Reflections from the Field: Australia Bushfires

24 December 2019 – It’s my second day on Team Rubicon Australia’s Operation Partridge in a little town called Willawarrin, and today is Christmas Eve.

Willawarrin area, NSW

2019 has been an unforgiving year for rural Australian communities already deeply affected by drought and climate change. Since February, bushfires have destroyed over 7 million acres including 2000 homes and scores of koalas, wallabies, roos, and other wildlife. In New South Wales alone it’s estimated 30% of the wildlife has been wiped out – as many as 1 billion animals. Back home in the states, my partner and I watched YouTube clips of ‘firies’ shared by TR volunteers around the world. We decided we needed to go support our sisters and brothers in their greatest time of need.

Willawarrin is a small cattle town built around a pub, a general store, and a shop called ‘Rural Supplies’. If you nod off for 5 seconds while driving through you’d surely miss it. The Forward Operating Base, or FOB as we call it in TR, is conveniently located in an abandoned building next door to the pub. Australians are not subtle.

Team Rubicon operates like a machine. Military veterans bring a sense of order to chaos and for this operation they came from Norway, the UK, and the USA to support their Australian brethren.

Willawarin, NSW

Our mornings started with a 0630 wake up call. After 30 minutes of personal time, the teams got to work on their morning duties. Today my team cleaned the toilets. Tomorrow it’s the makeshift kitchen. At 0730 we gathered for our operations planning brief while black cows chewing cud stared through barbed wire. Alpha, a chainsaw strike team, would clear roads that had become impassable. Bravo, my team, would demolish what remained of a burned down house owned by Sue-Anne. At 0800 we departed for our task.

The property was austere, only accessible via 4WD, a task incapable without TRA’s fleet of Toyota Hiluxes.

What we found was apocalyptic. The fire that destroyed Sue-Ann’s property was an inferno. In less than 10 minutes, the surrounding hillsides were engulfed in flames. We learned an Australian police helicopter flew overhead and ordered her to evacuate. When she returned, her house was gone. As she surveyed the surrounding hills, only the lower halves of trees were charred. Strangely due to the force of winds, the fires had burned sideways, not up.

Willawarrin area, NSW

As we sifted through the ashes to return anything of value, she told us about her husband Peter, an Australian military veteran. He had died a few years ago and they had settled in this remote area for the isolation that helped him cope with PTSD.

Sue-Ann lost everything and we were only able to salvage knifes, forks, and other metal trinkets. She looked on while we cleared 30 years of memories reduced to ashes. Two giant pythons and a 7 foot monitor lizard stood watch nearby.

We prayed for rain with Sue-Ann, and as we left the property, smoke from the burning roots of trees wafted from the ground. The threat of fire was still ever present.

The next day, on Christmas, Sue-Ann’s prayers were answered. While we celebrated over Toohey’s at the Willawarrin pub, two inches of rain fell – the most they had seen in almost a year.

William McNulty – CEO Team Rubicon Global | Co-founder Team Rubicon