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.
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.”
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