Dennis and Carol McGrath travelled around Queensland in their caravan for five months after Dennis retired from the plumbing industry in the middle of 2019, before they returned to Canberra through thick smoke to share Christmas with their two children and three grandchildren.
After Christmas, the couple realised they had nowhere they needed to go, so reached out to BlazeAid president Kevin Butler and offered a hand.
“That bloody text message,” Dennis said, as he and Carol laugh.
By 3 January, the pair had parked their caravan at the Braidwood Showgrounds and have been running the Braidwood leg of the charity ever since.
BlazeAid helps to rebuild community and private properties after natural disasters.
It began in Kilmore, Victoria in 2009 when Kevin and Rhonda Butler sought assistance from friends, family and volunteers to rebuild fences and secure their 1,500 sheep after the Black Saturday bushfires.
When their fences were rebuilt, they helped others.
They organised a charity, which has grown to embrace thousands of volunteers living in camps around the country, rebuilding communities affected by floods, bushfires and cyclones.
With no previous connection to the village of Braidwood – around 90km east of Canberra – the McGraths joined the community at a devastating time.
The 300,000 hectare Currowan bushfire burned from December to February and took Braidwood property and farming machinery with it, forcing farmers off their land and out of town, and destroying the local tourist trade.
However hurt the community was, it welcomed Dennis and Carol and got behind BlazeAid.
Donations of food and clothing came in; BlazeAid would take any unsuitable items to “the hub” at the town library and swap for more pertinent items with other charities.
“The community has been wonderful,” Carol said.
“We haven’t had to buy water until the last two weeks.”
A self-described shy person, Carol was summoned to the Country Women’s Association.
“They told me to be there at 10am sharp on Monday morning, and I daren’t say no. When I got there, I didn’t even need to ask; I was told what I was going to get and how they were going to help.”
What was once just a town they drove through, is now their fond temporary home.
Braidwood is the first town on the east coast of Australia to be heritage listed in its entirety.
“There are a lot of retirees and they’re very passionate about Braidwood; it seems if they’re involved in one community group, they’re involved in five,” Carol said.
As much as the town supports BlazeAid, BlazeAid also supports the town.
Materials for the fencing are sourced locally as much as possible and the camp spends around $1,000 a week at both the IGA and the butcher.
“And the grog shop gets a big donation,” Carol smiled.
You can be sure you’ve made an imprint in your town when you have a regular community radio gig – which Dennis does.
Carol said people hang out to hear the BlazeAid stats for the week.
As of Sunday 2 August, the crew has prepared over 20,000 meals, built 167km of new fencing, had 405 volunteers at the camp, and completed 63% of listed properties needing repairs.
This information with the header “Be proud of what you have achieved” is handed out to volunteers on site and perfectly sums up the vibe of Dennis and Carol’s Braidwood BlazeAid Camp.
It’s organised, clean, controlled, comfortable and rewards hard work.
“It’s a lot of hours,” Carol said.
“We’re just volunteers, we didn’t quite expect the hours.”
And Dennis and Carol run the camp like loving parents you definitely don’t want to get busted by.
“We really do have control of the camp,” Carol said.
“We get a lot of volunteers that from go camp to camp and they all say our camp is the most organised.
“I always tell the volunteers they’re here to work, everyone has a job.
“And the volunteers work really well, and I make sure they get well fed and rewarded.
“But you step out of line … you suffer,” Carol laughed, though perhaps she’s not entirely joking.
Dennis and Carol’s camp is decked out. There’s a warm, comfy meals room with a commercial kitchen and a big rumpus room with table tennis table and dart board donated by the RSL.
“We’re about to have a BlazeAid vs Braidwood competition,” Dennis said.
They have four chooks for fresh eggs and to devour their kitchen scraps and call their new temporary housing the “love shacks”.
The new housing is useful to house backpackers who often don’t have tents or accommodation, but they are required to bring their own bedding.
At present, Dennis and Carol have 14 backpackers staying with them.
In a fortunate marrying of needs, international travellers who lost work due to COVID and are ineligible for government assistance can volunteer with BlazeAid for 88 days to extend their visa and all their food and accommodation is taken care of.
While many things have been disrupted by COVID, the work of Braidwood BlazeAid continues unabated.
The local scouts used to serve them a meal once a week, but that ended with COVID; otherwise, the crew have really come together as a family since the health crisis began.
Last month they celebrated Christmas in July.
They had a Christmas tree and a Santa suit donated by the local Bendigo Bank which was worn by one of their volunteers with the perfect natural white beard and everyone exchanged a $5 present each.
Dennis said it was good for morale.
“But you’ve got to keep it organised,” he said.