Throughout spring and summer, Australia has been burning. Although every state has a bushfire season, the scale of devastation and areas impacted during the 2019-2020 fire season have been unprecedented.
Nearly 12 million hectares land have burnt, killing 33 people and an estimated 1.5 billion native animals, destroying thousands of homes.
And alongside nature’s destruction we’ve witnessed amazing feats. Communities banding together, people helping other people and helping animals.
With emergency services completely overstretched, grass roots organisations have formed, and individuals have pulled out all the stops to help those in need.
One such example is the Gippsland Horse and Stock Safe – Bushfire Assistance. Established around five years ago by a local equestrian business owner Kelly van den Berg to help horse people help each other during a disaster, this Facebook page became a centre point in terms of bushfire relief for the horse community during the Bunyip and Yinnar fires in March last year and became a force for good to be reckoned with during this summer’s catastrophe.
An Equestrian Australia coach with a journalism background, I spoke to Kelly about the organisation, their achievements and what the future might hold for the Gippsland communities.
“The Bunyip and Yinara fires were pretty horrific but compared with what we are experiencing now, it was just a drop in the ocean” says Kelly.
“It’s hard to gauge the scale of the impact of what’s happening [in Gippsland] unless you see it for yourself. It’s one case in which the media sensationalism isn’t depicting the scale and real state of what’s going on, the long-term effects.”
The group quickly responded to the escalating needs of their community by expanding their efforts from supporting just horse owners to all stock owners.
“We recognised we needed to help any farmer with stock” she continues. “Many of the farms in East Gippsland have been in a three-year drought, they were already on the bones of their backsides, farms were already struggling for feed” says Kelly.
In a tragic chain of events, while many areas of Gippsland had received their share of winter rain last year and had a good hay production, the vast majority of the stockpiles of feed and forage that would see farmers through until next winter have gone up in flames.
“In a lot of cases, farmers have lost property, equipment, tractors, they’ve lost parts of their herd, some have lost all their herd, and they’ve lost their hay sheds, their feed, so our group is addressing their immediate emergency. “But the real emergency is the ongoing months ahead. I’m not really confident that a lot of farmers are going to actually recover from this” says Kelly.
The team’s efforts have highlighted a huge a needs gap between the response of emergency services and the recovery support efforts from government departments and charity organisations.
Kelly says that while it is understandable that the priority is given to protecting people and assets (in that order), the importance of animals and livestock deserves to be reviewed – not least because fires impact on rural communities that are farming based, and therefore, impact directly on farmers whose lifestyle, livelihoods and lives are intrinsically tied around their livestock.
“Our main focus is supporting farmers, horse owners and animal owners, and supporting them in the days of them being impacted, because that’s when they most need the support.
“A lot of these guys, their cattle would be dead if they were waiting for the official organisations to set up. And they do a great job, especially for the long-term effort, but there doesn’t seem to be any kind of organisation, other than ourselves and other groups like us, that were really there in the first week, when farmers are saying, we have no feed and water, our cattle are starving, standing on dirt ground” says Kelly.
Strong community connections have allowed this grass roots organisation to move fast to set up an impressive operation and build a strong team of capable volunteers. “It’s definitely not just me” says Kelly.
“I am the founder and oversee everything, then we have Tegan Hector, on who’s property we set up the depot. She’s fantastic at overseeing the site office. She has a professional logistics manager (who happened to be between jobs), working with her full time, in the office. We’re all volunteers.
While it is understandable that the priority is given to protecting people and assets (in that order), the importance of animals and livestock deserves to be reviewed – not least because fires impact on rural communities that are farming based, and therefore impact directly on farmers whose lifestyle, livelihoods and lives are intrinsically tied around their livestock.
“In the depot where we store hay and feed we’ve had donated sea crates for storing feed. We’ve set up a turnaround for B-double trucks, with gravel, there’s showers for our volunteers, it’s really taken off. The original home owners are on board fully, we all have designated jobs, and we all take a chip out of it. We have all the truck drivers that drive for us, a site manager that runs the truck yard. And we have other people helping us more remotely, like our IT manager that’s based in Melbourne.”
