Terrifying images of raging Australian bush fires dominated the news recently. It will take years for normality to return to these devastated communities. As a volunteer Greyshirt, I put myself forward to help with the recovery effort.
Greyshirts come from a wide variety of backgrounds, many are veterans and blue light responders who work well in a crisis. As a surveyor I contribute my own specialist skills, whether help is needed at home or overseas. On this three-week operation I was joined by a former Royal Marine, a member of the Parachute Regiment, two fire fighters and a naval officer as well as enthusiastic fellow “civilians”.
Our flight to Australia was generously gifted by British Airways, whose First-Class lounge fortified us for our gruelling journey! Nothing could have prepared us though for the sights of devastation that met us when we arrived on Kangaroo Island near Adelaide. The landscape had been incinerated by fire storms, destroying everything in their paths. We saw miles of skeletal trees, buildings that had been torn apart and the rusting remains of burnt out vehicles. Everywhere our boots kicked up clouds of dust as fine as fire grate ash. No photograph can convey the stench of animals that had perished in the flames. Very few of the island’s sheep survived – those that we saw were blackened with soot and grime. I still cannot comprehend how the heat roasted sturdy fence posts into piles of ash or blasted giant isolated trees into charcoal stumps.
Our counterparts in Team Rubicon Australia billeted their Pommy visitors in khaki army tents on a dusty golf course near the village of Parndana. The long-forgotten club house served as our improvised headquarters, kitchen and work shop whilst outside stood our donated fleet of well-equipped pick-up trucks. Each day on “Operation Tiger” – named after a local WW1 veteran – began before dawn as the heat of the mid-day sun would always interrupt our work. After kit checks, each Strike Team would be briefed about their mission – which might be to rebuild fences, remove burnt trees, assess property damage or clear away the debris of destroyed buildings. Evenings were spent servicing our equipment or sharing the days experiences around the obligatory barbecue.
I spent a fascinating day working alongside a Norwegian Team Rubicon chainsaw expert, whose skills with an axe were testament to his Viking heritage. He could point out trees that appeared undamaged but had in fact been killed by smouldering underground fires. Their roots had been burnt so completely that the trunks could topple at any moment. Together with soldiers from the Australian army, we cleared branches and fallen trees from miles of tracks so that farmers could begin to restore their livelihoods. Our second deployment took us by plane to Cobargo, near the coast south of Canberra for “Operation Ryan”. By contrast, following recent rains, this landscape was beautifully green and lush, but it didn’t take long to spot some of the two thousand burnt-out homes – seemingly singled out and entirely destroyed. Once again, out came the chainsaws to clear the tangles of fallen timbers. We helped one brave, elderly homeowner whose neighbours had left for good after the fire storm. With our help he was confident he could stay put. He proudly showed us the plants in his nursery that had miraculously survived the flames whilst chatting excitedly about celebrating his sixtieth wedding anniversary. After a morning spent clearing charred undergrowth he treated us to tea and cake – and casually pointed out a venomous red-bellied black snake that he had killed the day before.
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