BlazeAid fencing volunteers prepare for Ebor camp

BlazeAid volunteers at work. Photo blazeaid.com.au

BlazeAid volunteers at work. Photo blazeaid.com.au

BlazeAid, an organisation that helps restore fences and farming communities after natural disasters, was born from the ashes of Victoria's Black Saturday bushfires in 2009.

Founded by president Kevin Butler and his wife Rhonda, it mobilises an army of volunteers, mostly grey nomads, who congregate at a basecamp and work alongside landholders to rebuild fences damaged by fire or flood.

Farmer and former primary school teacher Kevin Butler, who founded BlazeAid with his wife Rhonda in 2009. Photo blazeaid.com.au

Farmer and former primary school teacher Kevin Butler, who founded BlazeAid with his wife Rhonda in 2009. Photo blazeaid.com.au

Currently, they're moving their 'combat ready' trailers from Inverell to the Ebor Sport and Recreation Ground, ready to start assisting those affected by the Bees Nest fire.

President Kevin Butler, who runs a sheep farm and truck delivery business at Kilmore East in Victoria, said he understands the reluctance of farmers to accept that they need help, but urges them to swallow their pride.

"If someone rang me up and said, 'Look, I know you've been burnt out, can I come and give you a hand', I'd say, 'oh no, I'll get around to it, I'll be alright'.

"I shear all my own sheep; I don't like anyone on my property. But the point is, after we were burnt out on Black Saturday, we found the job just too big and I had to put a little $10 ad in the local paper asking for some volunteer help.

"We got our fences up pretty quick with the help of the volunteers and now it's snowballed into this organisation with 30,000 volunteers and about $200 million worth of work on 6000 farms around Australia."

At a meeting held at Ebor sportsground on Friday evening, two BlazeAid volunteers addressed a crowd of about 50 people, including property owners from the fire-affected areas of Tyringham, Ebor, Dundurrabin and Bostobrick.

People at the meeting in Ebor on Friday. Photo Jeremy Hillman, Office of Emergency Management

People at the meeting in Ebor on Friday. Photo Jeremy Hillman, Office of Emergency Management

Local Land Services manager Paul Hutchings, who was at the meeting to talk about the emergency assistance his group is providing, has first-hand experience of BlazeAid and said he can't speak highly enough of them.

"They helped rebuild fences at my place," he said. "Our 700-acre property was burnt out in the Tingha fire [in February] and for the last few months BlazeAid volunteers have been coming and helping rebuild the fences on the boundaries.

They're an amazing bunch of people with hearts of gold.

Paul Hutchings

"They're an amazing bunch of people with hearts of gold. Mostly grey nomads, from all over the country, literally. You provide the materials and they come in and put it up.

"For people to volunteer their time to help put up fencing - it's not exactly the most enthralling job - it's amazing."

Photo blazeaid.com.au

Photo blazeaid.com.au

President Kevin Butler said as well as providing free labour, BlazeAid has a kitty of $25,000 available to offset some of the poles and wire costs for property owners affected by the Bees Nest fire.

They are also able to offer some paid work to local fencing contractors.

"We want them to come with their machinery and thump in the strainers. We're very happy to pay them to do that, and we'll do the rest," Kevin said. 'We'll thump in the steel posts and run the wires."

Kevin said fencing contractors who are interested should contact BlazeAid camp coordinator Tony Samuels on 0407 583 544.

Tony will be arriving in Ebor on Wednesday morning and the work will begin on Friday, with 30 volunteers going out to five or six farms each day.

The volunteers are insured while working with BlazeAid and each team has some people experienced in doing fencing and some who are learning.

"We'll be there for weeks, if not months," Kevin said. "Who knows how long - it's massive. I believe there's 139 properties affected at this stage."

He said they were bringing six combat-ready trailers, each with $20,000 worth of equipment - chainsaws, post-hole diggers - plus a fully-equipped workshop in two big shipping containers.

They will be supplementing the infrastructure at the Ebor sportsground by adding a couple of water tanks, which will remain when they leave, and they will also pay for any spike in water or electricity usage.

Kevin estimated that having the basecamp will inject hundreds of thousands of dollars into the local economy through purchases of food, fencing equipment, services and fuel.

There's also the incalculable benefits that flow from witnessing open-hearted generosity.

"All this altruism goes together to help the mental health of those affected by the fires," Kevin said.

BlazeAid camps rely heavily on the community to feed the visiting volunteers, and given that Ebor is so small, help from larger centres like Dorrigo and Armidale will be needed.

Local clubs, churches, school groups, community organisations and businesses can sign up to participate on a roster to cook, serve and clear up after an evening meal for BlazeAid volunteers once a fortnight.

"We probably need ten cooking groups," Kevin said. "I know it's a fair way to drive, but hopefully people who want to help will do their bit for the recovery.

"Really the recovery is 90 per cent of the whole fire effort. It takes from one to five years to rebuild after a massive fire like this."

Kevin said a second basecamp may be established at Dorrigo later on.

"It's going to evolve. If there's a lot of work around Dorrigo and volunteers are travelling 40, 50 kilometres to get over there, it just makes sense."

To register your property for fencing assistance, drop into the Ebor sportsground to fill out a straightforward form.

For more information, see blazeaid.com.au/how-to-get-fencing-help/ or contact camp coordinator Tony Samuels on 0407 583 544.

For information on how to donate to BlazeAid, which is a registered charity, see blazeaid.com.au/donations/