Mending fences, and much more

Ken Thomas at one of the farms where fences were rebuilt by the Adelong BlazeAid camp.

Tuesday marked the final day of the Adelong BlazeAid camp, with a number of local volunteers finishing up close to 18 months on the ground, helping rebuild fences for their neighbours.

Ken Thomas has lived in the area since 1972, but said the experience gave him the opportunity to meet farmers and to see parts of the region which he’d never seen before.

“It’s a little bit disappointing,” he said, reflecting on the closing of the camp.

“I’m retired, so I’ve got things to do in the shed, but I’m missing the farmers, I suppose, and the people I worked with over the time.”

Mr Thomas said he joined the camp just a few weeks after it first opened in January 2020, sharing a car with another local volunteer, Ron Pearce, each morning. 

The hot days and the cold days took their toll, as he spent two to three days each week helping to rebuild fences after the devastating 2019/20 Dunns Rd fire, but he said the saddest part was when Covid forced many of the BlazeAid workers and volunteers to go home.

“It was a good thing to do, helping people out,” he said.

“They all appreciated it. It’ll help them get on their feet.”

Aside from the human aspect of rebuilding fences and supporting farmers who’d been burnt out, Mr Thomas said he was surprised to see how beautiful some of the more hidden parts of the Snowy Valleys are.

“We saw a lot of country that we would never have been able to see without knowing the farmers,” he said.

“The lady we went to yesterday was up at Tumba, and her property goes up on top of a hill and the view there into Victoria and back towards Kosciuszko is fabulous, absolutely fabulous. There’s no two ways to describe it. 

“Stuff like that you don’t see from the road so much, and unless you know the people, you can’t get onto the property. Unless you know the people that have the property, you don’t know the view’s there, either.

“Even the Yaven Creek Road, the other side of Adelong, you get onto the properties there and go up the hill and the view’s absolutely fantastic. Unless you know the farmer you don’t know the view’s there.”

Mr Thomas had a background on the land, growing up between Ardlethan and Griffith, building fences and general farm work for his parents, so the work wasn’t a shock to him, but he said the fencing game has “moved ahead” since he was young, “and the things we’re doing today, my father would never have done. 

“He would have loved some of the equipment today that he never had!”

Ron Pearce said his first weeks with the camp were a learning curve, having grown up as a “townie”, but he’s learned some new skills and is proud to have been part of the effort.

“The first couple of weeks was a lot of work knocking down fences, knocking down and rolling up wire, getting covered in black stuff,” he remembered.

“It was a bit sad in some ways. There were little animals that had been burnt to a cinder and we found some of them odd times, but at the end of a day, we just got on with the work.”

Mr Pearce said the weather was often a challenge, with days spent working in ankle-deep mud to put in a fence or through wind or heat or rain.

“It’s been great. We’ve had a lot of fun. I believe in making things as light hearted as you possibly can, and if you can have a bit of fun, we make sure we do,” he said.

With grandchildren around, Mr Pearce said he felt that it was time to close the camp and devote more time to family, but said he’ll miss the friends he’s made.

“I’ll miss the contact with some of the farmers,” said Mr Pearce.

“We made friends with a lot of farmers. I’ve got an appointment in a couple of weeks to take our four year old grandson out to have a look at some tiny little lambs out at a property at Wondalga. I’ve got places now where I’ve been invited to go get firewood whenever I want to.”

Besides building fences, Mr Pearce said the volunteers were able to provide relational support to the farmers. He shared the story of one man he met early in his work, who had lost everything except his house.

“He just said, ‘Look, I don’t know where to start.’ In a way, he was one of the lucky ones, because he hadn’t lost his house, but he lost every bit of fence on the place. 

“Our team leader just said, ‘Well what’s the most important fence you’ve got?’ He said the bit along the main road, so we started there.”

The crew returned each time, to ask the farmer for the next most important piece of fencing until the work was done.

“His demeanour just changed overnight, just by having someone to talk to,” said Mr Pearce.

“Our coordinator used to say, ‘If you go out and you spend two hours building a fence and two hours talking to the farmer because he wants to talk, or listening to the farmer, that’s as important as building a fence.’”

During the worst of the Covid lockdowns, the Tumut volunteers were locked out of the Adelong and Tumbarumba camps, but Mr Pearce and Mr Thomas were loaned a vehicle and operated a satellite camp out of Tumut, finishing jobs in Wondalga. 

Mr Pearce said he was impressed with the level of work put in by all the BlazeAid volunteers.

“We had an old bloke called Bert that was our team leader quite a bit. He was there from January through to November and he was working probably six days a week,” he said.

“I saw his contribution as being more than what I was putting in, and I felt that this is my community, where he was from Melbourne, so he was contributing to a community in a different state, even.”

Mr Pearce said he isn’t likely to travel that far to join future BlazeAid camps, since his family is all around Tumut, but he’d be eager to volunteer again if it was needed locally.

“Hopefully it never will happen again in this area or any area, but if it happened again in this area, I’d be the first to put my hand up,” he said.