What difference is the Army making in fire affected areas?

Our Marketing Manager provides an update from the fire line in Southern NSW

Clearing damaged and burnt trees from Quaama school

Approximately 3,000 reservists, myself included, have been deployed since the 4th of January 2020, in  response  to  the devastating bushfires across  country. 

 I won’t get into the politics surrounding this crisis because as a Defence Force, our job is to support the government of the day and work impartially to defend Australia and its interests.

The military callout of Reservists was unprecedented.  Never before have these callout powers been invoked, and never has the Army Reserve been used on such a large scale in response to a natural disaster in Australia. Let me clarify that while majority of those men and women working in fire affected communities are reservists, there is also a large contingent of Regular Army personnel and assets in support. This is a whole of Army response, and close to 1,000 full-time members of the military have been recalled from their annual Christmas leave to support the Bushfire response.

As an Army reservist, a deployment like this is the ultimate way for us to serve our country – that is deploying to assist our fellow Australians. I’ve now been deployed since the beginning of Jan, and I’d like to share with you the kinds of tasks that are being conducted by Reservists right now.

I’ll start by saying that you need to understand that the Military is here in support of Emergency Services.  This means that we are guided by them with regards to how and where support is most needed.  We are not here to do the job of the State Emergency Service, or the Rural Fire Service.  We are working with all levels of Government, including local councils to provide support where it is needed. Liaising with local government, emergency services, and aid organisations, we’ve worked to fill the gaps in helping stabilise the situation for fire affected communities. 

My team walking up a hill to start assisting a farmer with his fences

I’ve been leading one of our strike teams.  A mix of Infantrymen who provide the bulk of the manpower, mixed with a strong engineer capability who can assess and provide specialist skills to allow our team to complete a very broad range of tasks.

So far, this has included:

  • Clearing debris from paddocks of severely affected farmers in the Cobargo region, to allow them to re-sow crops to feed animals and maintain their livelihood.
  • Clearing roads and tracks of fallen trees and debris to allow traffic to safely get through.
  • Providing temporary repairs to fencing to prevent cattle from being able to walk onto the highways
  • Identifying jobs and tasks that are needed and other services may be able to provide and passing them through to the State Emergency Operations Centre for their awareness and allocation
  • Providing potable water to people that are short
  • Setting up and assisting with the running of distribution centres to get supplies to communities that need them
  • Liaising with remote communities who are still isolated to determine their needs and identify the opportunity to assist them
  • Assisting with bulk burial of animal carcasses where required to help with disease control

It is very satisfying work.

A military tractor is deployed in support of a fencing task my team were completing

 In many remote communities, people rely on the land for their income and many of these areas have been devastated by fire.  Fences no longer exist, crops have been burned, houses, sheds, and equipment destroyed.  In many places, electricity is out and they are running on generators, or have no power at all.

Just one of the properties that was destroyed in the fire, West of Bodalla, NSW.

It is going to take a long time for many of these areas to fully recover, and the Army isn’t going to fix this ourselves, but we have well-trained, fit, and highly motivated workforce that can get in and lend a hand.  Most importantly, we are giving people hope – reminding them that in their time of need, their government and their country hasn’t forgotten about them.

In the last few days I was responsible for a task at a farmer’s property, which had been devastated by fire, including the loss of cattle, and human life.  I had 26 people on the ground for the best part of 2 days to assist him clearing his property.  We helped clear  the road  on his property of debris, including  fallen and dangerous trees, as well as cleared debris from his paddocks, which will allow him to re-seed  the land to grow crops which will allow him to feed his remaining cows, and support their population recovery.

Members of my team clear a paddock of debris, to allow a farmer to commence sowing seed to provide food for his surviving dairy cattle.

Did we fix things for him? No – it will take a  very long time for farmers to recover from this.  But, if you think about it, our contribution was significant.  In 2 days, 26 people did the equivalent work of what he and his two offsiders could have done in a month (416 man hours of work).  And considering they have a working dairy farm and spend hours every day milking the cows, the work we did would have taken them much longer.

 Just t a few days assistance has helped relieve this farmer of an additional burden and barrier to him being able to move forward and recover from this devastation.

The team preparing chainsaws

Today, we helped another farmer who had lost his house.  He was hit by a falling tree last year, and is still recovering from his injuries, and now  his home is gone.  We helped him tidy up, removing burnt trees from around his shed, clearing gutters, and reducing the fuel load around what structures are still standing.  .  They are in desperate need of water to have any chance at recovering, so the Army will be sending over a bulk water tanker and a few people to help him water his surviving olive trees, and thus try to save what remains of his livelihood.

This farmer lost his house in the blaze, but his shed (not in the photo) survived. We helped to clear trees and debris from around the shed to prevent it being lost if the fire came back through
Chainsaw qualified members of my team clear trees from around the shed on the previously mentioned property

On another task, we cut through fences and cleared a path for an elderly man and his wife, who were living in tents.  This allowed them to bring a Caravan onto their property, which will become their permanent home for the foreseeable future.

In another job, following a day of fierce fires in the Bodalla area, we went out and assisted the local council clearing roads to ensure that residents could access their properties, or leave if threatened by fire again in the future.  At one point, my strike team cleared the path to a burned out house so Police could attend and conduct a search.

Another day, we helped an Arborist who lost everything in the fire, except his equipment.  He had spent the previous 2 weeks volunteering, helping others clear their properties, and now returned home to deal with his own property.  We made a massive difference, just getting things tidied up so he can start to rebuild.

members of my team helping tidy up at the property of an Arborist who was finally returning home after several weeks volunteering to help others clear their own properties.

