By Sandi Grieve, CEO & Nurse Practitioner Rural and Remote, Walwa Bush Nursing Centre
Our Victorian home of Walwa has been impacted by devastating bushfires three times – we have had fire threatening the township, burning surrounding properties and decimating our beautiful part of the world.
The first fire on 30 December came through the valley in which I live and burnt out most of the farms. The Country Fire Authority (CFA) and Department of Environment, Land, Water & Planning (DELWP) firefighters managed to save every occupied home but we lost eight unoccupied residences and with them, a huge amount of local history.
I was unable to get home that night, as I stayed to provide care to a number of firefighters who had sustained burns. By the time I thought about heading home the road was blocked. I received increasingly distressing texts from my husband who was at home defending our property and stock by himself.
The last text before we lost all communication across the district showed a tanker coming up the drive but the fire only metres from our door. It was three days before I could finally get home and assure myself I still had a house and a husband and all the dogs, cats and horses.
My neighbours did not fare as well, losing a huge number of stock and all of their pasture. This was the beginning of 10 days without power and almost no mobile or electronic communication capacity.
The next fire occurred on Friday and Saturday the 5-6th of January. The police were extremely forthright in their attempts to evacuate us, insisting on listing our next of kin “so they knew who to call when we were burnt to death”.
Sadly, the miscommunication between New South Wales and Victoria meant they couldn’t tell us how to evacuate, only that we had to. So, some people were sent into road blocks and had to turn and come back. Lots of people simply couldn’t leave.
If we’d evacuated and left cattle without pasture and no indication of when we could return, the cows would have starved, leaving not only a huge biosecurity issue but also 50 or so businesses completely ruined.
While we completely understood the need for evacuation and the likelihood that these orders have kept the death toll relatively low across the country during these fires, the difficulty will always lie in the inability to accurately predict when people can return.
If we knew for sure, we could have fed out the stock and evacuated for 24 hrs. But the roads still remained closed 14 days after the first fires, so it’s not as easy as just getting out of harm’s way.
The fires that impacted us on the second occasion were probably the scariest thing I have ever endured, with 30 metre flames and 100km winds. There were more stock losses and more homes lost. If it was just a matter of getting out, I would have gone with a minute’s notice!
The final “spike day” was Friday 17 January, with 40 degree temperatures, low humidity and strong winds.
Fire once again threatened homes and lives and while evacuation would have been a great choice, we simply couldn’t just up and leave. While the farmers had to stay, we also stayed to support them and provide emergency care.
Despite all of this fire activity, there is still a bit of unburnt country around. Those who are lucky enough to still have some grass are looking jealously at those who don’t because at least if you are burnt out, there is less risk of burning again. At the same time, those with burnt-out paddocks are envious of those who have grass and stock feed – but we are all working together.
We have limited communications now and, via Auscorp-installed generators, we now have some power in town. Properties out of town however are completely reliant on their own generator power, and fuel supplies are critical.
We are yet to be able to completely guarantee a source. Sometimes we can get fuel from the army, sometimes Ambulance Victoria organised it, on other occasions it has been the NSW RFS. The big challenge is the amount of uncertainty, which makes it tough to plan.
The Walwa Bush Nursing Centre (BNC) has been acting in the role of relief centre, despite not being designated as such. We have been doing 60-80 meals per day, divided between firefighters, DELWP staff and local residents.
We have had a number of community members sleeping on site as they have either been unable to get home due to road blocks or were too scared to go home. Those who did evacuate and have now come back have found a stench in their homes due to defrosted freezers and 40 degree temperatures.
The period following the evacuation order and the road opening to locals was just long enough for the contents of fridges and freezers to become horrific. Of course, our local council wasn’t able to get into town initially and subsequently with any regularity, so bins were full of rotting produce. We’ve had a queue for our shower, as many cannot heat or pump water. We’ve had CFA and DELWEP staff sleeping on site as well.
The protracted and recurrent nature of this disaster has been particularly challenging. Within 24 hours we realised our disaster plan was horribly inadequate.
We have been incredibly thankful for volunteers that have continued to drive up the NSW side of the road to bring us supplies. There is one amazing woman and her partner who have literally turned up every day since the 31st with donated supplies. We became dependent on them, as the movement of official organisations and services was stymied by the road blocks in Victoria.
We continue to see a steady stream of minor injuries and issues. I spent hours writing and faxing prescriptions to people who evacuated without medications before learning that the pharmacy guild is allowing to supply without scripts for this period.
We have had very few emergencies but are aware there are countless farmers out there nursing injuries and illness for fear we will send them away to get care.
Many of our staff were either evacuated or stopped from returning to town by road blocks, so we are relying on volunteers in many of our normal roles. We are only lucky we didn’t see any emergencies during the 5 days we had zero communications as we were unable to even call 000 during that time.
I am incredibly lucky that our Community Emergency Response Team team leader is in town. She has literally been my rock, doing daily welfare checks with me, delivering groceries to out of town properties, collecting burnt dogs and cats and taking them to the vet, and helping comfort the many people who’ve cried collectively on our shoulders. She has barely left my side since the 30th of December and has been a sensational help.
We have cooked huge lunches for the firefighters before they head out on the road – this has become our new normal.
I have also been extremely thankful that the doctor who was our local GP for 30 years before heading off to the north for some adventures has returned home to provide assistance.
We have seen some amazing good as well as the challenges. The generosity of people astounds me. My home is currently running along, hard wired into a generator that was donated. Four of these generators turned up on a truck specifically for this job, along with a commitment to pay the electrician for hard wiring them for critical staff. The total cost was probably $15,000 and we are doubtful we will ever find out who donated them.
The groceries that have arrived from private individuals as well as big companies has been overwhelming. When our cool room chucked it in, a huge semi-trailer cool room arrived and was left for our use.
NSW fire service heard we were in trouble for fuel and kept supplies up to us until we could make more permanent arrangements.
Long running family feuds have evaporated as people have supported each other and fought fires side by side.
Before the Pantech turned up, the Ambulance Victoria paramedic in Corryong “borrowed” a trailer cool room from the local high school and got it to us. We had to take an angle grinder to the padlock but we promise we will replace it!
For now, it looks like we have a reprieve in weather and maybe more rain on the way, so we can regroup and start planning for what has become our new normal.
Once again, thanks to everyone for the messages of support and offers of help.
My incredibly heartfelt sympathies to Anne Brewer (Nurse Manager from Buchan BNC) who has continued to send me messages of support and enquire after me, even though she is in a significantly worse situation, having lost her home.
Love and kisses also to those other BNCs impacted by these fires. Bloody lucky we are a tough bunch!
Sean Rooney, CEO, Leading Age Services Australia:
“The work of Walwa’s Bush Nursing Centre is one of many heroic stories that have emerged from this summer’s bushfire disaster, with the dedication of our health and aged care staff echoing the epic achievements of firefighters, community members and the defence force.
“Thankfully, we have not seen any loss of life in aged care or retirement villages.
“Not only do our hearts go out to those affected but our hearts swell with pride for the capacity of our amazing care workforce to go above and beyond, to ensure residents’ safety.
“Often, they chose to forsake protection of their own homes and properties to stay by the sides of those in their care.
“To all care services staff across the country, we are proud of you and the positive difference you make in the lives of those you care for and support.”