BlazeAid volunteers find reward in helping others

The fires were still burning on Kangaroo Island when BlazeAid volunteer Steve Hewitt first arrived on January 4 last year.

The former school teacher from Hewett had been volunteering at BlazeAid's Edithburgh camp in December 2019, before taking a break for Christmas.

But, when fires broke out on Kangaroo Island, he was asked by BlazeAid founder Kevin Butler to head there instead.

Steve has become something of a regular sight at camps for BlazeAid - a volunteer-based organisation that helps rebuild fences and other structures after fires or floods - after he first got involved in the wake of the Pinery fire.

He said having a fire so close to home, affecting people who shopped in his town, brought it home, so he volunteered for five months from December 2015.

Since then, he and his wife Colleen have volunteered at camps at Bungendore, NSW, Dunedoo, NSW, Kingaroy, Qld, Terang, Vic, and Bunyip, Vic.

"We like to travel and it's far nicer to go somewhere and live in a community for a couple of months, rather than pass through," he said.

"You get to know the community and make good friends. It's nice to be part of the community and get to see the non-touristy parts of where you're staying."

Colleen said her Facebook friends list had exploded in the time they had been working with BlazeAid.

It's really humbling to see what people have lost but they're getting on with life and you do your bit to give a hand.


While Steve was the first volunteer on KI, he was also very close to the last one off.

"I'd helped to set up camps, close up camps and been there in the middle, but I hadn't been there for the full time, so I wanted to do that," he said.

"I wasn't quite the last to leave but I didn't leave until the camp had closed."

In all, between January and November, Steve spent just six weeks at home - after a quick trip home in March had him stuck at home during the COVID-19 lockdown.

In his 11 months on the island, Steve got to see the full stages of recovery.

"For the first two weeks I was there, the fires were burning, then there was clearing up in ash, but then you start putting up fences and seeing the vegetation come back," he said.

He says one of the most "gratifying" moments was a chance to tell a farmer his paddock, including a gate, was ready to go.

"The look on his face - that was the first paddock he'd had in three months," he said.

"Quite often I'd go out, and it would get to 4pm and the farmer would already be moving sheep in as I'm tying off, because they're that desperate for paddocks."

Steve says one of the biggest responses he gets when talking about BlazeAid is people saying they do not have the skills.

"I knew nothing about fencing when I started," he said. "You don't have to have particular skills or ability, there is always something you can do."

He is already making plans to head to Lucindale, and has been helping prepare and maintain the BlazeAid trailers, stored at Mallala, in preparation.

Fellow KI volunteers Graham and Maxine Norfolk, Quorn, originally intended to spend two weeks, or a month at most, at the camp.

They ended up staying there more than seven months, including a stint as camp coordinators.

They arrived on the island on March 14, just days before a nationwide lockdown.

That lockdown ended their potential plans to do some travelling, and with a choice to continue their "essential work" at BlazeAid, or "sit at home for months", they chose the island life.

For Graham, who has retired from his handyman business, it was a chance to help farmers, after previously volunteering at a camp in Cloncurry, Qld.

"I thought I probably had a little bit of experience with fencing that I might be able to offer," he said.

"It's really humbling to see what people have lost but they're getting on with life and you do your bit to give a hand."

While Maxine was not out fixing fences, she had the critical role of looking after the camp, including preparing meals and cleaning - which became particularly vital during the pandemic.

She said especially during the winter months, the dining room became a hub - in part as the warmest place - and people would gather for meals and to socialise, play games and even take part in craft nights.

"We found it a fascinating time - everyone looks at things in different ways, and it's interesting to learn about the lives of others," she said.

Graham estimated they had made more than 30 new friends from their time on KI.

"Living and working with other people, particularly backpackers, is a bit of an eye opener," he said.

You don't have to have particular skills or ability, there is always something you can do.


While they're enjoying life at home again, they are also considering volunteering again in the future.

"It's a fabulous experience, especially if you go into it with an open mind," Maxine said.

During 2020, more than 2000 people volunteered at various BlazeAid camps across SA, with 221 helping out at Kingston SE, following on from the Keilira fire, while 992 people were involved in the clean-up in the Adelaide Hills through the Lobethal camp and 788 at Parndana.

There were also 255 people involved in the Edithburgh camp in 2019-20.

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