The Army is making a meaningful contribution to the recovery efforts that the government and its Emergency Management and Response organisations are undertaking. I feel privileged to have the opportunity to help in a small but meaningful and personal way in a time of need.

A burned out tractor on a farmers property near Cobargo.
The farmer had a second tractor, which he used to fight the fire. It got so badly damaged by the fire that he needed to take parts off the burnt out tractor to try to make the one that survived operational again

In saying that, I’m in awe of the real heroes of this event – the volunteers.  The people who have selflessly provided support to their people.  I’m talking about everyone that has given their time for nothing in return – RFS volunteers, religious organisations, community groups and the like that recognised the need and helped, asking for nothing in return.  While the devastation and scale of this is horrendous, the actions of these people demonstrate the Aussie spirit is alive and well, and renew my faith in the good that still exists out there.  If you have helped in anyway, on behalf of some very grateful people, I say thank you.

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Comments 28

  1. The armed forces were called on from time to time during bushfires check your history. And unprecedented is a word that you journos use to much these days the build up of undergrowth set the precedent.!!

    1. Post
      Author

      Hi Janie, thanks for taking the time to share your opinion. You are right that the armed forces have been called on before, but prior to this they have never been ‘called out’ – the difference here is that this was a compulsory call out, not a ‘who is available.’ This is why the word unprecedented was used, because of the way the government enacted the Reserve. Hope this provides some context…

      1. Aiden, still wrong. Defence personnel used in the Strathbogie ranges fires. It was not volunteering, but under orders along with a few useless junior offices (that wanted to get people killed for no gain).

        I know because I was one of them that had the best part of a week away in what we wore, no sleeping arrangements (other than the ground), no food (other than what we could scrounge from CFS), no ablutions, only the water in the knapsacks (for fire fighting) or again what we could scrounge. Did i mention the assigned officer had a motel bed & 3 meals a day (none of its shared).

        Be very careful when you make wild statements – because thats just one of instances where defence staff have been ‘called out’ (more like ordered out) for firefighting related duties.

        1. Post
          Author

          Thanks for the comment Ozzy. That sounds like a very challenging environment which was handled poorly at best. Can you confirm that the Governor General enacted callout powers here – that is what I was referring to.

    2. Jamie, It is interesting and frustrating how some people go straight to the negative rather than the good. Pedantic and wrong. Check your facts before you post, from someone who does know. And by the way, well done to all of the ADF on the ground, in the air, at sea and behind the scenes.

  2. Thanks for the story. And thanks for joining the reserves in the first place. And thanks to club4x4 for supporting you as well.

  3. A great article to give people from the cities some idea of the great work done by army & all volunteers in assisting these poor folks who have suffered during the bush fires. It is nice to hear directly from someone involved, not rubbishy news paper articles. Good on you keep up the good work.

  4. Thanks to you and your team for your service, Aiden. We saved our house, sheds and machinery but the rest of the property is toast, orchards and all. Boundary and internal fences are gone and the fire was so intense some star pickets were burnt off at ground level. We are the lucky but well prepared ones in the district where twelve homes were lost including that of a very good friend two properties away.

  5. As a past Reservist from 60 years ago I enjoyed reading about the assistance you and your team have provided to many. Thanks and well done!

  6. Congratulation to all the defence force personal and the many volunteers who have provided so much support and relief to those affected. As you say this won’t fix the longer term problems but at least it is a start. Well done everyone.

  7. Great article. I have just returned from a week long stint in Logistics at the Orbost Incident Control Centre. I made sure that people were fed. I feel sorry for the ADF that were in our area. Hearing that a lot of their meals were from Ration Packs. I would send a lot of food that were surplus to our needs to provide them with a change where i could. The ADF were utilized for such tasks as you refer to. They were also assisting with the Bushmasters to provide access to areas that were unsafe for other vehicles with providing both materials in and People out safely. They were working with the Emergency Services providing much needed support that our people could not handle. Many thanks for all your help.

  8. just on a lighter note I also hope that you gave some potable water to tall people as well not just the short. keep doing the wonderful work you are doing wether you are reservists or regular army you are doing our country proud. I would like to buy you and your fellow workers a beer one day.

  9. Fantastic story, so good to read about the positive contribution being made by so many from the pen of one of those contributing. Thank you 🙂

  10. Proud to be an aussie and proud of our defence force people employing their skills and energy.
    Still hoping for the same commitment without the “whats in it for me” from our politicians !

  11. Well presented article Aiden. All three arms of the military, including the Reserves, are often taken for granted until a situation such as what we are faced with now occurs.
    Hope to catch up at QBN on the weekend.

    Cheers
    Greg

  12. Aidan, good article mate and well done on your support. One point on “unprecedented Call Out” it has been used before. I worked in defence in the DACC and DACP and just to confirm Cyclone Tracy Darwin and there has been a number of occasions inTownsville just to name a few.
    Keep up the good work
    Cheers
    Steve

  13. In East Gippsland the defence forces have been a huge help in supporting and helping our communities. Cant thank them enough

  14. Thanks for the article, and thanks for your help. It was great seeing so many Reservists in & around the Wangaratta evacuation centres, and up at the Ovens Staging Area.

  15. Great article Aidan – it’s times like this that the country pulls together to help restore and rebuild.

    Next time we catch up, there’s some beers in my fridge with your name on them!

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  17. Great effort to help those affected. My son is also a reservist and was deployed to Kangaroo Island. He said it was great to use skills learnt in the Army to help.

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