Highlighting the work of women during the Dunns Road Fire: IWD 2020

Rebecca Dean defending a property in Adelong, her hometown

The Dunns Road Fire that swept through the Snowy Valleys region during December and January caused unprecedented devastation to the region. The blaze, which later turned into a mega-fire, burnt close to half of the Snowy Valleys Council area – 44.9 per cent of 895,744 hectares.

Homes were lost, livestock were killed, equipment was destroyed, livelihoods were threatened, and physical and emotional scars remain that will take quite some time to heal.

There is a famous quote by American television personality Fred Rogers which reads: “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’”

The amount of people who put their hand up to help during the fires cannot be understated; those who wanted to ‘look for the helpers’ did not have to look very hard at all. From comforting a neighbour or lending a hand to a friend, all the way to bravely battling mammoth blazes at the firefront, Snowy Valleys residents and visitors alike stepped up like never before.

In honour of International Women’s Day that took place on Sunday, March 8, the Tumut and Adelong Times is highlighting eight women who were instrumental during the fire efforts – just a few of the thousands upon thousands of hardworking, brave souls who made a difference, no matter the personal toll.

Rebecca with her father Tony Dean, Deputy Captain of the Adelong Brigade, after a long day of fighting fires together.

Next generation of firiesmore determined than ever

For many seasoned firefighters, the Dunns Road Fire was amongst the worst of blazes they had experienced in a career spanning decades. For 18-year-old Rebecca Dean and 17-year-old Mia Hardwick, it was certainly a frightening and challenging disaster to face at such a young age.

Firefighting runs in the blood of both of these Adelong-raised young women, who have known each other since Kindergarten and been close friends for years.

Ms Dean’s father was Captain of the Adelong Brigade when she first joined the RFS as a cadet at age 12, and her grandfather had also been Brigade Captain in the past. Ms Hardwick also comes from a long line of firefighters, with her father, grandfather and great-grandfather all having volunteered with the RFS during their lives.

Although the Adelong Brigade has many women involved who each perform important, vital tasks, Ms Dean is one of just two women who go out to the firefront and battle the blazes.

“As a member of the Adelong Brigade we were going out all the time since [the fire] actually first ignited,” she said.

“We had a day shift crew and a night shift crew.”

Ms Dean began working at the firefront on the second day of the Dunns Road fire and “didn’t stop since then.”

“I’d do a day shift and then sleep and go out the next day and just continue with everyone,” she said.

As the fire grew closer to town, firies were placed at different locations defending properties, houses, sheds and more. Ms Dean went wherever she was stationed, and was glad that she was often placed with her Dad.

Ms Dean said that it’s “pretty cool” to be one of the only girls in her Brigade that goes out on the trucks, but she also likes being able to meet other women from other Brigades while on the field.

“It’s nice, we get together and introduce ourselves and eat together when we [had] time to, that kind of stuff,” she said.

“[Firefighting is] often looked at as a male orientated type of thing, but you know, girls are just as capable as men to be able do that,” she said.

“Yes you’ve got to be strong and sometimes you’ve got to be really brave, but anyone can do it.”

Ms Dean would love to see more women on the frontlines, and explained how there are unique situations where women can really step up.

During the Dunns Road Fire she arrived at one property where one of the women was breaking down, the experience taking a very real toll on her.

“I took that into my job to calm her down and get her settled and then explain to her what was going to happen, [that] the fire was coming straight for her house,” Ms Dean said.

“We ended up saving [her house] but it was more that nurturing role in a way, just relieving some of that anxiety from this lady who was really worried.”

For Ms Dean, the fire was life changing experience. To go out and face such a devastating, ginormous fire at any age is a huge feat, but especially at 18. The fire has not deterred her away from future RFS work, however – she is more determined than ever to lend a hand and get more young people involved.

“I’ve just moved to Bateman’s Bay for university so I’m going to end up being a dual member, so I’ll be in the Adelong Brigade and the Malua Bay Brigade as well,” she said, “so that will definitely be something to continue on.”

