Blazing hearts

“At the start, there was a massive amount of support. But everyone’s homeless, we’ve got no storage.

Now’s the time people can accept stuff, and everyone’s forgotten about it.”

The debris on Jessica Blackwell’s property where her house used to be has been cleared. Photo: Cason Ho.

More than 100 days after the Wooroloo bushfire ravaged the Perth Hills, residents and property owners continue to pick up the pieces.

Gidgegannup resident Jessica Blackwell’s property was one of 86 homes destroyed by the fires earlier this year.

Ms Blackwell says the speed at which the fire swept through her property was the most shocking part of the ordeal.

Ms Blackwell’s property is surrounded by blackened trees. Photo: Cason Ho.

“I evacuated early so I could help friends, but it had pretty much taken out their street by then.

By the time I came back the fire had already crossed over. It had only been two hours. It was really quick.”

“We evacuated to the showgrounds, then to Stoneville, then to the SCC, then to the Magic Millions. By that point, after I found out the house had gone, I was done.

“My whole house is wood, so the whole thing was gone. It didn’t even look like a house.”

Ms Blackwell says the generosity of people and organisations has been inspiring.

“It’s quite a difficult situation, it’s wrought with emotion. The support from the community has made the whole thing easier to deal with. It made me want to go and volunteer and help,” she says.

Volunteers have been instrumental in rebuilding the lives of property owners northeast of Perth. Video: Cason Ho.

The Wooroloo bushfire began on February 1, just after Perth was put into a five-day lockdown due to a COVID-19 infection, and tore through the Shires of Mundaring, Chittering, Northam, and the City of Swan.

The Department of Fire and Emergency Services says the blaze burnt through around 11,000 hectares of land.

$10 million of the $16.4 million raised through the Lord Mayor’s Distress Relief Fund has been distributed to people impacted by the fires so far.

Funds are still being distributed as aid organisations, volunteers and government departments work through the recovery process on the ground.

Volunteers from BlazeAid are helping to put up a mesh fence for another Gidgegannup resident, Rob de Vos. Photo: Cason Ho.

Ms Blackwell’s six horses required fencing that needed to be rebuilt after the blaze swept through her property.

“You don’t think about how fencing stuff is getting more expensive, and it’s nearly impossible to get trades people as well. That’s where BlazeAid has been amazing,” she says.

BlazeAid is a volunteer-based organisation that helps disaster-affected victims rebuild damaged fencing that rural communities rely on for farming and agriculture.

BlazeAid Wooroloo camp coordinator Jo Delaney says the organisation is actively recruiting volunteers, and hopes to finish work in the area by June 30.

“We move in as quickly as we can after the fire, take down the damaged fences and try to establish the fencing,” she says.

Ms Delaney started volunteering for BlazeAid in 2015 during the Esperance bushfires. Photo: Cason Ho.

“We need on average 20 volunteers every day. If you can give up your time, just one day is fine.

If you can lift a star picket up, or if you can walk a kilometre across a fence line, you can help us in some way.”

“You can stay here with us. You get three meals a day. It’s well and truly worth it.”

Ms Blackwell says while it’s understandable people have moved on, many in the community still require assistance.

“Now that everything’s starting to get cleared and people are looking at building, the realisation’s hitting home about what a slow process the whole thing is going to be,” she says.

“At the start, everyone really wants to help, but I do think the volunteers drop off.”

Victorian BlazeAid camp coordinator Bruce Hindson described the issue in Kirsten MacDonald’s written recounts of bushfire stories, The Blazing Heart of Community.

“People think once the fire or flood has gone, it’s all over with,” Mr Hindson says.

“It’s like a funeral, at first the casseroles roll in, then 6 weeks later everyone starts to get on with their life.”

Ms Delaney says travel restrictions due to the COVID-19 pandemic have affected the organisation’s volunteer recruitment.

“We have some people from South Australia and Victoria. We have had some people from New South Wales and Queensland. When you get those sorts of people coming constantly then you have all the volunteer numbers up,” she says.

“This year is a little bit different, and last year was worse with COVID. That sort of model and how we run our camps was affected by that.”

Ms Delaney says anyone can volunteer, and urges people to do so if they have the time.

“We were travelling around in 2015 and saw a BlazeAid sign on someone’s car,” she says.

“We went for a week, and stayed for ten.”

Mr de Vos says volunteers have been a saving grace during difficult times. Photo: Cason Ho.

Categories: Community, Emergency

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