Adelong BlazeAid prepares to work over winter

Adelong BlazeAid coordinator Steve Matthews standing with the new flat-pack accommodation provided by BlazeAid to house volunteers that do not have somewhere warm to stay whilst at camp.

It’s been six months since volunteer organisation BlazeAid set up camp in Adelong and began assisting fire-affected farmers with fence repair and rebuilding, and camp coordinator Steve Matthews says they are busy making preparations to work through winter.

Last week, the current group of volunteers cleared 3.8km of destroyed fence and built 4.5km of new fencing. Since setting up camp in January, a total of 253km of fencing has been cleared and 171km built, not including general repairs.

Mr Matthews said that the Covid-19 pandemic did throw a bit of a spanner in the works, but overall they are “doing okay.”

“We’re getting to a point where we can start more farms,” he said, the camp slowly coming out of strict lockdown regulations.

“We’re waiting on some of the guys who are picking apples at the moment still, so we’re just waiting for [them] and then we’ll have even more work.

“They’ve already signed up [to have their fences replaced], it’s just we’d get in the way of any work.”

Mr Matthews said that current volunteer numbers are “a little bit less” than what they were during the pandemic lockdown, which saw volunteers bunker down in Adelong until the worst of the virus had passed.

On Wednesday, he had 20 volunteers working in teams across five properties.

“It varies because we’ve got a couple of volunteers that come Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday from Tumut, we have some volunteers that pop in from Wagga for two or three days …[and] there’s one that comes each Wednesday from Wagga,” Mr Matthews said.

“They just come and help out and keep the numbers up.”

As winter approaches, Mr Matthews is hoping that volunteer numbers will remain steady, the aim being to work through all remaining properties by late this year, or early next year.

“If we can keep enough numbers over winter and keep the camp open, there were talks about [completing the work] late this year or early next year,” he said.

“But I’ve really only been at it a month and we’re really only just starting to get an idea of where we’re up to.”

Mr Matthews took over as camp coordinator in early May, as previous coordinator Christine Male left to join her husband at a different BlazeAid camp. Mr Matthews did two weeks of volunteering in Adelong in January, and has worked on-and-off since then.

“I hadn’t built a fence before January, didn’t know anything,” he laughed.

“[Christine] asked me if I would [be coordinator], and I couldn’t refuse.”

Mr Matthews is enjoying the role of coordinator, but admits he would “rather be out on the fences than sitting in front of the computer working.”

His main priority right now is securing some more vehicles for volunteers, and trying to get more backpackers on board to help out.

“Backpackers generally don’t come with cars and so … BlazeAid’s in the process of buying as many cars as they can find,” he said. They are after 4WDs with less than 300,000km’s that can tow trailers. Tumbarumba and Tooma BlazeAid camps are also trying to get more vehicles, as they have more backpackers there.

“I’m lucky that I’ve got some people here with 4WDs and it’s sort of okay sometimes,” he said.

The Adelong camp are also still getting a lot of use out of the 4WD that Tumut Toyota loaned them earlier this year.

“Without that we would be in real trouble, Tumut Toyota have been fantastic,” Mr Matthews said.

In terms of backpackers, Mr Matthews said that due to the Covid-19 pandemic he is having to be selective of who he accepts into the camp.

“We’ve got one backpacker, he was a fruit picker in Batlow, and then we’ve got another two that were in Griffith at a winery,” he said.

“For us, we like people to come if they’ve had a [Covid-19] test and they’ve got the COVIDSafe app, and where they’ve been and what they’ve been doing is very important before I’ll say, okay, we’ll have you.

“If I want backpackers I’ve got to be very selective with who I take.” Mr Matthews has so far taken on board backpackers who have already been working in the region because they’re familiar with the area, and given the region is mostly free of Covid-19, any backpackers are “likely to be free of Covid” too.

All in all, Mr Matthews said the BlazeAid experience continues to be a very positive one.

“Everybody we call, everybody we talk to and when the guys go to the shop along the main street, everybody is very supportive of BlazeAid. It’s been really really good.”

The practiced volunteers who have been there since the beginning are also developing excellent fence-building skills.

“The guys who have been here for a while, they’re certainly very good at [building] fences,” Mr Matthews said.

“Some of the local farmers around Adelong and Yaven are sort of just going wow, this is a really good fence.”

The volunteers have also been feeling very lucky to receive visits from the Governor General, Anthony Albanese and Eden-Monaro candidate Kristy McBain, as well as regular visits from Snowy Valleys mayor James Hayes.

With significant job losses experienced across the country due to Covid-19, Mr Matthews wants to welcome any locals who have found themselves with some free time to the Adelong camp to lend a hand on local properties.

“Any volunteers in Tumut, Batlow and Adelong that maybe haven’t got a job and they want to do something, we’ve got work here,” he said.

“They can learn to put a fence up if they haven’t done it before.”