Many people feel helpless in the face of the unfolding nationwide bushfire crisis. This is entirely normal as what we are seeing is outside of our control, and as much as we want to be better for the people, the communities, the animals, and for firefighters to not have to die, or be exhausted, or away from their families, at the moment, it isn’t. We are in the middle of it. But it will pass.
Our natural inclination, as social beings, is to help. We help if a friend gets cancer, we cook them meals, we pick up kids, walk dogs. We want to do our bit. These sentiments extend to people we don’t know, but have, as I wrote previously, we feel like we have shared something with them. There are things that can be done, but there are a number of things to be aware.
First and foremost, those that are going through the fires have more often than not lost a feeling of control over their own situation. They can’t make the decisions they are used to making in everyday life. Loss of control is disorienting. We help people to take back control. People also feel overwhelmed by generosity, to the point where they feel guilty about accepting help, and then feel obliged to accept assistance when they feel like they may not need it.
There is a plan. It may not seem like it from the outside, it looks like chaos (it is a disaster), and there will often be a focus on the dramatic (places running out of food and water). But this is what is planned for and practiced by agencies over and over again. Your taxes, rates, and donations make this happen. And we plan to meet basic needs.
If you are eligible, donate blood. With the numbers of burns suffered by firefighters and others, there will be a need for plasma.
The best form of assistance is cash. This has a number of benefits. It allows people, to resume some form of control. They can make choices about what is best for them. This provides them with dignity. It may seem trivial, but if you can choose VitaBrits over Weetbix, you may have restored some semblance of normalcy to you, a fractious children, or a cantankerous parent. These are the small steps to recovery, gaining control, having agency.
Cash can also be used in local businesses, who are going to suffer significant losses. When things are trucked in from outside, then money is not spent in the local economy. I recall a story about the Katherine Floods in 98, when a whitegoods supplier made fridges available. The local retailer didn’t sell another fridge for years.
There are many different ways to channel cash donations. It may be through larger organisations, like my own, Red Cross, or other not for profits, or the Gippsland Emergency Relief Fund or Community Enterprise Foundation or Foundation for Rural and Regional Renewal or the CWA in your state, or the First Nations Bushfire Relief,who might be providing general assistance, or through Go Fund Me pages that are targeting local and very specific needs. Wildlife support organisations will need a lot of financial support as they tend not to get access to government funds. You may want to support local fire brigades. Think about your own personal values and interests, this will help guide your donation. Many smaller, local organisations may not get government funding, and are doing a herculean effort, and would appreciate the assistance.
People often feel that they make a donation but it is not enough, because it feels very transactional (and easy). Do something else to raise funds. IT doesn’t have to be a concert at the MCG. Something simple like host an afternoon tea, a picnic, a pub night, a scrabble championship, it gives you the opportunity to come together and talk about what is happening, how you are feeling, and the power of the group is positive.
Make sure you check the bonafides of smaller organisations. Most are fine, but I hate to say this, but there are people who will take advantage of the situation. Also be wary of people who are collecting for “the bushfire fund” with out any identification.
You will hear people say “I’m not donating to x, because the money doesn’t get to the people, it gets swallowed up in admin, and they all fly first class and stay in 5 star hotels” I actually had someone say that to me as she was taking blood from me once, so it was hard to riposte. Appeals are run to help people. Its what we do. But getting money to people costs money. We keep costs down, but “admin” is rent, electricity and phone bills, postage, transaction costs, salaries (yes, you do have to pay people to process stuff, but remember if they are working for a charity, they will be getting paid less than a similar role in the government/private sector, so the costs are lower, and donating a lot of their time over and above). This is a guide to charities that keep costs down. If people start talking about “they aren’t getting it out there fast enough” there might be a range of reasons. People are reluctant to come forward for charity. Some of the funds might be held to meet future needs (its still early in the fire season for example), a quick distribution could be prone to poor administration, longer term needs might emerge that weren’t anticipated. Those managing appeal funds aren’t just “sitting on it”. There will be a legitimate reason for the speed of distribution.
Crafting is a positive action that can have a range of benefits. There are needs for wildlife that can be crafted. You can knit Trauma Teddies. These are an important part of our psycho-social arsenal. My daughters would often ask me how many Trauma Teddies we had given out. I also recall the power of the quilters, people who make quilts for those that have lost their homes. I didn’t really understand this until seeing them emerge after the Canberra bushfires, and sheer joy they brought people. These can all be great communal activities, as we saw with the strathewen chooks
Donations of goods. A complex and fraught question. This is at the heart of how people want to help. Its easy to go to the wardrobe, the pantry, or round to the supermarket and pull together a few things. But, our experience is that these donations can become the second disaster. Donated goods need to be checked, packed, transported, stored, and distributed. It can overwhelm organisations who are trying to provide support in the field. It cost the state government in Victoria millions to store the donated goods collected after Black Saturday. That’s millions that could be spent on other things. There are many instances of inappropriate items, in my experience, blue flavoured milk for New Guinea, Stilettos for Tonga, a frying pan complete with sausage congealed in fat stand out. I kid you not.
But donated goods might be appropriate, if the community has called for a specific need (eg fodder for livestock, snack boxes for firefighters, materials for animals), and there is a clear pathway to get them there and distribute them. If someone is calling for donations, make sure you ask, “has the community asked for these?” . Organisations like Givit run a matching service, where needs are posted and people can meet them. Foodbank accept donations of food (and have been active in getting food to Mallacoota, for instance). Again, think about what the longer term impact of your donation might be (as mentioned above). If you have clothes or furniture, perhaps run a garage sale, and then donate the proceeds. Its also a good community building event.
Volunteering is also complex. The skills are required to fight fires, to manage evacuation centres, to provide psychological first aid. Its not just a matter of sending people out there to do stuff. Done incorrectly, it can be at best ineffective, at worst traumatising or putting people at risk. Volunteering is also a time commitment, so having a Tuesday afternoon free is not that useful for an organisation that needs someone for a 4 day stint, in a remote location. But bear in mind, these fires will go on for a long time yet, and the recovery will be significant. We had volunteers banging on people’s doors nearly 5 years after Black Saturday. So think about what you can offer, and who might be best to take up your skills.
And of course, you can prepare yourself for disaster. We have seen that it can happen to anyone, anytime, anywhere. Download our Get Ready App and do your preparedness. It’s easy and doesn’t take much time, and can make you feel much more in control.
And finally, down the track participate. Call for change. We need to invest more in building disaster resilience. We need to take action on climate change, to mitigate against this happening, and to adapt to climate change. Start the conversation with your elected representatives, your friends, your suppliers of services. It is Ok to have these conversations now and maintain them into the future.
The feeling is that we need to act now, as we feel like bystanders. Its important to remember as I wrote days ago, that the recovery will be long, and there will be many things that we can do to support people and communities in their recovery. We’re only at the start, but there’s a lot we can do, together.