Founding hands

Belinda Harrison
Page 1 Story 001 8 column 001
HOMESTEAD: Loretta Carroll and horse Elenora look out over their property. PHOTO: Belinda Harrison

IT was 6pm on February 7, 2009 when the first fire started in what would become known as the Beechworth-Mudgegonga fire during the Black Saturday Royal Commission.

A tree had fallen on a power line on Buckland Gap Road, Beechworth and ignited the vegetation at the base of the pole.

Crews were immediately dispatched but their initial attacks to contain the blaze were unsuccessful due to the location and weather conditions and by 7.10pm warnings were issued for direct ember attacks in the communities of Stanley, Barwidgee Creek and Mudgegonga.

Urgent threat messages continued to be issued with a south-westerly change expected to reach the fire ground between 11pm and midnight but with electricity and communications cut off in many areas, getting the message out had to be done by local crews.

Firefighting resources were gathered from a number of local Victorian and NSW areas and included 133 CFA and 97 Networked Emergency Organisation (NEO) personnel, 23 CFA appliances, 89 NEO appliances and two aircraft.

The firestorm burned fiercely and without care for what stood in its path until just before 4am on Saturday morning when the wind eased and weather conditions settled.

But by then the damage had been done.

Thirty-eight houses and sheds had been destroyed or damaged and farming equipment and stock lost.

But a more devastating and tragic discovery was to be made that Saturday morning when the bodies of locals John and Sue Wilson were found at their property – the fire front having razed their home around midnight on Friday.

By the time the fire was finally contained on February 16, it had burnt through 33,577 hectares – 23,500 of that State Park but it took until April 27 to be declared safe.

For born and bred Mudgegonga resident Loretta Carroll, who farms beef cattle and sheep on her property, the 2009 Beechworth-Mudgegonga fire hit extremely close to home, with almost 80 percent of her property affected when she lost a hay shed, all her fodder and 47 of her cows.

“I live about two kilometres from where John and Sue Wilson lived and their deaths certainly hit us all hard…it was devastating,” Loretta said.

In the aftermath of the tragedy, and putting aside her own losses, Loretta shone, with her property becoming a hay depot and she organised the distribution of the hay to those who lost all of their feed; she also worked with the CFA and her neighbours to rebuild their lives.

Loretta was approached by the Victorian Bushfire Appeal Fund (VBAF) to represent the area by sitting on the Community Advisory Committee of VBAF as the sole representative for those affected by the Beechworth-Mudgegonga fire.

The role of the committee was to decide, along with representatives from other fire-affected areas across the state, how to allocate the $16 million interest earned on the donations made to the fire appeal.

“We worked together on the issues facing the fire-affected areas and the VBAF arranged a forum in Myrtleford to give people an opportunity to consider our long-term priorities and needs,” she said.

“Local community members and representatives from the Alpine and Indigo shire councils attended the forum and it was decided that a community foundation was an appropriate tool to roll-out the long-term needs of the communities affected by the fires and allow our communities to take charge of and manage our projects.”

“I had been involved in seeking financial support and community grants and I found that what was available was often restrictive and outside the needs of our particular community.

“Setting up the foundation gave our communities more say and control of where the funds went and how they were used…it encouraged local people to play a pivotal role in long-term planning.

“It was also a way to bring everyone together and make opportunities available to direct the funds where they were wanted.”

The initiative was supported and Loretta became the founding chair of Into Our Hands – an organisation which raises money and invests and funds initiatives for local communities.

Early days saw the foundation funding water points for emergencies, establishing a UHF community radio network, undertaking community fire planning and landscape development which included planting deciduous fire-resistant trees.

In 2018/19, $127,000 was given towards local projects including lighting at the Dederang Recreation Reserve, upgrades at the Piazza church hall in Myrtleford, and a business case for community off-grid power project for Totally Renewal Yackandandah – a project which has now moved into the next phase and become the first community-owned energy company and project in Australia.

For her work after the fires with the CFA and the establishment of the Into Our Hands foundation, Loretta received the National Emergency Medal and was also a finalist in the Bluescope Leadership Innovation Award.

Last month, after seven years at the helm, Loretta felt it was time to hand over the reins and has retired from her position of chair, passing the mantle to Ruth Kneebone.

Loretta will continue to be on the board and take a keen interest in the foundation and remains closely linked with her local community through her involvement with the local Landcare group, Cattle Producers Australia board and the Ovens Valley branch of the VFF.

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