Australia’s bushfire crisis has led to the largest post-disaster clean-up the country has ever seen. Regional women are taking charge in numerous ways to get the ball rolling – from physical work, to coordinating the efforts of hundreds of volunteers across the country.
BlazeAid is perhaps one of the country’s leading not-for-profit disaster recovery organisations. Since the devastating Black Saturday fires in 2009, co-founder Rhonda Butler and her husband Kevin have been committed to helping farmers get back on their feet following bushfires by rebuilding fences.
While Kevin is often the public face of BlazeAid, daughter, Michelle Jones, says Blaze Aid would never have become the huge operation it is now – with hundreds of volunteers and more than 20 camps throughout Australia – without her mother Rhonda.
“While Dad does a lot of the publicity, BlazeAid was probably Mum’s idea. She was the one who actually thought of it and pushed for it to actually happen,” daughter Jones says. “She is the one who works tirelessly behind the scenes to make sure everything happens.”
Butler is modest but realistic about her role in BlazeAid’s success. Without her “nagging and support”, Kevin would have most likely helped his neighbours re-build their fences after the Black Saturday fires, then gone back to his own life. Instead, Butler began lining him and their friends up with other fences to mend – and the idea to expand grew from there.
“I think there’s a beauty in the way women work in a team…. they pick up things that men don’t and they look outside the square for solutions,” she says.
About one third of Blaze Aid’s regular volunteers are women. They do everything from physically working to re-build fences to running the camps and overall organising and logistics. The group’s vice president, Christine Male, is a woman.
As BlazeAid has gained popularity, corporate and government interest has also increased. Several large companies now volunteer with the organisation, as do students, Butler says. With these groups, about 50 per cent of participants are women.
The organisation has also received some generous offers of assistance from some high-profile individuals. Andrew “Twiggy” Forrest, has committed to donating some kitted out recovery trucks, worth $25,000 each, and Dame Elizabeth Murdoch’s granddaughter has contacted the organisation to offer assistance. While the organisation is primarily funded by private donations, the Federal Government has finally provided Blaze Aid with funding of $1 million this year.
“I am beyond surprised by just how enormous this has become,” Butler says. “I work harder now in my 60s than I did when I was at home raising four children.”
Many women who have not been able to contribute to the firefighting efforts have concentrated their efforts elsewhere – from raising funds for bushfire relief, to offering support in the recovery.
What has been impressive is the way communities have rallied to help in “any way possible”, to lessen the impact of the disaster. Zoe Lamont – the founder of healthy frozen meal business, My Chef Cuisine – is one of those people. Like Butler, she is modest about level of contribution, as she says most people in fire affected areas are helping.
Lamont – who is also co-founder of women’s superannuation company Verve Super – and her family live in Wagga Wagga but were holidaying on the South Coast of New South Wales when the fires were at their peak. Her family and their friends experienced a hairy evacuation, where the fires were breaking out on the road they were travelling on.
“Many, many women throughout regional communities are pitching in, doing whatever they can,” she says. “I think when you have come so close [to the fires], you can sit by and fret for the world, or you can get moving and do something practical to help, and that’s what we did.”
Because Lamont and her husband are not trained firefighters and have young children, they decided to help by using their commercial kitchen to cook meals for firefighters, the families of firefighters and evacuees impacted by the fires. At the peak of the fires, they were providing around 500 hot meals seven days a week for people in need.
“A lot of people will not put their hand up and ask for help for themselves, but when it comes to getting help for friends or family in need – they will definitely put them forward,” Lamont says.
“What I have loved is to see the community involvement. Even our children who are just four and two-year-old are wanting to help and are packing up some of the meals with us. It has really shown the best in the human spirit.”