May 2013

The Nation Reviewed

Blazing fences after bushfire

By Lisa Clausen

Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

Helping farmers rebuild with BlazeAid

An eagle hangs on a hot breeze above the group as they puff up and down the slope, unloading tools and heavy coils of wire. Bright-orange rosehips hang like jewels on scraggly bushes. Across the valley flocks of cockatoos are white against the burnt flanks of the mountains, their screeching a chorus for the sound of crowbars striking hard earth.

In mid January, the Aberfeldy–Donnellys fire tore through this farm, and many others like it, as it incinerated 86,800 hectares in the prime agricultural region of Gippsland, two and a half hours east of Melbourne. A man was killed, and 22 homes lost. On Australia Day, when Angus Guild arrived in his motorhome from Queensland, roads were still blocked and the air reeked of smoke. The worst-hit farmers were overwhelmed. “I could see we needed to get going straightaway,” says Guild.

Within two days, he’d set up a base camp for BlazeAid, which since 2009, without a cent of government funding, has marshalled 13,000 volunteers around the country to rebuild 2000 kilometres of rural fencing destroyed by fire or flood.

Two months on, 35 BlazeAiders are camped at the footy grounds in the nearby dairy town of Maffra. As Guild, a 69-year-old former bank manager with glasses and a hearing aid, puts it, they are mostly “old farts like me”. A donated washing machine churns outside the clubrooms, and clothes are draped over makeshift lines strung up in one of the stands. Tents, caravans and motor-homes crowd the outer. So far 487 people have passed through this camp, and between them they’ve rebuilt 130 kilo-metres of fencing across 65 properties. Some stay a few days, others for weeks and plenty arrive without a clue about what to do.

“Some bits are hard and some bits are wobbly – darl, they work it out,” says Guild, who has run two other camps, and hops between three mobile phones, enlisting donations, tools and people.

The fierce morning sun beats through the clubroom windows as Guild delivers his daily muster. He begins, as always, with an awful joke, and then gets serious. “There’s not much use us doing fencing if there’s no farmer,” Guild tells the assembled volunteers, as the footy club’s stuffed eagle mascot stares sternly over his shoulder from its perch behind the bar. “So if the farmer wants to sit down and have a talk, have a talk.” Outside, tools are divided among five teams fanning out to properties within a 55-km radius. “I’m a bit nervous about this,” says Jo Simpson, 55, one of seven newcomers milling around the utes. She’s taken time off from her Sydney job as an information analyst, leaving her husband and teenage son at home, and hopping on a 15-hour bus ride. Having arrived the day before, she is wearing earrings and an elegant scarf. Her free time is normally spent quilting.

BlazeAid

By mid morning Simpson is flat on the ground, scooping dirt out of the bottom of a freshly dug fence-post hole. The eagle has drifted off across surrounding paddocks dusted with weeds.

Farmer Anthony Coleman took over the 400-hectare property just a few months before the worst bushfire in 150 years of family ownership. The flames came within a lick of his front door and he lost every fence he had. “At ten in the morning, I thought we were OK, by mid afternoon we were burnt out.” He’s able enough – nonchalant when his ute’s brakes fail as he careers down the steep hillside – but replacing 20 kilometres of fencing alone would take months’ worth of work he can’t afford. Now he can plan on getting his cattle back. “I have to see the fire as the chance for a fresh start,” he says. For now, the only sign of his stock is the contour pattern of their tracks, worn into the slopes.

Today, despite vicious thorn bushes, late-summer heat and sore knees, the team collects trailerloads of mangled barbed wire, puts in new star pickets and doggedly runs lines of wire up and down gullies. Simpson checks, and re-checks, that the pickets are straight enough.

“When you put up a new fence, the first thing the cattle do is walk up and down to make sure it’s right,” retired power-station operator Colin Jeffery says wryly. He’s been working with BlazeAid for a month, leaving occasionally to go cycling or look after grandchildren. “This is my chance to contribute,” he says. “There are only so many times I can mow the lawn and grow a few vegies.” Many of the volunteers, some on their second or even third camp, relish the chance to be useful. “You watch people fighting floods or fires and think, I’m too old and too fat to do that,” says 67-year-old Russ Abbott. “But at least I can help clean up afterwards.”

