When New South Wales and Queensland received catastrophic bushfire warnings in November, I don’t think anyone expected to still be choking on smoke a month later. And new blazes are continuing to burn across the state…

This fire disaster is unlike any Australia has seen before, and for Sydneysider Anouk Berney, she had to see the damage for herself to truly understand the severity of it all. She took a week of unpaid leave from work, jumped in her car and headed north, not knowing what she’d find. It’s safe to say she’s come back with a changed frame of mind.

‘I’d read a bunch of articles and had seen some photos of the fires online so I knew it was bad, but I still couldn’t wrap my head around just how bad. Numbers don’t mean much to me. The media kept telling me how bad it was but I couldn’t grasp what that meant. I wanted to go and see for myself just how real it is. The further north I ventured the more real it became.’

‘Having grown up by the beach in south-eastern Sydney, I’ve always been relatively unaffected and protected from all the environmental disasters that occur within our state. When disasters are kept to remote areas we forget about it. I’m super glad the smoke has affected the city – people are finally taking action because it’s such a crisis in the city.’

‘My curiosity is what inspired me. On my commute home from work, I was mesmerised by the fluro red sun reflecting off buildings in the city, but mostly disturbed by the smell of the fires and the warm heavy breeze. It felt so strange that everyone just kept about their way as usual. I couldn’t just sit there and read about how bad it was, I needed to see it for myself.’ 

‘I drove myself in my little Mazda 3, which somehow survived all the unsealed roads and bush-bashing (although only just). My friend Jack came up for the first day and night. I kept updating a friend with where I was each night.’

‘I left Sydney with the hopes of finding some place to volunteer along the way. I visited the BlazeAid camp in Ebor, a volunteer-based organisation which helps to rebuild fences that have been destroyed after natural disasters. The situation in Ebor was so bad that volunteers were just on standby for days at the camp, armed with hoses and buckets should the fire blow toward them as predicted.’ 

‘I realised that my being there was actually more of an inconvenience, and that the most you can do to help in an active fire zone is to leave and go someplace safe (unless you’re trained and equipped to help combat the fires). So in the end, I suppose the most helpful thing I could do was show empathy and compassion to those I met who shared their story – kindness goes a long way.’ 

‘Driving through small country towns that had been ravaged by fire, I began engaging a lot more with the community. Hearing victims share so openly about how they watched either their home or their neighbour’s home go up in flames was such a powerful and overwhelming experience. It all began to feel very real. I think the most shocking part was standing on properties where a home once stood, which had now been reduced to piles of ash. It really takes some time to take it all in.’

‘I started taking photos on a property that had nothing left on it. Burnt out cars, corrugated iron rooves that had collapsed. There was a clothesline and you could make out where the foundations of the house were. An old dairy farmer came up to me and told me about his neighbour whose house had burnt down. A lovely old man who is always fixing things for his neighbours and friends around town. His house was up in flames in minutes.’ 

‘He made it off his property in his car, unscathed. But he had no insurance, and for the odd jobs he did, he was paid in cash. He had a jam jar of cash he took with him. The old man is now staying in town with an old friend. This dairy farmer who already has so little is trying to support him financially. This shouldn’t be his responsibility.’ 

‘I watched helicopters go over and over and over. 

To arrive a week after a helicopter pilot has said, ‘this is too big and we’re not gonna win’, it really hits home. It’s us against nature and you realise there’s not much you can do. The question is ‘how can we prevent these fires from destroying more homes and more lives?’ It’s very much working our way around the fire, not trying to fight it. Everyone has accepted we’re not going to win.’

‘They know that they can’t put it out. What they need is an intense amount of rain. There’s not enough water that helicopters can drop from the sky.’

‘I’m a lot more terrified than I was before visiting these fire zones, and I feel much more invested in the cause. While I’m absolutely devastated that these fires are continuing – I’m relieved to see that it’s finally waking people up as it burns closer to our homes in the city. It’s a shame that it’s taken Sydney to start choking for people to start reacting.’

‘I’m always pretty stumped and disheartened by how hard it is to find a place where my time is considered valuable, since money tends to be the top priority (understandably so). That’s what I like about BlazeAid. Anyone is welcome to come and lend a hand, and there isn’t a bunch of criteria like mandatory skills or minimum stays to complicate and deter you from the process. They do more than just build fences – they see the value in positive volunteers being a support network within the community by simply being there.

For those who are looking to donate, there are so many great charities out there doing incredible work that need help! Give what you can!’