Blaze Aid volunteers help to rebuild fences after the St Patrick's Day fires

A veil of smoke still hangs across the paddocks bordering Lake Elingamite like mist, wisps still coming from the ongoing peat fires.

Burnt Out: Blaze Aid volunteers help to clear burnt fences from an Elingamite farm, after the St Patrick's Day fires. Picture: Rob Gunstone

Burnt Out: Blaze Aid volunteers help to clear burnt fences from an Elingamite farm, after the St Patrick's Day fires. Picture: Rob Gunstone

The smell of the St Patrick's Day fires still lingers.

Cobden truck driver Tim Walsh directs his team of Blaze Aid volunteers to the fenceline they are going to take down. Although he has only been volunteering on the project for four days, his previous experience as a farmer shows.

“They can’t put the new ones up while the old ones are still laying there,” Mr Walsh said referring to the kilometres of damaged fences.

Mr Walsh, who had taken time off work to help, intends helping a few days each month. “I’ve been working away, and come home because of the fires,” he said.

Grateful: Elingamite farmer Keith Smith is very relieved to have Blaze Aid volunteers help to rebuild his burnt fences. Picture: Rob Gunstone

Grateful: Elingamite farmer Keith Smith is very relieved to have Blaze Aid volunteers help to rebuild his burnt fences. Picture: Rob Gunstone

Blaze Aid Cobden camp coordinator Chris Male, and her husband, John, have seen it all before. They have been volunteering with the group for four years.

Started after the devastating Black Saturday fires in 2009, Blaze Aid now works across Australia to help rebuild fences after any type of natural disaster.

Mrs Male likes that Blaze Aid works at “the coal face”, directly with the farmers that have been impacted by the disaster event.

At the morning briefing, Mrs Male reminded volunteers that mending fences was only part of their role.

“If (the farmer) wants to stop and talk for an hour, then stop and talk for an hour,” Mrs Male said. “The fence has been down for this long, another day won’t matter.”

Being ready to listen, to let the farmers know that they are not alone, was just as powerful.

“If we meet each other halfway with whatever it is that these people are facing, it makes them feel better about themselves,” Mrs Male said.

Elingamite farmer Keith Smith is grateful for the assistance rebuilding his six-acre farm.

Helping: Blaze Aid volunteer Tim Walsh talks to Elingamite farmer Keith Smith about the work that he needs to have done. Picture: Rob Gunstone

Helping: Blaze Aid volunteer Tim Walsh talks to Elingamite farmer Keith Smith about the work that he needs to have done. Picture: Rob Gunstone

The family home, built by Mr Smith’s father in 1932, is still standing. Everything else, including a collection of vintage cars and tractors, was destroyed.

The 30 sheep kept in the paddocks have been moved to a neighbour’s property where there is still some feed and fences.

Mr Smith said Blaze Aid volunteers were wonderful. “It gets you up and going, a lot less stress,” he said.

His daughter Tracey Cotton was appreciative.

“It’s like having an extended family,” she said. “You can’t put into words how awesome this is.”

She had been worried about how they would cope with rebuilding by themselves. “This restores your faith in humanity,” she said.

Her father agrees.

“There are a lot more good people than bad ones,” Mr Smith said. “And this is where you see it come out.”

  • The Standard's photographer Rob Gunstone has spent two days volunteering his time with Blaze Aid and compiled this piece while helping out the recovery effort.