The first VCC EM activation into Mallacoota on Sunday, January 19, comprised Tony
Ryan, left, Mark Dunn, Jenny McGuirk, Max Tennison and Team Alpha leader Tom Rose.
We rendezvoused at RAAF Base East Sale at 8am to fly into the bushfire ravaged East
Gippsland town for five days of service.
We quickly learnt the Army motto, “Hurry up and wait” and as we did so, we became
acquainted with the Department of Health and Human Services team flying in with us.
We fancied flying out in a Chinook helicopter, but had to settle for a twin-prop Spartan battlefield airlifter – a baby Hercules!
We were warmly welcomed by Rev Jude Benton and the congregation of St Peter’s Cooperating Anglican Uniting Church who allowed us to use the church as a quiet, available space. Jude, who had been working non-stop since the fires began about three weeks earlier, was about to take a much-needed time out of town with her husband Andy.
Next to the church was the cinema/hall, which had been seconded for community networking. That Sunday the town came together for a sausage sizzle, concert and meeting which gave us the opportunity to connect to the community. Choosing not to wear our tabards allowed us to be part of the gathering quietly and effectively and in a short time, we were all engaged in listening to amazing, heartbreaking stories.
Police asked if one of our team would accompany them and a mental health worker as they returned a local back to their home for the first time not knowing if the dwelling was still standing. This was deployment in unprecedented circumstances and the request led to the first of many team consultations as we adapted our VCC EM presence appropriately and safely to meet the changing needs of this isolated community.
The 40-minute drive also provided the opportunity for police to lead a convoy of five cars out through the closed roads and to see first-hand the devastation.
Three weeks on from the fire and after a recent light fall of rain there was a sheen of green in some places and great joy to see a large goanna along the way.
There was deep grief in this community for the animals lost. There was also relief to find a home, chickens and veggie garden singed but still there. We also visited two neighbours and were privileged to hear their stories.
As we drove back the mental health worker expressed her gratitude for our presence, saying she had learnt from watching us work, admitting that being alongside grieving people was not her area of expertise.
Monday morning, wearing our tabards, we joined loggers, SES, CFA, Police, Ambos and others gathering for breakfast in a local café. It was 20 minutes and several conversations later that we were able to order our coffees.
Each morning we found this an important ministry space to begin the day in support of our emergency response colleagues.
One rainy morning a generous local gave us a lift and we were early and able to give practical ministry to a weary café proprietor in helping to set up for the day.
Each day we considered the needs of this wounded community. There were some constant places where our presence became valued and appreciated.
The medical centre and the community centre were gathering places, where the stories were being told over and over. Common themes began to emerge: the visual impact of the fire, the noise of the fire, fear for the community, the difficulty of deciding whether to stay or evacuate, the impact of having a home when your neighbour did not and so much more.
The townsfolk were stoic, vulnerable, guilty, angry, tired, confused, traumatised, grateful and welcoming.
Some team members provided welcome support to shopkeepers who were doing it tough, unable to take a break because their businesses were at risk.
And with so many emergency services in town and locals who still needed to shop for supplies they grabbed the opportunity to stay open.
Many were weary beyond measure. In some places Christmas decorations continued to festoon windows and rafters. The festive season had faded into insignificance in the onslaught of the fire.
This deployment was challenging, not least because of its fluid nature. Arrangements around flights bringing families home again were never reliable until the plane touched down. The number of returning people was not known until they got off the bus.
All the while tireless team leader Tom established major contacts and attended the daily planning meetings with the council and the leaders of the emergency services. This was invaluable in helping us plan.
On each of our four ministry days we had 60-75 significant conversations – not counting incidental chats – including ministering to service members, some seeking us out for a quiet chat. One of the pleasures in a long deployment is to become known and be called by name as you go about the day – and they were long days, leaving “home’’ at 7.30am and not returning until after a late dinner. Each day we clocked up 8-10km.
Our last opportunity to support the town was at a public meeting where bushfire trauma and recovery expert Dr Rob Gordon spoke in the community centre about how to return to a new normal. We ended as we began minus tabards, quietly part of the gathering.
Afterwards, there were a few gentle conversations, but it seemed the people were turning to each other, which is as it needs to be. Leaving the centre, we saw in the one unburnt tree over the road a hardy survivor.
As we photographed the koala, a local joined us, commenting: “This gives us hope.’’
On Thursday, January 23, we flew back in to RAAF Base East Sale to be welcomed by the second VCC EM team before they took off to continue the long, convoluted healing process.