Volunteers' blaze of glory

Cate RocchiThe West Australian

Northcliffe is being rebuilt one fence post at a time after the devastating bushfires of earlier this year - and much of the hard work has been done by BlazeAid volunteers.

The team, mostly retired travellers, camped at Northcliffe Recreation Centre and provided locals with much-needed practical and emotional support.

Walking into base camp, or the community hall, there were lists of work schedules and records of metres covered on whiteboards. There was also a communal kitchen.

It was run by the efficient Anne Baker. Mrs Baker, who once worked in the computer industry, with her husband Fred is a BlazeAid regular and typical of the volunteers.

The couple rented out their home in Parkes, New South Wales, to travel Australia.

Along the way they offer support to farmers, from flood and drought-stricken Queensland to this fire-ravaged pocket of WA.

During a three-month stint, the volunteers pulled down 70km of burnt fence and erected 30km of new fencing.

All labour was provided by the volunteers but the property owners were responsible for buying the materials of their choice.

In charge was Brian Carr, a retired police officer who spent 39 years on the force in New South Wales.

He said volunteers worked under supervision of the farmers and the farmers were always right.

After a disaster, BlazeAid volunteers go into properties and lift farmers' spirits. Property owners might not feel like working, but they have to supervise the men and women, so BlazeAid has also been important from a psychological point of view.

"We are a light at the end of the tunnel and give them a sense of direction to help get them back on track," Mr Carr said.

Sometimes, if a farmer was in bad shape and not up to the physical work of starting a fencing project, BlazeAid volunteers would just sit and have a cup of tea.

"We just keep them company," Mr Carr said.

In WA, 31 properties registered for assistance, and damage varied.

In some cases the fires took out every fence. But Mr Carr had seen worse - in Coonabarabran, NSW, in 2013 when a fire destroyed 53 houses.

"While this is very traumatic to these people, it wasn't as big as some of the other fires that we have worked at," he said.

Mr Carr praised the volunteers who hailed from interstate as well as WA. He said the median age was 61.

Sundays are rostered off and BlazeAid volunteers have to do at least three shifts a week to be part of the team.

Mr Carr estimated the team may have saved the local community more than $100,000 in labour costs.

He said they had helped a wide variety of landowners, from avocado farmers to those in the dairy industry, and many of the farmers joined the volunteers for dinner.

Requests for help varied - some wanted fences rebuilt, while others only wanted the burnt ones pulled down.

"If they don't have stock, there is no hurry," Mr Carr said.

BlazeAid provided all the food for volunteers but Northcliffe locals chipped in.

Local man Adrian May brought a whole snapper and there have been bags of avocados, a sheep carcase, pies, apple strudels and pumpkin soup - as well other vital items including a washing machine, saucepans and tools.

Much of the equipment was stored in a box trailer, ready for the next natural disaster, as the team has pulled out of town.

Mr Carr is now at Julia Creek, near Mt Isa, helping with drought relief.

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