Ms Dean is coming back to Adelong this month for the All Together Adelong event, where she plans to have the Brigade truck out on display, recruiting people to volunteer.

“The only young people we have are the next generation of the people that are already there,” she said, explaining the need to branch out and get new faces involved.

There is a real need for young, energetic people to get involved, who can be partnered with the more seasoned firefighters who have decades worth of knowledge and experience that cannot be taught.

“It’s about building up that next generation of firefighters.”

This is an issue that Ms Hardwick is also passionate about. When the fires happened she hadn’t completed her basics training yet, so she was really instrumental in helping in the Adelong Brigade shed with supplies, logistics, catering, and just any task that needed to be done.

Everyday people flooded the shed with donations of food and supplies, so Ms Hardwick helped sort the food into snack packs for the firies alongside other volunteers, including wives of Brigade members who often had to go back-and-forth between volunteering and caring for their children.

Ms Hardwick had “little helpers” in the shed, daughters of Brigade members, who she says were a massive help with preparing the snack packs. Ms Dean’s little sister Michaela who is in early high school, and another young girl Matilda in Year 6, both worked hard to keep the Brigade members fed and energised. Ms Hardwick can see them both continuing to play a role with the RFS as they grow older.

Ms Hardwick said there are definitely positives and negatives to knowing all the members of your Brigade so well.

“Our community is so cute and small and tight-knit and so it was really good to have everyone checking up on everyone else,” she said.

“I think that having people in the Brigade that you know really well was also kind of scary because you’re always worried about them, especially when I couldn’t be out there.”

The positives definitely outweigh the negatives, and both girls said the experience only made their Brigade closer.

 “It definitely brought our whole brigade together,” Ms Dean said, “it’s more of a family now.

“I’m hoping that we can encourage some more people to sign up especially in Adelong where we are a tiny little brigade.”

Inter-agency approach key to battling blaze

Louise Bourke (left) alongside Ellen Kromar (right), both of Forestry Corporation, following a successful backburn operation that took place before the Dunns Road Fire.

When those living outside of fire-affected areas think of firefighters, they might think of the RFS, or other similar firefighting services in each state. What the Dunns Road Fire demonstrated is that catastrophes like this require robust, inter-agency coordination, and that there are a variety of firefighting services aside from just the RFS – such as Forestry Corporation.

Forestry Corporation NSW is the largest manager of commercial and native plantation forests in NSW. Staff members undertake a vast array of roles, but a requirement of the job is that everyone is also a trained firefighter.

Louise Bourke, Harvesting and Roading Manager, has been with Forestry for 15 years and in this role for two, engaging harvesting contractors and making sure the roading network is ready to operate 24/7.

Ellen Kromar is a Harvesting Supervisor in Louise’s team, working to plan and implement harvesting operations. She is currently hard at work on salvage harvesting of burnt logs.

Lisa Davies has been with Forestry full-time for 18 years now. She has been working as a Softwoods Project Coordinator for 12 months, but about four months of that has been focused on fire efforts instead.

Tess Courtney works primarily in modelling which includes long-term planning of what the forest can produce, what products can be produced, where these products will come from, as well as managing harvesting and roading schedules.

When the Dunns Road Fire hit, everyone in Forestry dropped their day jobs and focused on fire efforts 100 per cent. The first staff member to return to their regular duties was around three weeks after the fire first began.

“It changed completely,” Louise said. “None of us were doing our day jobs at all.

“Because of the severity of the fires all of our forests were officially closed [and] all of our operations closed down.”

Louise and Tess were both on standby the week the fire started. They went onto duty on December 28 and by new years, every single person was involved in the efforts.

“You’re in the field, or you’re on the radios, or you’re organising meals, or you’re organising your people, whether you’re fixing vehicles, taking the weather, tracking helicopters, its all part of the fire efforts,” Louise said.

