Tathra Bushfire Evacuation Centre closes having housed huge generosity

Ian Campbell 5 November 2019
Meal time for hundreds at the Bega Showground. Photo: Ian Campbell.

Mealtime for hundreds at the Bega Showground. Photo: Ian Campbell.

A new generation of community support has stepped forward in the wake of the Tathra Bushfires.

“The old girls of Bega” who have answered the call for help countless times during their history in the Bega Valley say they have never seen a response like the one witnessed at the Bega Showground Evacuation Centre over the last three and a bit days.

The generosity of spirit, time, and materials has been transformative for the people in need and those volunteering their time.

Tathra’s home away from home was closed last night. As most residents were given permission to return to their devasted community, many however remain in temporary accommodation with friends, family and at motels.

The next phase starts today with the opening of the Fire Recovery Centre at the Bega Civic Centre. Open Monday to Friday 10 am – 5 pm and Saturday and Sunday 10 am – 4 pm, the centre is staffed with a range of support services – Bega Valley Shire Council, Red Cross, NSW Disaster Welfare, Legal Aide, Safe Work NSW, Local Land Services, and others.

Almost 900 people registered at the Evacuation Centre, it was a rollercoaster of every emotion, supported by people with golden hearts – people who will be forever remembered for their contribution.

The smallest things carried such weight and power and kept people ticking over.

Ian Ritchie from Za’s Mobile Coffee has made at least 900 free cups of coffee. “The community supports us all year round and if we can pay that back a little bit that’s what we should be doing,” he says.

Ian Ritchie and Leayra Thornton from Za's Mobile Coffee. Photo: Ian Campbell.

Ian Ritchie and Leayra Thornton from Za’s Mobile Coffee. Photo: Ian Campbell.

Woolworths have donated between twenty and forty thousand dollars worth of groceries so far coordinated by local staff Hamish and Lisa Payne, whose own home at Tathra, “is crispy on the outside but still standing,” Hamish says.

The Payne’s are still waiting to get back to their home, but have seen photos taken by the men and women who saved the day – the Tanja Rural Fire Service.

“We got evacuated with everybody else on Sunday afternoon, and when we got here we just realised what people needed,” Hamish says.

“We just started with water, tea, coffee, and then into sausages, rissoles and barbeque chooks, and on to nappies, baby food, toothbrushes, toothpaste.

“We just play our part and do our bit,” he says.

It all adds up to around 18 pallets of supplies that have been supported by head office and staff along the coast.

Humble about their own charity, Hamish and Lisa point to the little things that have happened along the way.

“People have turned up from Canberra and Sydney with boot loads of groceries and said – where do you want it – unbelievable,” Lisa says.

Lisa and Hamish Payne from Woolworths. Photo: Ian Campbell.

Lisa and Hamish Payne from Woolworths with some of the care packs handed to people as they return to Tathra. Photo: Ian Campbell.

As well as feeding the hundreds of people that have moved through the evacuation centre since Sunday, stock from Woollies has also been used to make up care packs; everyone returning home leaves the showground with groceries and a slab of water.

“We are just so thankful, the RFS guys have just been amazing, I thought our house was gone, but our house was saved with 60 seconds to spare, our house had caught fire, they saw it and put it out,” Hamish says.

There was a team of people in the showground kitchen turning that food into breakfast, lunch, dinner and more.

All ages, both sexes, and people from Tweed Heads to Bathurst to Tambo Upper have had aprons on preparing and serving meals.

Lyn Keeshan, Judy Egan and Denise Pleydell. Photo: Ian Campbell.

Lyn Keeshan, Judy Egan and Denise Pleydell. Photo: Ian Campbell.

Lyn Keeshan from Tweed Heads, Judy Egan from Bathurst, and Denise Pleydell from Tambo Upper were camping at Bega Showground on Sunday with their husbands, part of the grey-nomad circuit, when Tathra arrived looking for sanctuary.

None of them had any sense of the catastrophe that had been unfolding when cars and people started streaming in.

“You can’t sit here and do nothing, you are out there to help people,” Lyn says.

The trio estimate at least 4,000 sandwiches have been made.

“We are sandwiched out!” Denise laughs.

“Malcolm Turnbull came in the other day and said – is there anything we can help you with? and one of the ladies got in his ear about money to upgrade the kitchen,” Judy says.

“Yesterday there was this little girl, she was eight, she made a great big tray of biscuits, and she spent her pocket money on toys for other children – just incredible,” Lyn says.

“The Girl Guides were here last night helping and there has been this little boy, whose mum is in the kitchen, he’s been walking around with food offering it to people,” Judy says.

“What a wonderful community spirit, we have met so many wonderful people,” Denise says.

Each of the ladies, who were strangers until this experience, now has a special magnet on their caravan fridge to remember their time in Bega.

“We’ll come back one day,” Judy says.

Esther and Deanna from St Vincent de Paul in Bega. Photo: Ian Campbell.

Esther Filmer and Deanna Doroth from St Vincent de Paul in Bega. Photo: Ian Campbell.

Inside the pavilion which dates back to 1905, a range of social services and government agencies made themselves available around the clock.

Deanna Doroth and Esther Filmer from Bega have been part of the team from St Vincent de Paul coordinating a range of donated items.

“The number one priority has been clean underwear and phone charges,” Esther says.

“And today, now that the weather has changed we are scratching for long pants and jackets.”

“People have been overwhelmed by the generosity, and the people who are doing that are saying – well if we were in that predicament, we are sure others would do the same for us,” Deanna says.

Bega Valley Mayor, Kristy McBain has launched an appeal for financial donations. So far over $100,000 has been raised.

“I’ve had calls from as far away as Perth saying what can we do to help,” Cr McBain says.

“Snowy Monaro Council has just dropped off a heap of toys for people.

“The response to this community has been amazing and well deserved,” the Mayor says.

To donate to the Mayor’s Bushfire Appeal:

Bank transfer details:
BSB: 012525
Account number: 837535154

Credit Card donations via, (02) 6499 2345 during 9 am to 4.30 pm

Or drop into ANZ Bega

Many people have done many things and will continue to for the weeks and months ahead as Tathra rebuilds.

A thank you get together is planned for next Thursday (March 29th) night at Tathra Hotel from 6:30 onwards for residents, Rural Fire Service personnel and anyone who helped.

Pub owner Cliff Wallis and a number of Tathra locals are providing an open bar with music from renowned Candelo musician Sam Martin.

One of the organisers Matthew Nott says, “This is a chance for Tathra to have a night off, to catch up, and say thank you.”

NSW RFS Building Impact Assessment teams have revised their report on the Tathra Bushfire, confirming that 65 houses have been destroyed with 48 damaged, and 35 caravans or cabins have also been destroyed. 810 houses have been saved or untouched.

For up to date news and bushfire information call 1800 679 737 or check the RFS Facebook or the NSW RFS website.

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