Busy at showgrounds as evacuees take refuge

Liz Bell

SINCE the first east Gippsland fire evacuees began arriving in Sale just over a week ago, Sale Showground Caravan Park caretaker Bonnie Scott-Sullivan has juggled the roles of cook, cleaner, counsellor, friend and advisor.

She thinks people began arriving at the grounds some time around New Year’s Day, as accommodation centres closer to the fire zones filled up and the infernos rapidly spread into more towns, but just like many of the evacuees, her memory of days and times is hazy.

“It’s been a bit hectic around here, I’m confused about what day or night things actually happened – I’ll have to check my books,” she said.

At one stage in the past eight days, all 180 sites at the park were full of evacuees – with at least two people per site.

The showgrounds have always been a refuge centre for animals, given the infrastructure of shedding and fenced areas, but the caravan park has morphed into a refuge for people during this fire crisis, largely because of the welcoming reception, generous hospitality and social organising skills of Bonnie and the other members of the agricultural society committee.

Within a day of the first evacuees arriving, Bonnie knew she had to do more than just offer a space to park a caravan, so with the help of daughter Amy, she rang around and organised the donation of hundreds of kilograms of food and supplies, including fresh meat from local butchers, fresh vegetables and fruit, tinned food and eggs, blankets, clothes, pet food and more bottled water than they could use.

“I know a lot of people in Sale, and I knew they would help,” she said.

A gregarious person with a natural ability to organise and lead, Bonnie said she welcomed everybody to the park and made sure they had what they needed “so they can settle in and relax”.

“Some of them have come in distraught, some have lost everything and some don’t know whether they will still have a home to go to, but they come here and share meals around the table, meet people and make friends, and know they are supported.

“We share stories and try to have a bit of a laugh,” she said.

“A couple of people who had come from the same town were actually neighbours, but had never met each other; now they’re good friends.”

Bonnie said she had been overwhelmed by the incredible generosity and selflessness of Victorians since the fires began ravaging communities.

“The generosity of people, I couldn’t explain,” she said.

“We’ve had so many people happy to donate, and you get teary just thinking about it.

“Local businesses have been amazing, and some of these people don’t even speak English, but they are quick to give what they can.”

But when a car load of tattooed and pierced 18 to 25-year-old men rocked up in 12 cars and eight trailers, Bonnie wasn’t sure what to expect.

“They looked pretty scary and were sporting more metal on their bodies that we’ve got in our shed,” she said.

“They had come all the way from Melton, and had door knocked their neighbourhood and collected a whole lot of food, water and clothes and brought it up here to us.

“They stayed over and were a great bunch of young men.”

Another afternoon a group from a Lilydale basketball club arrived and said “right, we are going to cook tea tonight”, and they did – for 350 people.

“They just wanted to be able to do something, and that’s what I’ve seen with so many people – they just want to help,” Bonnie said.

Locally, businesses and individuals have been dropping in supplies and donations all week, not expecting thanks and often without a word.

“I don’t even know where some of this came from – people have just come in and dropped it off,” Bonnie said.

While the caravan park is not a donation centre, and has since stopped accepting goods, the food and supplies were a godsend at the time.

“Two nights ago we fed 360 people, and we have used or shared with other centres almost half of all the food we were given,” she said.

“We were even able to send 100 donated blankets to the people who were airlifted out of Mallacoota and dropped into a big RAAF hangar,” she said.

“Because when the weather changed rapidly, it was freezing in there, so they needed blankets.”

A few days ago a bunch of 12 helicopter pilots who were being housed in Sale had the good fortune of meeting Bonnie.

“They had been really busy and hadn’t had time to shop, so we brought them in and cooked up a big egg and bacon breakfast, then made up lunch packs for them and sent them off well fed.”

While it might sound like a holiday for some, Bonnie says the emotional strain on people has been intense.

“One guy said he couldn’t get to all his horses, and just had to open the gate and hope for the best,” she said.

“It’s been heartbreaking to hear; it often takes a few days for the grief and sadness to come out, and even some of the men have been teary.”

Newmerella evacuees Phil and Joy Sitter were told at a town meeting last week to “get out” of town while they could.

“So we grabbed the two dogs, packed a few things in the van and left,” said Phil.

While they are in limbo, not knowing when they will be allowed back, and fearing that another fire could still threaten their town, they are thankful that evacuation centres like Sale make an effort to make life as comfortable as possible under the circumstances.

“Look, it’s been lovely here – Bonnie is so bubbly and people have been talking to each other and everyone asks where you are from,” he said.

“But it is a difficult situation for everybody who had to evacuate.

“It does feel like you have no control over your life.”

Mr Sitter said he has had little information about the situation “back home”, and was ready to go “the minute we get the word”.

But with the dangerous conditions set to return on Friday, that may not be any time soon.