Tess had the mammoth task of coordinating and rostering all of the 200 staff members involved.

“One of my first jobs when it all started was starting to just ring people on leave [and say] come back, you’ve gotta come back, its time to come back,” she said.

Louise said that Tess, Lisa and herself all started out working in Tumut’s Forestry office in the Snowy Valleys Council building on various logistical tasks when the fire began, and Ellen started out in the field.

Ellen said that during situations such as the Dunns Road Fire “if you look at the big picture it’s far too overwhelming so you definitely take it day by day.”

Out in the field she took it one day at a time, crossing off tasks and following orders. Louise explained that when you are working from the office, however, it is impossible to escape the overwhelming big picture.

“[On the field] you’re not aware of this huge massive big picture like you are when you’re in here,” she explained.

”Its very overwhelming, talking about what’s going to go wrong,” Tess said.

The three women worked on various logistical tasks including radio support and communications between incident management downstairs, Forestry, and the people on the ground.

Louise doesn’t have a lot of great memories from the first eight days of the fire when she was working from the offices, planning for the worst case scenarios. Although there have been so many wonderful moments where the community has come together and supported one another, it is important to remember just how devastating the fires were and the impact they had on those involved at every level.

One thing that did keep the women going was the constant cooperation and support not only from within their organisation but from other agencies. Forestry worked very close with the RFS, especially considering their offices are in the same building. They also worked closely with National Parks, the SES, contractors and heavy plant operators, as well as their own harvesting and haulage contractors. There were also strike teams that arrived from New Zealand, Canada and America to lend a hand.

“It was an incredible interagency effort,” Louise said.

Around August last year, Forestry deployed a lot of their workers to fight fires around the country, including the north coast. Many of the people they had fought alongside in these locations returned the favour, lending a hand during the Dunns Road Fire.

“To actually see the same faces come back and come to help us when we needed it was pretty special,” Louise said.

Louise explained that everyone is working really hard towards the clean-up and recovery effort now, using it as a “new focus” and “new vision.”

On her frequent drives to Batlow, Ellen has had ‘everyday celebrations’ seeing the green sprouting back amongst all the burnt trees and land, watching the orchards open again and fences be rebuilt, as well as the huge turnout for Tumbafest, and Courabyra wines being booked out.

Local knowledge made behind-the-scenes fire efforts possible

During the Dunns Road Fire, RFS volunteer Donna Martin worked alongside the logistics team to problem solve things that were a bit outside the box or required a local solution.

As the Dunns Road Fire made its way through the Snowy Valleys region during the new year and firefighters worked day and night, days in a row to keep the blaze at bay, if there was food that needed to be prepared, documents that needed to be delivered or any logistical task that had to be done, big or small, it was common to hear people say, ‘ask Donna.’

Secretary of the Tumut Brigade, Donna Martin stepped up during the Dunns Road Fire to support the Logistics team, becoming the unofficial ‘how will I get this done’ person.

Mrs Martin has volunteered with fire services in various states since she first put her hand up in 1983 as a 16-year-old living on a farm in Western Victoria. Her first big fire experience was that year when Ash Wednesday tore through South Australia, becoming the deadliest bushfire in Australian history until the Black Saturday fires hit in 2009.

When asked what made her want to begin volunteering, she said she “[doesn’t] think it was ever a decision.”

“I think you were just a person of a certain age and you lived on a farm and you became a fire person, a volunteer firie,” Mrs Martin said.

“Because it had to be done, you know, it’s not a luxury.

“You learn to drive a car and you don’t get in the car and think, god damn it, I’ve been driving a car for forty years. You don’t do that. So this is a bit the same, you just do what you do.”

In early January as the Dunns Road Fire grew, ash coating the air and the severity of its size becoming more and more evident, Mrs Martin was taken back to her first big fire experience.

“It tasted like, smelt like, looked like, felt like Ash Wednesday,” she said.

“Everything about it was like being 16 again.”

