having a cup of tea, brunch, rendezvous with others or collect their mail. The son of the business came out to greet me and offered a hand with anything if I needed. I later met some of his siblings and mother of the business. A few times throughout the day, people would come to ask her about any news or information regarding the recovery efforts (which wasn’t necessarily in the scope of their business). The family’s kindness and openness to the community was a treasured feeling as sometimes I feel as though in urban life, we have lost some of these values…

The small town had 15 houses lost to the fires. I heard stories of the ’65 fires where “the wind had changed and brought a fire within minutes from over that hill” a local told me as he pointed an oily dirty finger to the hill in the distance. Another man stopped by to say hello to me and asked some questions, for which I did not know much. He was an experienced man who had come to this town as a kid in the summer on holidays with family. He wanted to see how the town was coping with all that had happened. I could hear the concern and compassion in his voice for the people of Wingello, as if it was his own town. Another local had been living in Wingello for 40 years, shared a ton of stories with me and how he used to volunteer with the RFS. When these fires broke out, he immediately went to the fire station to offer his services. Unfortunately, he was limited to help from a far as his mobility may have been a duty of care concern. Although the help was limited, the intention to get out there was motivating. This particular local was my last chat for the day, as he “had to get home to the lady for dinner, life goes on” he said matter-of-factly, he shook my hand, said thank you with welt in his left eye and we parted ways…

Bateman’s Bay

The drive from Wingello to Bateman’s Bay was roughly 3 hours and through mountains of bush. The best way I can describe the scene is a tree graveyard. For the entire drive (except coming into the bay) all I could see was burnt, black tree trunks with orange/red/burnt leaves. To my surprise though, I did see 4 houses untouched and surrounded by ash. Amazing! There was still smoke hazing over the mountains. I was wondering if there were any fires still burning but I had no reception and would investigate at my next destination. As I got close to the bottom of the range, I drove past a lit fire, perhaps only 10 meters wide. I felt my senses electrify like hairs on a threatened cat! I didn’t know if I should call someone but to my relief, a fire truck passed me a few moments later. I recall my heart racing at the sight with a sinking feeling of “not more!” and hopes it would be under control.

Alas, I reached the bottom of the range to see green grass, water from the river and an energy like no other. In the paddock I saw about 30 kangaroos grazing. I had not seen 1 kangaroo the entire trip before this! (which is not normal in Australian bush). I couldn’t help but smile and laugh happily at the sight. I gave a fist bump to the roos as I passed and a pound of the chest to know these guys survived. It was the most beautiful sight I had seen all week. I reached the bay which was a sight for saw eyes to see water again. I checked into the caravan park and spoke with some locals who shared the story of New Years Eve where the town was evacuated then again, a week later. One woman told me how she left Canberra to get away from the fires only to be met with more. I would soon get an experience of my own…

My location for the community support was right near the ocean. It was extremely hot and windy. The lovely staff in the library asked me to pack up and come inside so people could visit with me in there. While I packed up, I was checking the RFS app for any updates in the region. I noticed two different notices had popped up within a few kilometers of our location. The staff inside had shared to me the wind was blowing south, when it turns north, we need to consider our options. The protocol for the week was any alerts with a “watch and act” level or higher, we were to vacate the area. The fires that had broken out had reached these levels and weather conditions were not easing, we made the decision to leave. I later learned, the fires that broke out in the Bateman’s Bay region on Thursday 23rd January had claimed 20 homes and 1 life. When I heard this news, my heart sank, and my thoughts are with those affected. My instructions were to head to Sydney…

Part 3 will be out in a couple days where the journey heads to Wingello and Bateman’s Bay, stay tuned!

BIG UPS to the team at LifeWorks by Morneau Shepell for taking care us throughout the week!

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