THE fires were little more than an orange blur on the horizon from Melanie Irons’ window.
Watching from the safety of her Hobart home in January this year, she felt the need to express her sympathy for those affected on Facebook — and offer help.
Unexpectedly, her online post quickly morphed into something bigger and within days the 28-year-old personal trainer was in command of a Facebook page with tens of thousands of followers, all eager to support those who lost their homes or livelihoods.
Ms Irons was a keynote speaker at an emergency services forum in Warrnambool yesterday designed to help the south-west prepare for disaster.
Much attention was on the recent phenomenon of volunteer armies springing into action via social media.
Nowhere was this more apparent than Christchurch following the 2011 earthquake where an estimated 10,000 students mobilised, clearing the streets of rubble.
Closer to home, more than a dozen community groups have formed in Kinglake alone since Black Saturday.
Organiser of yesterday’s Disaster Resilience, Recovery and Community Leadership Forum, Bernadette Northeast, said emergency services were still trying to find the best way to work with spontaneous groups of volunteers who suddenly appear at fires or other incidents, offering their help.
“It’s something we accept happens now. People want to help and they usually show up at a disaster scene offering their assistance. We’re considering how we’ll manage that,” Ms Northeast said.
Ms Irons explained how her group began very simply.
“I was babysitting on a Friday night. The fires had started on the Thursday and I was looking at things on Facebook,” Ms Irons said.
The response to the Facebook page she started caught her by surprise.
“It ended up with over 20,000 people following it,” she said. “I knew nothing at the start but in 24 hours I knew so much — people who were stranded, people who needed medication, people who said they didn’t want to leave their houses.”
The last major Tasmanian fires were in 1967 and people quickly reached a point of desperation for the townships of Dunalley, Boomer Bay and Murdunna.
“They were towns I couldn’t have pointed to on a map,” Ms Irons said.
That week she cancelled everything and set about saving homes and businesses and helping co-ordinate supplies to people cut off on the Tasman Peninsula.
An oyster farm on the brink of collapse because of power outage was saved after a post calling for electricians and three generators.
“If that hatchery had gone down there would have been 35 jobs lost and 100 businesses Australia-wide would have gone under and there would have been half the amount of oysters for the next few years,” Ms Irons said.
Another post managed to raise 50 vessels offering to drop supplies off to isolated towns. “My phone bill was about $3000,” she said.
Her case study raises questions about the accountability of one person commanding the trust of desperate people in times of disaster.
They are questions Ms Irons admits she doesn’t have answer for.
“I’m really glad I did it,” she said.
“During the fires and initial emergency I didn’t give that stuff a thought, the emergency services were so under the pump and there was so much to be done.”