“It hits the soul when you can see all that devastation when people have worked so hard to bring their land, stock and their business to a standard that they’re happy with. It takes years to get to that level and it can be gone in a few moments.” Rhonda Butler.
This is a story about a “very private person” who found herself at the heart of something very public.
Out of the ashes of the most destructive bushfires in Australia’s history, Black Saturday in 2009, Rhonda Butler and her husband Kevin were faced with acres of burnt farmland and no fencing, exposing 1,500 sheep to the freeway.
They recruited volunteers to help rebuild not only their fences but nearly five thousand kilometres of fencing on OTHER PEOPLE’S farms.
It became a full-time job. For 9 months Rhonda’s home became a volunteer headquarters for thousands to come through. She lived with a house full of strangers, cooking for them and played a role in restoring order to the charred chaos. This was the start of BlazeAid, a respected volunteer organisation which rallies people to help in natural disasters.
Martine Harte: For people who don’t know your story, could you take us back to the horrific Black Saturday, what was your personal experience?
Rhonda Butler: We had no idea what we were doing at first Martine, it was survival, 7 days a week. I can tell you it was a pretty devastating sight, we had only lost 60 acres but our neighbours had lost acres and acres and acres of land. It hits the soul when you can see all that devastation when people have worked so hard to bring their land, stock and their business to a standard that they’re happy with. It takes years to get to that level and it can be gone in a few moments.
How did you manage to turn the devastation into a positive?
We were really fortunate we had so many people who were willing to help. I’m really lucky Kevin is a very good manager he can talk to people easily. This was all happening in my home, I’m a pretty private person and this was a big learning curve for me, my house became everybody else’s house, people in my lounge room, in my kitchen. We were running hard and fast because we knew what we were doing was for the betterment of people. We were having a positive affect so that kept us going.
Was there a particular story which has stuck with you?
There was one lady who lost her husband in the fires and they had a couple of small children… (sighs heavily) look we were just hearing stories left, right and centre. You didn’t have time to think about it, you just worked as much as you could and you were with like-minded people and they kept you going.
There were days when you felt like chucking it all in because you’re dealing with people and it can be really hard dealing with bureaucrats. For me it was the realisation that we’d only lost 60 acres and 3 kilometres of fencing and we drove up the road and I could see hundreds of acres of farmland into ashes. So many people lost loved ones.
I understand you had people from all walks of life turning up to help from a plastic surgeon to people in their 70’s?
They were inspirational! We were all bouncing off each other, we were all feeding off the euphoria of being able to actually help. We couldn’t put up houses, we couldn’t rebuild people’s sheds or anything like that, we couldn’t replace a husband, but we could do something.
It’s amazing because so many people in modern life sometimes lack faith in the good of human beings, of our capacity to do good things … I guess that’s one of your blessings because you’ve witnessed it?
It really was an absolute eye-opener as to what the ‘Aussie spirit’ is all about, we haven’t lost it and the power is in the everyday person, it’s not in the bureaucrats or the government. It’s in the ability to be able to take charge, because I think we can be very apathetic. We hear all the negative stuff in the media all the time. I’m not trying to sing our own praises but this is a fantastic story because it’s the everyday Australian who picked up arms to battle the elements.
And this was a real partnership between you and your husband Kevin, how long have you guys been married?
We’ve been married 36 and a half years..
So what is the key to your successful relationship?
I guess we’ve always been soul mates, for me personally he was always a great friend. I was always able to talk to him, even more closely than I could with some of my girlfriends. We married at 18. It was a different time back then and more acceptable to get married at an early age. There are so many more opportunities for young women to shine in this day and age. That being said Kevin and I grew up together, we struggled and grew together. We have the same ethics.
Australia is a very fickle place and unfortunately there will be more fires and floods, so in that situation what would you advise people who wanted to help?
Log in to the network of people like the Salvation Army or our website. We really do need to have some sort of national volunteers register, people are fantastic, they are willing to help but they have to be given the opportunity. If we could have a national register of volunteers that we could access that would be fabulous.
Featured image: thanks to Amy Hume
You can find out more on www.blazeaid.com.au/