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How to Support Bushfire Victims

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by Simon Lenthen (subscribe)
I am a playwright, poet and actor. I live in the Blue Mountains in NSW. Visit my blog at
Published October 23rd 2013
Handy advice to recover from a bushfire
The current bushfires in the Blue Mountains, Southern Highlands, and Central Coast have had devastating consequences for victims, friends of victims and people who wish to help. This article hopes to help everybody. There is advice for everyone.

Photo by David Iliff via Wikipedia

It is based on two sources. The first is a Facebook post by bushfire victim Helen Nicholson. Helen's home burnt down in June. She wrote a post that described the experience and expressed what she felt she needed to help her through the re-establishment of her home. She has four children and lots of animals. I have used a lot of her words as written and have provided structure for readability.

The second source of information is my own research. We both hope that you find this information useful and comforting in the coming couple of months.

I'll start with helping people who have lost homes or suffered damage during the bushfires. If you haven't lost your house please feel free to skip to the next section. But it may help your understanding if you continue to read.

If your house/stuff/combination of both is gone:

1. It's going to get better. There'll be days when you really miss your stuff. That's okay. It was your stuff and you wouldn't have had it if you didn't like it. But in time, you'll find yourself actually enjoying new stuff. And you'll have made so many new friends that you'll have moments where you'll feel weird for thinking this has turned out to be one of the best things that ever happened to you, or at least as not as bad as you first thought.

[ADVERT]2. You're going to have moments where you're so stressed you're going to worry if it's going to kill you. Research says this is only the case if you think of stress as bad. So accept help, even though we Mountains people are proud. Having people around helps you cope with the stress.

I encourage you to seek counselling help. Your workplace may have a counselling program in place that you can use for free. There are also counselling services provided by the government. Use this link to find out more.

3. If you have anything at all left, don't throw it out until you've tried to clean it. Remember, even if you're insured to the hilt, it won't cover everything. It's nice to have something familiar, no matter how little it resembles its former glory. Shove stuff in bags/boxes and store it. Get out a box/bag at a time and try my cleaning suggestions below before dumping. Understand there's a massive difference between what your insurer writes off and what you can, with willpower, salvage (see cleaning hints below).

4. Call your insurer and take them up on things like temporary accommodation and trauma counselling. We found Astina Apartments in Penrith brilliant, but anywhere with a fridge, dishwasher, washing machine, dryer and running hot water will be great.

5. If you have kids:

a. get them back to school ASAP. It really helps everyone - they and their friends can see that each other are okay, they can talk, and you can clean up without them in the way.

b. explain to them what's going on. They'll have worries you don't expect. e.g. we had a bathroom spared but our boys were too scared to go in as they thought the roof would collapse. Sometimes they don't have the words to express their fears. That's where we found the psychologist so great - I don't know how, but they find out what kids are worried about so you can then help.

c. expect nightmares and tantrums. Give them night lights, even if they don't ask.

d. ask them what they'd like that would make them feel a bit 'back to normal'. For our 13-year-old, it was her hair-straightener. For our 10 and 6-year-olds, it was their Wii. Our now 3-year-old has done best with Lego fire stuff.

6. Cleaning:

a. you're going to need Nivea Pure and Natural hand cream or something similar that's heavy duty and non-greasy. Gloves are well and good, but you'll still need hand cream.

b. clothes/linen/soft toys - wash in warm water with double-dose Napisan/laundry soaker and double-dose concentrated fabric softener. Repeat if necessary. If you've got the soot out but it still smells, spray with Febreze.

c. furnishings you can't wash - rub/blot with a wet microfibre cloth, preferably with a bit of Morning Fresh Power Soaker on it, to get as much of the soot off as you can. Dry with an old cloth nappy or similar. Spray with Febreze.

d. plastics - wash with Morning Fresh Power Soaker and an old toothbrush or similar, depending on size, then run through dishwasher and vigorously dry with an old tea towel/cloth nappy/etc. Then wonder how on earth you missed all the black that's still on it.

e. wood (chopping boards/chairs/table/etc) - scrub with microfibre cloth wet with dishwashing water. Dry with cloth nappy/etc. Repeat, repeat, repeat.

f. walls, etc - we'd just finished painting, installing wardrobes, etc, when our place burnt. Sadly, you're really best to start again on these, using something like Zinsser B-I-N Stain Blocker to stop the black bleeding through again.

7. Restocking. Every household is different, but with four kids we found the following most helpful:

• Kitchen - kettle, toaster, can opener, microwave, slow cooker
• Laundry - washing machine, dryer
• Bathroom - everyone's favourite toiletries went down a treat

8. If you live in the Blue Mountains, a recovery centre has opened up at the Springwood Presbyterian Church on Macquarie Road in the centre of Springwood. It is open from 8am – 6pm. You can find a wide range of services to help you recover from the bushfire.

Agencies represented at the Recovery Centre include:
-Disaster Welfare Services
-Rural Fire Service
-NSW Health
-Legal Aid
-Insurance Council of Australia and major insurance companies.

If you live in other affected areas please contact your local council to see if they have a similar recovery centre.

9. Please be wary of strangers/tradesmen who approach you directly to offer services or claim to be from your insurance company. There have been reports of scam-artists trying to take advantage of people in distress. Ask for their details and tell them you will get back to them. If they don't wish to give you their details then say that you will contact their company directly. As they leave try and get the license plate details of their car and contact the police.