Dinner brings everyone together to compare scratches and corner posts in a convivial hum, surrounded by cabinets of football trophies. Word spreads that tomorrow’s dessert will be bread-and-butter pudding made with hot cross buns donated by a local bakery. “The food here is so good,” says a woman who arrived with her partner five weeks ago. “But I’ve still lost 8 kilos.”

The kitchen is stocked with gifts – containers of homemade slice, homegrown zucchinis and tomatoes. “What have we here?” says another volunteer when she spies jars of gherkins that have just been dropped off. “Oooh, lovely. I’ll use those for tartare sauce.” She’s been here six weeks. “It’s done us a lot of good,” she says, as her husband seasons a vast pot of carrot soup. One farmer gives Angus Guild a grateful kiss every time they meet.

In most places country fences are there to see through. Out here they’ve become the view. “Look at that one,” says Guild of a new silver boundary fence, catching the afternoon light. The trashed landscape is being returned to order, one star picket at a time. It’s not unlike quilting, really. Home in Sydney, Jo Simpson hopes to do it again. “They say once you do one camp, it gets in your blood.”

Lisa Clausen

Lisa Clausen is a freelance journalist living in Melbourne. Her book Cruden Farm Garden Diaries was published in 2017.

From the front page

Illustration by Jeff Fisher

OnlyFans and the adults in the room

The emerging OnlyFans community offering training and support to adult-content creators

Image of US President Joe Biden meeting virtually with Chinese President Xi Jinping from the Roosevelt Room of the White House, November 15, 2021. Image © Susan Walsh / AP Photo

The avoidable war

Kevin Rudd on China, the US and the forces of history

cartoon:In light of recent events

In light of recent events

Who’s preferencing whom?

Detail of cover of Simon Tedeschi’s ‘Fugitive’

Ghost notes: Simon Tedeschi’s ‘Fugitive’

A virtuoso memoir of music and trauma, and his experiences as a child prodigy, from the acclaimed Australian pianist

In This Issue

Australia once had death taxes, as they are generally called by their opponents; supporters call them inheritance, estate or bequest taxes © Simon Schluter / Fairfax Syndication

It’s only super till you die

Taxes, death and superannuation

Mandy Rice-Davies and Christine Keeler leave the Profumo trial hearing, 1963. © Hulton-Deutsch Collection

The Profumo Affair, 50 years on

Sugar and spies

Misogyny exerts a force on all our lives: Prime Minister Gillard with Kyle Sandilands © Sam Mooy/Newspix

Hashtag feminism

‘Destroying the Joint’

Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

Death in Amsterdam

Vox


More in The Nation Reviewed

Illustration by Jeff Fisher

OnlyFans and the adults in the room

The emerging OnlyFans community offering training and support to adult-content creators

Illustration by Jeff Fisher

ANAM Set and music in lockdown

The project that commissioned 67 Australian composers to write for each of Australian National Academy of Music’s musicians in lockdown

Illustration by Jeff Fisher

Where did all the bogongs go?

The drastic decline of the bogong moth could have disastrous ecological consequences

Illustration by Jeff Fisher

Flooding back

Watching the Brisbane River swell, once more, to a destructive force


Online exclusives

Image of US President Joe Biden meeting virtually with Chinese President Xi Jinping from the Roosevelt Room of the White House, November 15, 2021. Image © Susan Walsh / AP Photo

The avoidable war

Kevin Rudd on China, the US and the forces of history

Composite image of Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese speaking during the first leaders’ debate on April 20, 2022. Image © Jason Edwards / AAP Images

Election special: Who should you vote for?

Undecided about who to vote for in the upcoming federal election? Take our quiz to find out your least-worst option!

Image of the Stone of Remembrance at the Australian War Memorial, Canberra. Image © Lukas Coch / AAP Images

Remembrance or forgetting?

The Australian War Memorial and the Great Australian Silence

Image of Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese, Labor MP Emma McBride and shadow housing minister Jason Clare after meeting with young renter Lydia Pulley during a visit to her home in Gosford on May 3, 2022. Image © Lukas Coch / AAP Images

Property damage

What will it take for Australia to fix the affordable housing crisis?