Early November, the highway into the township of Taree on the NSW mid North Coast was cut-off due to fires burning to the north of the town (near John's River) to the south (at Nabiac) and to the west (at Hillville). These fires began on Thursday 6 November 2019 and, at one point, firefighters were faced with a wall of flames spread across a 60 km fire front in conditions that can only be described as 'unprecedented' for the area.
The phenomenal efforts of the volunteers that make up the NSW Rural Fire Service and local emergency services personnel brought the fires around Taree under control in recent days, but they remain burning. The local community now has the chance to take stock of what has appended and assess the loss of life and property as they seek to rebuild their community in coming weeks and months. Over 200 homes have been lost in that area alone.
When natural disasters of this magnitude strike, it is impossible for those of us living outside the disaster area to even begin to comprehend the dramatic impact that these events have on the community psyche of those living in the affected areas. Suffice to say, for many the fires of the past week will likely change the life perspective of people living in these communities forever.
In the aftermath of these disasters, it is natural to honour those working on the emergency frontline who put their lives on the line fighting to protect their local communities. But it is also worth noting that there are many unsung local heroes who work behind the scenes to support those on the frontline, often performing good deeds that go largely unnoticed.
These local heroes take many forms. They range from CWA and Lions Club volunteers who establish temporary food halls to feed and provide rest areas for emergency workers, to a neighbour who simply picks up a garden hose to wet down the roof of their absent neighbour's roof as the fire approaches. Or the passer-by who picks up a disoriented pet, or and injured native animal and transports it to a safer place.
Local businesses, too, play a role in ensuring that vital services continue to be provided to residents and emergency services personnel during the emergency - and we saw a graphic demonstration of that in the role played by a local service station business during the fires of the past week.
When communities face natural disasters, it is often the local service station that is the 'last to close and the first to open' when local communities experience natural disasters - and we saw a graphic example of this during the Taree fires of the past week.
The rapid escalation of the fires around Taree, and the vast nature of the fire front in the area, meant that the NSW Rural Fire Service needed ready access to fuel around the clock, with the added challenge of not being able to get anything into the town. As the fires intensified, the NSW Rural Fire Service went looking for fuel and eventually made contact with staff at the local BP service station in Taree West, a Jack & Co store, to ask whether the service station could operate extended hours, to support the refuelling of fire trucks and other emergency equipment.
Staffed by members of the local community and operated by a small business owner living in Sydney, the staff contacted the owner who immediately authorised the staff to do whatever was necessary to support the front-line firefighting operation.
"Given that the other service stations in the area had closed, it was just a natural decision for us to stay open to supply fuel to emergency vehicles and the local community for as long as we were needed", said Jack & Co owner Wade Death.
BP Taree West (in Commerce Street, Taree) operated continuously during the height of the fire emergency to ensure that the NSW Rural Fire Service had all the fuel it needed.
"In the end, we stayed open for the whole weekend and we then set up an arrangement where the NSW RFS would contact us during late night and early morning periods and we would re-open within 10 minutes of receiving their forward request for fuel", said Wade.
"Our staff are 24 carat legends - they worked double shifts to ensure that fuel and other services were available to all emergency personnel despite the fact that some staff knew that the homes of family members and friends were in the immediate path of the fires. They knew it simply wasn't a consideration to close up and they knew how vital it was to the firefighting effort", added Wade.
But the service station didn't simply provide fuel. Being one of the few businesses that remained open during the fire period, the service station also became a destination for other members of the community.
Jack & Co also partnered with other small businesses in the local area, such as the fruit shop, the bakery and the IGA, to ensure that these businesses had what they needed to be able to stay open to support the people of Taree as the people of Taree, in turn, supported the firefighters and other emergency services personnel working on the front line.
Jack & Co staff Tahlia and Jake help keep the servo operating through the night so that RFS volunteers have all the fuel and refreshments they need to fight the fires around Taree on the NSW Mid-North Coast.
"It's at times like these when you really appreciate the connection that small, independently owned businesses have with their local community and we were proud to work with other like-minded small businesses to support our community throughout this fire emergency", concluded Wade.