Flames ravage forests and towns. On social media I’ve just watched a video of someone felling a tree at the edge of a lake, clearing a path for a 4WD convoy to drive into the shallows and escape an inferno. Next, I see a post from Dave, an old friend who has evacuated his family from their home on the NSW south coast. My thoughts go out to our brothers and sisters fighting to escape the flames. Then I think of the unseen wildlife massacre, koalas, kangaroos – it’s all too much.
Forest surrounds my house on the North Coast hinterland. Back in November we packed a few valuables: laptops, passports, jewellery, and photos, and fled to my cousins at Sawtell for three days. The fires never reached our valley, but the blazes that started back in August are still smouldering and breaking out.
Scrolling through my newsfeed, I see footage of Scott Morrison visiting a fire ravage South Coast community. He tries to shake a lady’s hand. The lady resists “I’ll only shake your hand if you give more money to the Rural Fire Service,” she says. But our Prime Minister grabs her hand and shakes it anyway, then turns his back and walks away while she is still speaking to him. Then a firefighter refuses to shake our Prime Minister’s hand; in a bizarre move, our elected leader grabs the firefighter’s left hand and shakes it a bit. I can’t believe what I’ve just seen. That is not how I expect a leader to act. It looked so bad, it left me wondering if it could be terminal for our Prime Minister.
Living in smoke so thick that sometimes I can’t see nearby trees, living with the fear that my family could be trapped, has rattled me. How can you find a sense of meaning and purpose in this environment? I’m looking after my two kids over the holidays. We’ve been going to the beach, the movies, cricket, and swimming in the creek. We still have water. I have so much to be grateful for. But this catastrophic disaster keeps intensifying.
Looking through my newsfeed, I see a post from Mark Graham, a local ecologist and community leader. Mark posted some photos of a fire at Andersons Creek that he and a band of volunteers were working to control; amongst the comments to Mark’s post, Sue Lennox, another community leader, asked how she could help.
Here was one community leader taking the initiative and a second asking how they could help. I’ve called them community leaders, but that’s not an official title. It’s how I perceive them. They’re leaders because they take the initiative, and the community supports them. With a flurry of inspiration, I commended their efforts, then experienced a nagging emptiness.
What was I doing? What could I do? I could write a blog, post my thoughts on social media, make another donation, but that seemed inadequate. I was overwhelmed. I’d reached a point where I needed to do something tangible.
My answer was in Sue’s comment on Mark’s post: What can I do to help? I needed to volunteer to help someone.
Mark Graham is an ecologist, has served a term on Coffs Harbour Council, and is a committed activist. I sent Mark a message, offering to lend a hand.
Next, I called Sue Lennox and asked if she could use some help. Sue is one of my heroes. She co-founded OzGreen and developed Youth Leading the World. I’m on OzGreen’s board, but I haven’t seen Sue since she was named the NSW Senior Citizen of the Year. Sue lives on a similar type of bush property to me. Her husband and OzGreen co-founder passed away a few years back. While Sue has a strong support network, I was sure she could use some help with firebreaks and maintenance.
On Sunday morning, along with my son Mali, I spent a few hours with Sue, cutting saplings, and removing weeds and fuel to improve the fire breaks around her house. Sue was so appreciative. For me, it was soul cleansing work. After a couple of hours sweating it out, Sue drove to Thora Store with the lunch she’d prepared for Mark Graham’s firefighting volunteers; the meal was relayed up the valley.
Compared to the sacrifices our volunteer firefighters have made, my Sunday effort seems insignificant, but it’s started something. When Sue returned, we talked about the future: the need for communities to take more responsibility in responding to disasters, and to mitigate the causes, back burning, climate change, whatever it takes.
Sue told me that OzGreen has resources set aside for community resilience programs. The principal of people deciding what they can do and driving that change in their community has underpinned Sue’s work for the past thirty years. Anton Juodvalkis is OzGreen’s CEO and a long-term RFS volunteer. When Anton gets a break from firefighting duties, I’m looking forward to playing a part in community discussions that could help shape the way communities face the future. In the meantime, I’ve made myself available to help Mark’s team with the fires.
Before I’d reached out to these community leaders, I’d felt isolated and overwhelmed. Through asking what I could do to help and giving a little of my time, I’ve stumbled onto a path where inspiration and support abounds.
A huge thanks to my 14-year-old son for his support on Sunday.
Author of The Hero Gene