October 4th, 2021BlazeAid: Ready to help but hit by red tape
WHEN the Black Saturday Fires ripped through Kevin and Rhonda Butler’s farm at East Kilmore in 2009, their immediate concern was the safety of their sheep.
East Kilmore in 2009, their immediate concern was the safety of their sheep.
Kevin, a former school teacher, put out a call for help to urgently repair three kilometres of fencing. Friends and strangers alike turned up, working tirelessly for a week to repair the fence.
“On my own this would have taken me three months to complete but the support we received was overwhelming. My wife then said we had to pass this goodwill on and help neighbours and others affected by the fires,” he said.
“As a former school teacher with 25 years spent coordinating infants, I was highly organised but I asked my wife if she was prepared to cook morning, noon and night for the volunteers. She was of course and out of the goodness of strangers and a need to help those straight after a fire, BlazeAid was born.
“We were the lucky ones in those fires and it almost felt like we had survivors’ guilt. We knew we had to set up a volunteer group to go into devastated communities, with no red tape, just willing workers ready to help anyone at any time.”
And that they have done ten-fold. Since setting up the group thousands of long- and short-term BlazeAid volunteers have helped rebuild fences for bushfire, flood and storm survivors.
Volunteers have come from all parts of Australia, as well as New Zealand, Switzerland, England, Afghanistan, Canada, Germany, Austria, America and France.
Kevin was adamant the BlazeAid volunteer organisation would be set up as an Australian charity with any donations and sponsorship funding going directly into setting up base camps across the country.
“We were determined to set up an extremely effective system from day one and over that time I have had some tremendous mentors. The people involved in the committee are good people wanting to make a difference and ensure every penny (there are only two paid positions) goes directly back into the charity,” he said.
“We have kept records and tracked data from day one and run to a very successful business model that has seen BlazeAid help thousands of families in need.”
Melissa Jones is the operations manager and has recently taken over the reins from Kevin. A former school teacher herself, with her own young children, she said the hard work and time involved in running BlazeAid is a privilege.
“My entire role centres around helping people in need and what a gorgeous job. It’s extremely hard work but I have tremendous support and wonderful mentors around me and being able to make a difference in the lives of strangers in need is incredibly humbling,” she said.
BlazeAid is currently working across Australia in response to flood damage and more locally in Yinnar and Heyfield in Gippsland. More than 300 fences, hundreds of hours in volunteer work and hundred of thousands of dollars in fencing has been the result of the Heyfield basecamp.
Melissa said BlazeAid volunteers not only repair damaged fences but also help to lift the spirits of people who are often facing their second or third flood event after years of drought, or devastating losses through bushfires.
“BlazeAid volunteers work in a disaster-affected area for many months, not only helping individuals and families, but also helping rebuild the local communities,” she said.
Blocked by bureaucracy
Red tape and buck passing have prevented BlazeAid volunteers setting up camp in the Hepburn Shire despite repeated calls to do so.
To date BlazeAid has helped two families, one in Trentham and one in Tylden, but founder Kevin Butler and operations manager Melissa Jones both agree they have been stonewalled by red tape.
“Our business model is very clear. We make sure we are invited into a community and that is always through local government. We need to set up base camps and that usually happens on campsites, in community halls and at showgrounds so it is always on council land,” Melissa said.
“We have attempted on two occasions to speak to Hepburn Shire about BlazeAid (following requests from residents) and on both occasions had no luck and that’s when the red tape began,” she said.
“We had volunteers that were ready to set up and help rebuild fences and told them that. At one stage I was told they were too busy.”
BlazeAid could easily bypass local government and go directly to committees of hall management but Melissa believes being invited in is imperative to BlazeAid’s work.
Hepburn Shire Council chief executive officer Bradley Thomas said it was up to Bushfire Recovery Victoria.
“BlazeAid first contacted council in August. As the storm damage was not specific to one local government area we informed them they would need to liaise with BRV about establishing an operations centre, and we look forward to working with BRV and others agencies in partnership on this large clean-up,” he said.
“We know many residents are struggling with the clean-up. We understand that BRV is engaging with a number of organisations, including BlazeAid, on behalf of the storm-affected communities in Hepburn, Macedon Ranges and Moorabool shires. The Central Highlands region is working together to find ways to further support our communities.”
It’s believed the Hepburn Shire Council has nine dedicated roles employed specifically for the post-storm clean up and Melissa contacted one of those employees twice – in June – days after the storm, at the same time BlazeAid volunteers were working in Hepburn Shire.
“I spoke to the same officer twice and both times was hit with red tape. I explained our need to be invited in by the shire and would have expected that if that officer thought it was BRV’s call then they would have liaised with that agency.
“But here we are three months down the track and for those three months we could have been working in the shire, helping rebuild farm fences and helping many residents in need.”
BRV has confirmed it is in contact with BlazeAid and is now working on identifying locals across the Central Highlands who are still in need of farm fencing repairs.
It needs to be stressed, BlazeAid repairs traditional farm fencing on a large scale given the time and effort needed to complete the work. You can register to be a volunteer or seek support by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org
Above, BlazeAid volunteers Kevin, Bob and Peter repair a fence in Trentham days after the June storm Words: Narelle Groenhout | Image: Supplied