BlazeAid volunteers push on with cyclone Seroja clean up

BlazeAid volunteers Rowena and John Kempton, of Sydney, at a farm in Yuna.
Camera IconBlazeAid volunteers Rowena and John Kempton, of Sydney, at a farm in Yuna. Credit: BlazeAid Yuna

Freelance journalist Tim McGlone is travelling around Australia in a van. He recently spent some time at the BlazeAid camp in Yuna, where hundreds of kilometres of damaged fencing is being cleared and repaired as the area recovers from cyclone Seroja.

Evidence of the furious winds that blew through Chapman Valley on April 11 is not hard to find.

Many homes feature tarps tied down as makeshift roofs.

Windmills and sheds are destroyed, and random road signs are still turning up in the middle of paddocks.

One farmer told of a big evaporative air- conditioning block that blew off his roof during the cyclone.

Despite the block being about 2sqm in size, he is yet to find it on his farm.

Cyclone Seroja hit the mainland just over a month ago and inflicted devastating damage along the west coast.

It also continued to track inland through the Mid West, causing major destruction to farming regions throughout.

BlazeAid is a volunteer group that assists with repairing fencing after bushfires, floods and cyclones.

They set up base in the tiny community of Yuna, about half an hour from Northampton, on April 27 and started fencing on May 1.

The group’s main base is at Yuna, but the group has sub bases at Mingenew, Perenjori and Binnu.

WA BlazeAid volunteer David Boyle.
Camera IconWA BlazeAid volunteer David Boyle. Credit: BlazeAid Yuna

So far, 80 volunteers have given their time to help 91 local farmers affected by the natural disaster.

Volunteers camp at the Yuna Community Centre town, with a mix of caravans, vans, campervans and tents.

Just how long the group will be in Yuna is unknown, with hundreds of kilometres of fencing to repair.

The help is of a practical nature but often it goes much further than that.

Yuna farmer Ashley Eastough runs a 6800ha cropping farm with about 3000 sheep and some cattle.

He lost about 20km of fencing in the cyclone, as well as all of his field silos, his house, several windmills, a “couple of sheds”, and eight tanks.

“It made a bit of a mess,” he said.

“We’re in the peak of seeding at the moment, and we’ve got stock roaming around everywhere.”

BlazeAid Yuna volunteers pause for a cup of tea.
Camera IconBlazeAid Yuna volunteers pause for a cup of tea. Credit: BlazeAid Yuna

It’s a crucial time of year for farmers like Mr Eastough, who said he was “running machines around the clock” to get crops in during a crucial time of year.

Teams of four to five BlazeAid volunteers completed four days of work on his property this month, clearing scrub and felled branches, and repairing fences.

For Mr Eastough, having the team on site has taken “one bit of pressure off”, while he is trying to get on with seeding.

“You don’t have to think about it, you didn’t have to worry,” he said.

“You knew the stock were in the paddock where they were supposed to be and you didn’t have to try and find people and pay them to help you out.

“These are people giving up their time to do this. I cannot praise them enough.

“It just makes a world of difference.”

Every day with the BlazeAid staff can be described as a decent day’s toil.

Hundreds upon hundreds of kilometres of fencing is covered in fallen branches and thicket; in some spots it is impossible to identify a fence from beneath the rubble.

The first job is to clear the debris. My group of four featured an average age of 58, although at the age of 28 I represented a rank outlier.

What I lacked in chainsaw skills and fencing knowledge, I made up for in raw physical application. The opposite may have been true for my teammates later in the day.

Our team leader was 63-year-old Murray Bartlett from Esperance, who attacked the job for the entire day with such ferocity and verve you would think it was his own farm.

Working with BlazeAid, there are roles for anyone and everyone — irrespective of age or skill set.

These are people giving up their time to do this. I cannot praise them enough.

Ashley Eastough

Some volunteers stay at the camp during the day to perform administrative duties, or to cook the three nourishing meals that are provided each day.

These meals are a real a godsend for a backpacker like me, living out of a van.

Others are more intent on getting their hands dirty, like well-travelled retiree Fran Oates from Cowaramup, who proved to be as efficient a fence twitcher as any.

At the camp, applause breaks out at 7am every morning, and at the same time every evening, and lasts a minute.

The applause is to congratulate those present on the challenge they were to undertake that day — and then on making it home safely after a job well done.

It sounds almost cult-like, but it is one of the many unique characteristics of BlazeAid that ensures its volunteers are happy, looked after and enjoying their time.

BlazeAid WA co-ordinator Judy Bland said each of the volunteers had a willingness to help others in difficult situations.

She and her husband Ed are Bridgetown residents and became involved with Blaze-Aid after the Yarloop fires in 2016.

“(You get) an enjoyment out of being able to assist people that are struggling after a disaster like this,” she said.

“There’s also a real camaraderie in the camp.”

“It’s one of those things that’s hard to quantify why people like it so much.

“But those that come certainly keep coming back.”

BlazeAid WA is still looking for more volunteers across the Mid West — those interested should get in touch with Judy Bland on 0427 614 546 or Ed Bland on 0427 614 540.


Statistics (to May 29)

Farms Registered: 91

Farms Started: 31

Farms Finished: 2 0

Fences Cleared: 108k m

Fences Rebuilt: 9.9km

Volunteers in Camp: 11

Volunteers in Sub Camps at Mingenew, Perenjori, Binnu: 6

Volunteer Days Worked: 538

Volunteers to date: 80

Average Age: 57.54

Community Support: 110 per cent

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