If your friends/family have lost their homes/parts of their homes:

1. Don't say, "Let me know what I can do..." Go to them and say, "I'm here to help, give me something to do." We know you mean well, but we aren't exactly thinking clearly or know what to do next - if you get met with a blank stare or babble, look around and say, "How about I help with this?" Your loved one will feel a little bit more in control and grateful someone is thinking better than they are.

2. Please remember that we might get so many texts a day we can't possibly reply to all. Please be the kind of person that comes to help. What to bring when you rock up:

a. Toothbrush, toothpaste, deodorant, sanitary pads, nappies, Solvol, heavy duty soap, shampoo, and other toiletries. Nivea Pure and Natural hand cream worked best for us and we went through more bottles of Morning Fresh Power Soak (green bottle dishwashing liquid) and Febreze than we bothered to count.

b. Lunch or dinner. Don't assume you're a bad cook. If your family has survived your cooking all these years, chances are you cook our kids' favourite meals, too. I remember one day hoovering down sandwiches a lady brought like they were the most brilliant sandwiches I'd ever eaten, and later learning she'd been worried they wouldn't be good enough. Trust me, people - they're GREAT!

Just please remember to check for food allergies. Please remember to come and pick up your bowls/etc - we'll have no idea who gave us what and it feels bad when you can't return it or something goes missing.

c. If your friends only escaped with the clothes on their backs, by all means give them fresh clothes but don't forget to take their stinky clothes and wash them. There's nothing as sanity-saving as getting back in your own clothes! Use warm water, double Napisan/laundry soaker and double concentrated fabric conditioner to get the smoke smell out. Sometimes you'll need to do this twice. Febreze anything you can't wash or needs that little bit extra.

3. Make sure your loved ones have all their medications. Offer to go pick up script refills. They won't necessarily remember important stuff like that. Our house burnt down two days before an important sports competition - check if they need anything urgent for events like that. Help HSC students get misadventure forms sorted. Ring employers and arrange leave. A family will likely need one parent home for the next month, as there's so much to sort out. Babysitting or distracting younger kids will be very helpful and appreciated. Parents sometimes need alone time for themselves to think through their feelings.

4. They're going to need help for months and months yet. This will be harder as time goes on and life gets busy again. When you pop round to temporary accommodation for a chat/coffee, help while you're doing it. We're still scrubbing soot off stuff and there's always a mountain of washing that stops you having the time to scrub the soot. Just tell us to stop being silly if we say we don't need help and get in there and help anyway. We'll love you all the more, even though we'll worry we'll never be able to repay you and don't know how to thank you enough.

5. If you live too far away to help in person, send gift cards. The ones we found most helpful were for Officeworks, K Mart /Coles, and Big W/Woollies. Don't assume insurance will cover everything - even posting a block of chocolate will lift spirits more than you can imagine!

If you wish to help and you don't know how:

• Donate money to charity organisations including Salvation Army, St Vincent de Paul and the Rural Fire Service. These organisations would prefer cash donation rather than clothes and household items.

• Offer accommodation to displaced victims. In the Blue Mountains the Springwood Sports Club is keeping a register of free accommodation. Please call them on 02 4751 1298.

• If you have household items there are several collection centres in the Blue Mountains, including the Springwood Country Club, and the Uniting Church at Springwood.

• As an alternative you may wish to purchase gift cards. In addition to the list above Llyods IGA at Springwood has gift cards available for sale. Coles and Target operate at Winmalee.

• Monitor Facebook groups like "Got Something to Give" and "Blue Mountains Firewatch", as there are usually people who can answer questions about donations and other bushfire related issues.

• Please stay away from affected areas if you are not related or are not friends with anyone living there. Unnecessary traffic may hamper relief and fire fighting efforts.

Helen also wrote a note for the firies, and I agree with her wholeheartedly:

Please know that we appreciate your efforts, even when you couldn't save much or anything of our stuff. So far in the Mountains, you've kept every single one of us alive. Thank you.

NSW Firefighters - 'You all rock.' (Image from Wikimedia Commons).
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Your Comment
great article, but i dont donate to salvos or the big organisations, it doesnt always get to the required people. I prefer to donate to individual companies that may need it more than the next. really enjoyed reading this, bought a tear to my eye
by Anne Dignam (score: 2|870) 3524 days ago
Salvation Army should be using their milllions to give people who have lost their homes due to the bushfires new homes and caravans if they live in them and stop wasting money on Couselling. Build the homes and then fill them with furniture whitegoods etc. Food is donated, Water donated, clothing and other items donated so where is the money going only in Sallies funds
by suemn (score: 0|7) 3493 days ago
An amazing article...highly informative especially for people who are far away from the bush of the best articles I have ever read.

I will donate money tomorrow for the Bushfire victims and encourage others to do the same. Every little bit helps.

Also, it is high time we accept and acknowledge that climate change is really happening and is not a fiction. And we need to make our own little contributions (monetary and non-monetary) to negate or reduce the impacts of climate change.
by Joy (score: 3|1945) 3518 days ago
Since I wrote this article, the Blue Mountains City Council announced the creation of a Mayoral Relief Fund. Click on this link for more information.
by Simon Lenthen (score: 1|62) 3524 days ago
An eye-opening, honest and touching article. Thank you for printing it
by jajsh (score: 2|154) 3520 days ago
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