Mrs Martin’s vast network of contacts was invaluable during the Dunns Road Fire, with her local knowledge partnering perfectly with the expertise of the Logistics team who were made up of predominantly serving RFS staff. She admitted that until this disaster hit – “Armageddon”, as she called it – even she didn’t realise the extent of her contacts.

The Sunday after Batlow burnt, January 5, Mrs Martin got a phone call just after seven o’clock at night from the Logistics team asking if she could possibly do “one last miracle” and get them 400 sandwiches before 6am the next morning.

At the time, Mrs Martin was sitting outside the Boys Club Hall on Fitzroy Street where the Football club was unloading the first recovery container that had arrived from Canberra.

Tired after working non-stop for days on end, Mrs Martin began wondering how she could make this happen and get the sandwiches made. She knew she could get people on board to help, and buy protein from Coles because it was still open, but the bread was her main concern.

“Where will I get 50 loaves of bread on a Sunday night at twenty past seven in Tumut?” she wondered.

Suddenly, she had an idea – she began scrolling through her contacts on her phone, planning to call 50 women she knew and ask each of them to defrost a loaf of bread from their freezer.

Just as she was about to begin this ambitious task, someone who had been unloading the recovery container called out to her, shouting, “Donna Martin, did you want bread?”

Lo and behold, 72 freshly baked loaves of bread sat in the container, more than enough to make sandwiches for the next morning.

“I rang some women, bought some protein, made some sandwiches,” Mrs Martin said.

“The universe provides.”

Despite not having to ask 50 women to defrost bread from their freezer after all, this demonstrates Mrs Martin’s ability to think outside the box and get stuff done during difficult times.

“Sometimes its just dreaming up a different way to do the same thing, and there’s no training for that, I just wing it,” she said.

It was not uncommon for the experienced volunteer to go above-and-beyond when someone needed something, no matter how big or small.

Because of the amount of fires in Australia, there were no more ‘rat packs’, or ration packs, to be ordered in – they were all gone. Along with a group of other women, including Emma Toohey who was the primary organiser and manager of the effort, a catering initiative was formed in which around 13,000 snack packs were put together for firefighters and other volunteers.

Bags upon bags filled with snacks packs for firies, lovingly made by volunteers. Each bag pictured contains around 100 packs each.

All of the food was provided by Coles (who donated over $10,000 worth of supplies) and Woolworths, as well as members of the community who donated groceries and cooked goods in abundance.

“We started out really little and then it morphed and it grew and it morphed and it grew and we had to relocate,” Mrs Martin said, “and we got to the point where there was a production line of women and men packing snack packs.” Individuals would put one muesli bar in a pack, pass it along to the fruit person, pass it along to the drink person, and on it went.

One family even donated 100 packs they had put together themselves, with hand-written notes from their children in each pack. One note read: “You guys are bloody legends. My mum said I could say bloody.”

Every day people would be walking in and out of the snack pack venue, wanting to donate supplies or their time – or both. As people arrived and left, they often said to Donna, ‘if you need anything, let me know’, and she took people up on these offers multiple times.

“One woman said that to me and I went, actually I do,” Mrs Martin said.

“She’s a great cook and she’s got a network of elder women who are great cooks.

“Four hours later there were deep freezers set up in the camp kitchen at the caravan park full of food for firefighters who hadn’t eaten that they could defrost and microwave and eat, and these women did everything.

“They got the freezers, they did the food, they kept restocking it, and I just passed it off.”

Mrs Martin said that every single person she asked went out of their way to help or assist with whatever they could.

“I think its really important that as a community we remember how great we were,” Mrs Martin said, reflecting on just how much the community rallied together during the fires.

“Cause we were, we were great.”

Although Mrs Martin was not born and raised in the area, moving here in 2005, she said that she feels like a daughter of Tumut.

“Tumut’s got something pretty special about it,” she said.

“When you back us into a corner, watch out, cause everyone’s going to get on the same team and I think that’s what we saw happen.”