Balmoral Village Rural Fire Brigade headquarters looks like the mini-warehouse of a major supermarket. Trestle tables, washing baskets and cardboard boxes are overflowing with cereal packets, muesli bars, chips, shampoo, nappies, two minute noodles, bottled water and an array of other non-perishables. Less than a week ago, this tin shed was the last remaining haven for residents surrounded by the Green Wattle Creek fire, the worst in living memory. Today it is buzzing with volunteers organising the donated goods, soon to be collected by locals who have lost everything.
“We call this the local Woolies, up the road is Big W”. One of the RFS volunteers is describing the Balmoral Village Community Hall, equally stuffed with clothes, blankets and other essentials donated by people from across NSW who heard of the horror that hit this village of 400 last Saturday. The mega fire, which has been burning in the New South Wales Southern Highlands for a month, razed 28 homes here. Towering eucalypt forest thick with vegetation abruptly turns black and brown six kilometres south of town. The fire has burnt the entire surroundings over the neighbouring hills, warping metal road signs and melting the plastic walls of a bus stop sitting just outside the village.
“The only way to describe it was hell on earth. There’s no niceties about it whatsoever”, says Brendon O’Connor, the local RFS captain. He has fought every major fire on the east coast in the past 19 years, but never experienced anything like this. Starting on 19 December, Brendon and his team were hit repeatedly by flames towering 150 metres above the treetops. “Everything was burning everywhere”, he says. “We were so under resourced. Additional resources couldn’t get to us, we were completely blocked off by fires all around.”
Saturday brought the worst. Battered from the south, west and east – the first time in the village’s history that flames have come from the east – the small crew were at times completely cut off from the outside, running out of water and losing hope. “We were really fighting for our own lives last Saturday. Thankfully, because of the talks I held with the community, by far the majority left. I believe we potentially saved a lot of lives. If they were trapped in their homes, we would not have gotten to them.”
Brendon is referring to a meeting he held with the local community, against the directions of his RFS superiors, warning them of the danger that was coming. He is palpably angry at what he calls the mismanagement of the situation in the lead up to the fire, the lack of resources available to the local brigades, and the near total silence the village has received from officials following the devastation.
“We’ve not seen anybody – nobody has been to our station to ask how our welfare is or anything. We’re basically running autonomous at this point. If it wasn't for our residents and the community bringing food into us, to feed not only our firefighters but our community, it’d be pretty hard for us to get through.”
Brendon is not the only one who is angry. The whole crew in the station, RFS volunteers and others from the community helping with the food, say they’ve been abandoned. As soon as talk of the government begins, everyone drops what they’re doing to add their two seething cents about how the community has been treated. They say they’ve been abandoned by the federal and NSW state governments before, during and now after the fire.
Andrew, a roof tiler in his early 20s, has been off work for weeks. Like thousands of others RFS volunteers, he hasn’t received a paycheck since the fires started roaring. Andrew’s baby daughter lives an hour away and he can’t afford the cost of fuel to visit her. He is anxious he won’t have the cash to buy a gift for her birthday in a couple of weeks. But since speaking to Channel Nine a couple of days ago, presents have been sent in by viewers, as well as 600 messages from people all around the world thanking him for fighting on the frontline.
These are the two sides of this tragedy: people left without help, without resources from the government, and communities stepping in where they can to try fill the gap, to keep people fed.
But the volunteers need to be paid. Prime minister Scott Morrison’s belated announcement that public servants will receive pay while fighting fires hasn’t generated much excitement at Balmoral. They’re not public servants. They are still losing wages. Dave, a cleaner at the Picton Bowling Club which served as the main evacuation point for residents of Balmoral, agrees:
“I reckon the government should step up and at least give them some sort of compensation. No Christmas, no wages, no wages mean no food comes into the house. You’ve got to pay your electricity, you’ve got to pay your rent, you need something. I take my hat off to them for fighting the fires, but they need wages.”
Then there are those who have lost their homes, in some cases their livelihoods. Many have insurance to help them rebuild, but some in the village do not. Warren, another volunteer, looks distraught when the subject comes up. “We’ve only found out since the fires that not everyone is covered. It’s just heartbreaking. I don’t know what they’ll do”, he says.
The disaster assistance package offered by the federal government offers a one-off payment of $1,000 per adult and $400 per child to those hardest hit by the fires. For a family of five this amounts to less than the fortnightly travel allowance granted to federal politicians while in Canberra. In the meantime, the community is wholly reliant on food donated by neighbours and strangers. When asked if they had received anything yet from the government, the shed erupts in laughter. Even the suggestion of government assistance is a joke in this town.
The government’s lack of material assistance to those fighting and affected by the fires is not because of a cash flow problem. There was no trouble finding $185 million to reopen Christmas Island earlier this year to escalate the war on one refugee family of four from Biloela, Queensland. Just two days after the catastrophic fire on 21 December, defence minister Linda Reynolds announced a new $45 million government contract for Electro Optic Systems to expand the army’s hardware. Indeed, it is spending almost $200 billion on military hardware over the next decade.
There are many other grievances these firies want to share. The lack of hazard reduction burning in the off-season, which could have saved properties and lives, the mental health of volunteers who won’t have a moment’s pause for months, the lack of appropriate equipment to deal with the scale of what they’re fighting. Brendon insists there will be a reckoning with the government and official services once the season is over. But for now, he’s solely focused on responding to calls for assistance from brigades across the state and trying to keep spirits high in Balmoral despite the devastation.
“We’re organising a Christmas-cum-new year’s party for the 30th, basically a way to bring the whole community together and all the different groups that have helped us”, he says. “The weather conditions are going to flare up again by then, so I’ll probably be out on call somewhere else, but we just wanted to thank everyone who has helped. I’m not often short for words, but I’m gobsmacked, it’s just been absolutely overwhelmingly beautiful.”
If the experts are right and the crisis is upon us and the fire season will become more devastating in coming years, the scenes in Balmoral will continue to play out around the country. We need an urgent country-wide response to mitigate the risks. That will require a professional force equipped with the resources to fight fires, prevent fires and manage the land. It can’t be just left up to Brendon and others to provide for nothing a critical service that the government refuses to fund.
UPDATE: The federal government has announced that volunteers who are self-employed or who work for small and medium-sized businesses will be elligible for up to $300 a day, capped at a $6000, if they have been fighting fires for more than 10 days. That’s a maximum of 20 days’ payments for a month-long crisis that has not abated. The prime minister remains adamant that disaster response will continue to be led by volunteers.