Does lending a hand bring out the best in us? Responding to the Australian bushfire crisis.
Today, in cities and townships across Australia women and men are taking care of foster children they barely know, they are packing second hand books and toys for school children they’ll never meet and are spending the endless days sweeping away the ashes and clearing the charred bracken of lives burnt to the ground in the bushfires this summer. Time poor as we may be, as highly strung as life on the run makes us, as bound by schedule as we are, Australian’s are giving more of themselves to the cause of volunteering than ever before. It’s fast becoming the happiness spark we hanker for and the sense of connected purpose at the core of who we are.
Australia’s response to the bushfire crisis, indeed the world’s, has been unprecedented. We watched our TV screen’s ablaze with crimson smoke clouds and red-yellow flames while emergency crews darted through the fires tirelessly to save whatever was in their path. As the winds changed and the flames calmed, we saw farms, homesteads and neighborhoods scorched and the slow rebuilding of lives begin. Shattered by tragedy, we heard stories of hardship and hope. But when the camera’s turn away, there are still teams of volunteer’s quietly helping put the pieces together again.
Crossing the Rubicon
A life of service in the armed forces is a valiant pursuit, but when these same people choose to volunteer as veterans and become first respondents to emergencies, you know you’ve got some pretty special people on your side. Team Rubicon Australia was the brainchild of two Aussie guys, keen to adopt the model of disaster response and veteran reintegration pioneered by Team Rubicon US. Three years ago, in 2017, they grew into a fully operational entity with a mission to “shift the paradigm of disaster response in the Pacific Rim and change the narrative around veterans in Australia.” Their responses to crisis’ in the region has, as expected, been operationally astute and with teams sweeping across our bushfire affected communities, Team Rubicon is doing more than their fair share in the effort to rebuild.
A day in the life
For the next two months, the grey t-shirts of Team Rubicon have been deployed in the Cobargo region, NSW. They’re long grueling days that start at daybreakand close well after the sun has dipped behind the bushland hills. This is journal excerpt from a volunteer helping in the bushfire clean-up.
“As I stepped onto the bus with a group of very fit Norwegians who by looking at them you wouldn’t have guessed they’d been travelling for the last 63 hrs, I wondered if I had made the right decision. The drive to Cobargo took us about 8 hrs from Sydney, with a couple of stops. The travellers kept us entertained trying to spot kangaroos. The temperature outside was 42 degrees and the bus was pretty much the same as we didn’t have air con.”
“We reached the camp site and were ready to stretch our legs. With a long week ahead of us, we were greeted by the team handing over to us. Our brief was to help the local community devastated by the bush fires. We had no idea what we needed to do but we were all in. On our feet at 6.30am, we made breakfast, and were ready by 7:30am for the days briefing. The first job was helping a farmer clear out all the burnt trees from his extensive property. The strike teams got their tools and safety gear, first aid kids, wheel barrow, shovels and a few rakes and loaded them on to the Ute’s. It was already looking about Australian as you can get.”
“As the resident photographer, my job was to document the work of the team and I started clicking and circling through everyone but I couldn’t help but down my camera and help the team move stuff around. The chain saws are whizzing through fallen trees, someone needed to remove them, so I chipped in and together we got the job done. Three sweaty hours later, the owners came and hugged us all. What a nice feeling, we hardly felt the strain on muscles.”
“The next day we went to an elderly couples house, or what remained of it. Their home, yards, trees, cars, work shed, everything was destroyed except for a small out room where they made their makeshift home. The lady of the house showed me some of her grandmothers silverware, now all welded together. Nothings else remained. There were a few burnt out trees standing close to the little room that needed clearing. While we were chopping and collecting the trunks and piles of charred debris, the couple came out to give us a hand. They had been watching us, eager to show their gratitude and invited us into the room for tea. They seemed so happy to have people to talk to, people who could share in the gravity of their loss, people who understood them. The next day they visited us at camp for a coffee.”
“Each evening, we reflected on the day. We talked about how we made people feel, how we think we helped or how we felt about the work we had done. And while the stories were different every day, there were always tears at the end of it. During the day we were so busy doing the job, focused only on the outcome, it wasn’t until evening when we stopped to talk about what these communities had gone through. As exhausted as we were, our sense of achievement trumped that. Nothing compared to the trauma, the heartbreak, the sudden destruction these people endured. Just seeing a family smile, the thanks we got from the community and the hugs after a job well done showed us where humanity stands in the face of crisis; right on top.”
Sign up for a cause
The Australian Bushfires have generated a shared purpose, to save and rebuild the homes and habitats of families and wildlife. There’s been so many layers to the collective rebuilding effort that celebs and locals have all chipped in. And while the scale of the devastation gave these efforts a profile, we can’t overlook the energy that everyday people give to keep life moving. We know it makes us feel good, because helping is the natural condition of what drives us. Service to others, we know, is the highest calling of all.
Click through to these sites if you’re keen to see how you can connect and register to become a volunteer: