Debbie was unprepared for the intensity of the 2020 bushfires…
As Pastor and Chaplain, Debbie knew the road to recovery would be community connection, and while COVID-19 may have made that challenging, it didn’t keep her from making sure everyone felt the support on offer.
At 11pm on Monday 5 January 2020, Pastor Debbie Gadd started packing her most prized possessions into her car as bushfires tore through the valleys surrounding her Tumbarumba home.
“It was something like we have never experienced in our lifetime. My husband Robert has been in the RFS for over 50 years and we’ve been married for 43, so for 43 years fire-fighting has been part of our life. Everything we thought could never happen happened. There was a huge fire coming towards Tumbarumba from Adelong. Then on the Holbrook side, another fire was raging our way,” Debbie recalls.
“It was like an apocalyptic movie, the smoke was so thick you could hardly see, there was no one in town, it was totally deserted. Any vehicle you saw had a red light flashing on top.
“I am a teacher, a pastor and a chaplain, I am not a firefighter, so as far as protecting the property, I have no skill. Robert was out fighting fires morning, noon and night. Our fire plan was to pack the cars and take them down to the front of the cattle yards where there isn’t much grass and wait it out there. But when waiting out this horrendous fire became a reality, I just didn’t think I could do it, especially without Robert.
“They had closed all roads except one and they were talking about closing it. I had the feeling I may not be able to leave if I waited, so I packed the car and spent two weeks in Wagga.”
For Debbie and the Snowy Valleys residents seeking refuge in Wagga Wagga, it was a long wait to return home and community was key.
“The first thing I did when I got down to Wagga was call a prayer meeting. In those initial 36 to 48 hours, we couldn’t get any connection back to home. The phones were out so we didn’t know exactly what was happening. So we had that prayer meeting and chaplains from Wagga, people from the RFS, and other people I’d had never met before all gathered,” Debbie remembers.
“The Tumbarumba community in Wagga really tried to stay connected. We met a few times at the RSL Club where they were putting on government sponsored meals. Half of Tumbarumba was there. Everyone was sharing their story, sharing photos from home, and just talking about what was happening. They needed to talk it out. Usually if people can talk it out, they will work it out.”
Debbie said the Wagga Wagga community also rallied.
“Everyone in Wagga was so kind to all these evacuees. From the time I arrived, I just started receiving an in-pouring of offers, hundreds of offers were coming in and it was a full-time job taking the offers, talking to people and connecting the offers to the people who needed them.”
“I was also getting calls from New Zealand, Ireland, and all over Australia. How some of these people got my phone number, I have no idea, but it just kept coming and it came for months and months and it’s still coming all these months later.
“We had a drop-in centre at the Church, and we helped people find accommodation, and distributed tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of white goods and bedding.
“There was so much aid being offered and such a great sense of community. People were helping each other and really rallied. It was a beautiful thing to see.”
Taking kindness to the people
Three weeks after people returned to Tumbarumba, not many people were coming to the drop-in centre, so Debbie offered her services at the Council Fire Recovery Centres.
When COVID closed down these Centres, Debbie and fellow chaplain Phillis were given an official letter from Chaplaincy Australia to continue their work in the community. In the ensuing months, they visited 224 properties.
“Right through COVID we were allowed to go to doorsteps, not into homes, but to doorsteps, farm gates, fence lines, wherever you find the people. We’ve ventured out onto country roads that we’d never been on before and we’ve been lost a few times, but it was worth it. And we were the only ones able to do that in this community for those first few months of COVID shutdown,” Debbie explains.
“The community has been majorly affected by the fires and continues to be. Initially, the remedy we were all striving to achieve was community, community, community. The minute COVID hit, all that community had to stop, and that’s why it was such a blessing to be able to continue the chaplaincy, because we were still able to connect with people, which was vital.”
Debbie says while the impact on individuals varies, the common theme is devastation and shock, and, for many, sharing their personal story has been the pathway to recovery.
“The thing is, when people talk it out, they usually work it out. With chaplaincy, you’re just going and visiting and listening – and as they tell their story it’s releasing. Instead of it all being bottled up, it’s bringing it out. And when it’s out, you can look at it and process it. Every time we tell a story, we’re processing it,” said Debbie.
“I fully believe the power of the story is that when we’re willing to share, other people will be willing to share. That then creates connection, trust, vulnerability, relationships and caring, and having people around you who care really changes everything.”
Caring makes a difference for Pauline
Pauline Galloway knows first-hand the difference having someone who cares can make. During the bushfires, Pauline’s home was destroyed and for the second time in her life she found herself piecing her life back together after fire.
“I lost my home to fire about 25 years ago. This time I lost the house and all the outbuildings, except for a timber pergola I had built for my daughter’s wedding about eight years ago. Everything was gone and it will never be retrieved. After last time, I was desperate to make a home again for the kids, but I just can’t see myself doing that again now,” Pauline reflects.
“It was a devastating time. I found I could not get myself motivated. I was sitting a lot. It takes a lot of energy not to think, and I didn’t want to think too much and get down too much.
“It was very hard to connect with people and do things. That first time Deb turned up, it was just good to see a friend that I’d known for a long time; somebody I could just talk to.
I remember saying to Deb at one stage, ‘What I need is somebody to give me a verbal kick up the pants’. I needed someone to ask how I was going with things and tell me to get on with it. And Deb has done that for me. She sent me texts to say ‘Have you been doing this or that’ and that has been good in many ways. She has done that again and again for me but now it’s more like ‘hi, what a lovely day’. And that made a big difference.”
Every bit counts
Debbie says everyone in the community can make a difference for someone.
“Our community is still struggling, and I really encourage people to be involved in supporting others. I recommend just going to visit people – just drop in, talk to them while they’re fencing along the road, go and have a coffee or ask them out to lunch or dinner. Just connect in those little ways,” she encourages.
“Just keep that connection going because there’s power in that and power in sharing our stories.”