icare's bushfire response team hits the road — stories from the fire zone

Sanctuary Point local Cheryl Fletcher knew her business was in trouble the moment she heard about the bushfires that threatened to decimate her community on the NSW South Coast.

icare staff visiting bushfire affected area of Eden.

From Left to Right, Ronelle, Ashley and Lisa from icare's bushfire response team in Eden.

Since 1985, Cheryl and her husband have been running their own business delivering linen and uniforms to local restaurants, caravan parks and supermarkets. Traditionally, summer is their busiest time of the year setting them up for the winter months. This year, though, would be different. Severe fires caused caravan parks to shut their doors and local roads to close meaning her drivers were out of work.

She was one of many icare customers and members of the public impacted by the fires who reached out to icare’s mobile bushfire response team for assistance as it visited coastal communities from Nowra to Eden over the last few weeks.

icare visits the South Coast

Beginning in Nowra with icare’s specialty lung bus, a range of services was offered to help members of the public including free lung tests to anyone worried about their health or with a pre-existing medical condition that might be exacerbated by breathing smoke from the bushfires. On hand was a GP and several insurance experts who were able to provide advice on personal injury and workers compensation claims. Amongst those who took advantage of the free lung testing were members of the Rural Fire Service and State Emergency Service.

From there, it was off to Sanctuary Point a bit further south, where the focus was on workers compensation. Cheryl’s workers compensation insurance premium was due, and she was struggling to pay it. She still had the ongoing costs of running her business but without the regular income.

“A face-to-face discussion with icare was really fantastic. I was able to explain my situation and was given a three-month deferral on the spot. I was so grateful as this gives me the chance to catch up,” she said.

During the height of the fires, Sanctuary Point experienced extremely active fires to the south and west causing the sky to turn black. Local businesses were concerned about how they would survive the year and did not understand what support was available or who to contact.

icare’s bushfire response team was able to give business owners detailed information about how to look after themselves and their employees after the fires with an emphasis on mental health. They were also provided with contact details for other local and state agencies that may be able to assist and a list of phone numbers for local medical centres from Ulladulla to Nowra.

icare meets Trina and Andrew McVeigh

A little further down the coast sits the small hamlet of Sussex Inlet. For four days this tourist hotspot was cut off, completely isolated and without power. With the only road in to town closed during this time many employees were trapped and unable to return home. The local RSL became an emergency evacuation centre providing as many as 800 meals on any given night.

Local couple and business owners Trina and Andrew McVeigh made a booking with the bushfire response team to seek advice about their workers compensation insurance. They worked through much of the crisis from their home office and then evacuated with their dogs to their daughter’s home in Wollongong. They had felt quite affected by the smoke and were concerned about the impact this might have had on their health. They were given detailed contacts for local healthcare providers, masks and an employer pack with information on how to take care of themselves after the fires.

Next stop Eden then Mogo

A week later the bushfire response team travelled to the far South Coast town of Eden. Here, along with Service NSW, the Red Cross and the Department of Health, they helped provide the public face of icare and had one-on-one discussions with customers. Jane Cahill owns the Quarantine Bay Beach cottages. January, she says, is her busiest time of the year but most of her bookings were cancelled this year. Her annual workers compensation insurance premium was due, but she only wanted to renew for six months.

“I was really very stressed due to the fires and the lack of bookings so it was reassuring to know that I could speak with a human being and get what I needed done in person. It gave me a lot of confidence to know that I could get it done so easily. The team were really helpful,” she said.

Heading home the next day, the team made an unscheduled visit to Mogo, home to the famous Mogo Zoo. The bushfires ravaged this small country town of just 322 local residents. In the main street, the old church was razed to the ground along with historic tea rooms and shops. Business owners were struggling for help and didn’t know where to turn. The crew split in to two groups and walked the streets, visiting every business in town offering advice on workers compensation, handing out information packs and just listening. The community of Mogo is a tight knit one with a determined spirit and they will rebuild.

“These communities have been through a terrible experience and need help to rebuild and recover. The community was pleased to see icare supporting them in person and that we were able to alleviate some of the anxieties that they currently faced, particularly in trying to rebuild their businesses.” said Lisa Cahill, icare’s Community Engagement Lead.

It may take years for these communities to recover from these devastating bushfires and there will be a lot of uncertainty for many people, but one thing is certain, icare stands ready to help when needed.