PICTON, Australia — For many communities in Australia, fire has been a near constant presence. Since last year, blazes have ravaged more than 15 million acres, fueled by high temperatures and dry conditions.
The town of Picton, which sits about 50 miles southwest of Sydney, and the surrounding communities, are no exception to the devastation. Many community members have been evacuated multiple times, and all have been breathing thick, smoky air settling into every corner. About 30 homes in the surrounding areas have been lost, and residents are watchful that winds could change at any time – and with it – the situation.
Even with the hardship, residents of the area have stepped up to work overtime to help one other. One of those people is Allison Cox, a Picton resident who has been working, along with other neighbors, to care for those impacted by the fires.
“I’ve been very aware of this fire since October,” Cox told Direct Relief staff this week, as a wave of respiratory masks left storage in Picton to be distributed to the community at large. Wildfires introduce a toxic mix of particulates into the air, which can exacerbate breathing issues and have serious health repercussions.
This week, even though the air was clearer than it had been, the smell of smoke, a mix of wood fire and chemicals, still hung heavy. It’s become somewhat indistinguishable to those living in it.
“I don’t even smell it anymore,” Cox said.
Between her work at a local school and with a nonprofit group that serves children with disabilities, Cox still took the time to coordinate distributions of Direct Relief masks so that anyone in need would be able to access them.
She’s a member of Picton Rotary, and with coordination from Rotary groups in Sydney and Melbourne, members were able to quickly get out the word in the community that mask distributions would take place.
Rotary members were able to quickly secure storage space for the masks and create distribution events for the public. Cox was also able to coordinate with local firefighters, who picked up 15,000 masks for their crews and community members.
“We have a great network. They arrived in Melbourne the other day and we’ve got 10 pallets in Picton… so they’ll be available for our firefighters and available for anyone cleaning up,” said Dianne North of Rotary District 9675, which includes Picton.
Cox brought Direct Relief staff to the Wollondilly Emergency Control Center, where a steady hum of firefighters, logistics planners, geographers, water quality experts, and others studied the latest information on the fire lines, working to forecast how, and where, it might move next.
Because of the break in the weather, the operations center was relatively calm, and volunteers had been encouraged to take a break and rest. Monitoring fatigue among volunteers had become essential.
Fire Inspector David Stimson said that in his decades of firefighting, this blaze was unprecedented. Firefighters and technicians had been cycling through the center, some from Canada and the U.S., to backfill operations and share expertise.
Even before the fires, drought had become so intense that grazing is no longer possible for livestock in the area, and owners had been forced to hand-feed their animals for the last two years because of the arid conditions.
In the control center, operations personnel examined a screen showing spot fires all over a map of New South Wales.
Another screen showed an unforgiving mountainside that descended into a steep ravine below.
“That’s the terrain that firefighters are dealing with,” one coordinator said.
Just down the road from the control center was a small wooden building, set up not to monitor the fire, but to help people recover from it. Burned forest sits for miles around the building, and blackened fence encircling the center showed just how close the flames came.
Staffing the center was Kim Hill, who is a volunteer firefighter for the Rural Fire Service’s Buxton brigade, in addition to her work at the recovery center. Like many firefighters in Australia, she is a volunteer, on top of managing a day job.
Hill said about 30 homes were lost in the area, and that she and her family were evacuated just days before Christmas, when wind-whipped flames swept through her subdivision.
Two homes in Hill’s neighborhood were lost, and the dramatic firefighting of that night is still obvious. A blackened hillside sits just yards from Hill’s front door, a testament to the firefighting efforts to save structures.
Her family evacuated, and though they lost several sheds, their home is still standing.
Now, Hill is working to make sure others have what they need as they start their recovery process, and hopefully use the resources at the center. She’s worked to coordinate housing for people, and has picked up food donated by local businesses to feed others.
The center’s sideyard houses about five shipping containers filled with donated clothing, hygiene supplies and power tools for cleanup, all neatly organized and ready for anyone who needs them.
“We have our tears, we have our moments, but that’s part of the process,” Hill said.
While unloading masks for distribution the recovery center, Hill and Cox noticed clean-up workers nearby didn’t have any.
The crew was using chainsaws to bring down unstable trees and begin mulching fallen timber safely.
Through the grief that the community is processing, it helps to help others.
“It’s just what we do,” Cox said.