And, according to Kelly, being a grass roots organisation has its benefits. The strong personal connections with the locals throughout these areas has allowed them to move quickly and stay focused on the tasks at hand. Making personal contact with individuals in the Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning (DELWP) and the Victorian police force has facilitated access, in some cases escorts to access directly into farmers properties before roads were officially open to the public.
“Our trucks drive directly through the farm gate” says Kelly. “We ask the individual person directly, how many head are you feeding, what do you need, do you need lick blocks, mineral replacers, milk replacers, etc. In a lot of cases these people haven’t seen fresh food or meat for three or four weeks, so we bring that too.”
“Water has been a big aspect on top of the feed runs, it has slowed down a bit now with access becoming more available and also the Country Fire Authority have done a wonderful job diverting their trucks to properties that were really in need, at the least filling up house tanks but also helping the stock.
“At one point we had four water tankers with drivers that were donated to us, which is amazing. We had two smaller domestic tankers for filling up house tanks running five days a week, potable water we could take from road access sites, and we had two large tankers, a 20,000 L semi water designated tanker and a 40,000 L milk tanker that we used to cart water for livestock.
One of the group’s most remarkable feed drops was made for Mallacoota, the tiny coastal town that, having been completely cut off, saw thousands of holiday makers sheltering on the beach under apocalyptic red skies, and were relocated by the Royal Navy.
Kelly says it was a massive effort that involved a large number of local people and businesses pulling together their resources and contacts.
“When Mallacoota was cut off, the Australian Defence Force were there but they were, understandably, focused on human life. There was very limited access for horse owners in terms of feed and vet care, so the idea was to hire a commercial tuna boat and, as well as other supplies, take about 50 pallet loads of fencing and horse specific feed and medical supplies!
“It was a big logistical project. We had to find a boat, or an owner that would allow us to use a boat, and we had to find a willing skipper. Local business owner Wayne Cribbs made himself available, but the boat was all the way in South Australia. So, with the help of the fishing co-ops, we flew him to the boat and he steamed it to Victoria.
“Thanks to everyone’s contacts, through port authorities and fishing co-ops, we were able to get the boat docked at Welshpool and loaded, and then we were able to get it to Mallacoota, through the domestic channels. We had to use the abalone boats in Mallacoota but luckily, they all had wives or daughters who had horses, so we rallied the community together to help. It was a real humanitarian mission. Mallacoota is my second home, I am very connected to the place and I have a lot of friends there so it was a personal mission for me as well.”
Moving forward, Kelly would like to see another push to increase people’s awareness of prevention and being prepared ahead of time. She says the awareness has improved since the 2009 Black Saturday fires but needs to be continually reinforced.
And, for those who want to help out in some way she suggests putting some research into the areas they direct their donations to, whether that’s financial, in time or hay.
“What we’ve seen is that very well-meaning people who are overwhelmed by the devastation and want to do something, have been flooding the towns with relief in terms of clothes and food. The horse gear is driving us insane. We’re saying to people there aren’t enough horses in Gippsland to wear that many halters or rugs – it’s overwhelming.
“And the feedback I’m getting (and I have friends who’ve lost everything), is that when the time comes to rebuild, they want to be able to choose their own toaster and the colour of their own bed sheets. It’s really important to them precisely because they’ve lost everything.
“If people really want to make a difference and donate, then I would suggest donating into funds that are going to assist with either the long-term relief effort or for immediate emergency relief. I would encourage them to find those organisations that are grass roots or part of the communities (and there’s quite a few of them), or to support the organisations that are going to do the long-term relief, like Blaze Aid.
“I guess the message is do your research and put some thought into the direction of your donations.”
In terms of how intrinsically connected the community is to their farming families, Kelly would like to see animals and their needs become a bigger consideration when disasters like this happen in future, and she plans to develop other support programs that can help, farmers and local businesses who will be suffering for long time.
“In six months time, these farmers will not have had enough time to grow enough feed to cut some hay. Hay is running out and we’re already in a drought. Victorian hay has been going up to Queensland and NSW, because they’ve been in drought, so six months down the track there will be significant problems. This is a long-term disaster and these farmers are going to need a lot of help for a long time. Raising this awareness is really important.”
This article was published in Horses and People March-April 2020 Magazine.