Reinforcements hit the firegrounds

Woolgoolga Backpackers owner Sam Newman (far right) with Blaze Aid Glenreagh volunteers (from left) Pantaleo Ruocco, Mark Perrone Hannah Jackson and Kristian Fernandez-Brown.
Woolgoolga Backpackers owner Sam Newman (far right) with Blaze Aid Glenreagh volunteers (from left) Pantaleo Ruocco, Mark Perrone Hannah Jackson and Kristian Fernandez-Brown.

CHANGES to immigration laws are already reaping rewards as backpackers descend on fire-ravaged lands to help the recovery effort.

In February the Federal Govenment announced they would expand the types of work those on working holiday visas could do to include volunteering and construction in bushfire affected areas to make up enough days to qualify for the coveted second-year visa.

Previously, backpackers were limited to doing 88 days of farm work, but in a boon for the bushfire recovery effort, that has all changed.

Blaze Aid founder Kevin Butler said he had been calling for the change ever since having a conversation with a couple of volunteering backpackers during the height of the bushfire crisis.

They told him there would be many more like them if it counted toward their 88 days.

And they were not wrong.

Already Blaze Aid has been inundated with inquiries and many, including Canadian backpackers Mark Perrone and Kristian Fernandez-Brown, had started volunteering already.

The pair were working from the Glenreagh camp, thoroughly enjoying their time repairing fences on Nana Glen properties.

 

Mark Perrone and Kristian Fernandez-Brown on a Glens Creek Road property in Nana Glen.
Mark Perrone and Kristian Fernandez-Brown on a Glens Creek Road property in Nana Glen.

 

"We have only been here a week and we have met so many volunteers and farmers and it has already been one of the highlights of my 10 months in the country," Mr Perrone said.

"A big part is building the fences, but a lot of it is having those conversations with people - having a chat can make a big difference."

Mr Fernandez-Brown added that the work was a bit more meaningful than picking fruit and said the law changes gave that extra bit of motivation to get involved.

"You come out and you see the devastation that these e farmers have had to deal with and you see how big the jobs are - for one single family to do it on their own would be so difficult."

"The area has been good to us so we may as well give something back to the community and you go home with a sense of achievement."

 

Previously, when the pair's work on the blueberry farms dried up due to drought, fire and rain, the owner of Woolgoolga Backpackers, their temporary home, also started pushing for the law change.

Sam Newman had heard about Blaze Aid some years ago but said it wasn't until the bushfire emergency that he wrote to local MP Gurmesh Singh suggesting the same change as Mr Butler as a means of helping backpackers and bushfire victims alike.

 

Hannah Jackson and Kristian Fernandez-Brown working in Nana Glen.
Hannah Jackson and Kristian Fernandez-Brown working in Nana Glen.

 

"As it turned out someone had already started that process and one day I woke up and there were facebook announcements saying get backpackers involved for their 88 days."

"She (his receptionist) would field two or three queries a day and there there are about five or six coming in the next couple of days."

He was now bringing a busload of volunteers to the Glenreagh camp each day and volunteering three days a week himself.

Glenreagh Blaze Aid coordinator John Lillicove was grateful to have more "young and fit" reinforcements in the camp and said they had been exceptional.

"With these young people coming in they are like mountain goats - young legs make a world of difference," he said.

"We have the know how - the fencing knowledge - to show them and these people can do the hard yards running out the wire."