The bushfires ravaging Australia have made international headlines over the past few months with countless stories of heartbreak and heroism emerging from the devastation.
Fires, road closures, poor air quality and the need for emergency services to use our open spaces during this time has caused 10% of parkrun events across the country to cancel events, several for extended periods.
One such event was Braidwood Showground parkrun in NSW which reopened on Saturday following 10 weeks of cancellations. Thanks to the generosity of the Braidwood community, who invited us into their homes, businesses, farms and workplaces, we heard their stories of adversity and survival, and discovered how getting their parkrun back up and running is having a profound impact on the health, economy and morale of this historic country town.
There’s a running joke in my family that relates to the town of Braidwood, in the southern tablelands of New South Wales. When I was a kid, each May my dad would drive us from our home on the NSW south coast down to Nimmitabel in the Snowy Mountains for the regional schools cross country championships.
And, being on the verge of winter, every year it was so cold when we stopped in Braidwood for lunch that I would refuse to get out of the car. According to my dad I was an adult before I actually set foot in Braidwood for the first time.
Recently however, the bitter winter temperatures in this beautiful historic town are no longer the first thing that spring to mind when someone mentions Braidwood. Not for me, and not for many others across Australia and throughout the world. Since last November, ferocious bushfires have cut the town off from the outside world.
Braidwood relies heavily on through traffic to sustain its businesses and the economic effects on the town’s economy and its workforce – which rely on customers – has been well documented. In communities such as Braidwood, isolation brings devastation.
Driving up the Kings Highway when it finally re-opened last week shows exactly why Braidwood has been a ghost town for so long. The highway is flanked by kilometre after kilometre of charred earth and trees burnt from root to tip. The heat was so intense that road signs have melted.
Paul Clarke, a volunteer with the NSW Rural Fire Service for the past 13 years and a Run Director at Braidwood Showground parkrun since it launched in 2018, recalls how quickly life changed for the 1600 residents of Braidwood last November.
“The North Black Ridge fire was about 30 kilometres west of us and I thought I’d just be babysitting a bulldozer that day. But before we knew it the fire had moved to just a few kilometres of Braidwood and we were deployed for property protection. Nobody had seen a fire behave this way – the wind was coming from all directions and blanketing everything in smoke.
“Debris was being dumped in the town so my wife and children evacuated to Batemans Bay for the night and the woman in the hotel didn’t even charge my wife for staying there. There were fires down there too, so they came back to Braidwood the next day, picked up some more things and evacuated to Canberra.”
It wasn’t long before Braidwood was surrounded by fires with all three main roads into town cut off.
Katie Tooth, a teacher at the local primary school, remembers vividly that afternoon on Friday 29 November.
“There were burnt leaves falling in the playground. I rushed home to our property on the outskirts of town, packed up the kids and put fire retardant out with my husband. Before we knew it the fire came over the hill to about 200 metres of our property. Then, by some miracle, the winds shifted and we were spared.”
Others weren’t so lucky however, with several properties and buildings unable to be saved.
The wellbeing of the pupils is now a priority after the trauma of the fires and the disruption of their routines, including the school being closed for six of the final 10 days of the school year.
“The cumulative affect of the past couple of months is really taking its toll on the kids. If they haven’t seen a fire with their own eyes they’ve witnessed the aftermath,” Katie says.
“We haven’t been able to do swimming lessons, interest groups have been cancelled and whereas normally we’d be preparing artwork for the annual Braidwood Show, it’s been cancelled along with the local races. Lots of our pupils go to parkrun with their families but it’s been cancelled too for the past nine weeks.
“Everybody is living in a constant state of anxiety and praying that nothing else happens. We had a helicopter fly over the school today and people were looking around nervously asking each other what was going on.”
Along with the psychological impact on the residents of Braidwood, this disaster has had a deep effect on the town’s economy. Braidwood relies heavily on traffic passing through the town and spending money in local businesses.
Entering Braidwood exactly nine weeks after the first bushfire threatened the town it was immediately clear how excited people were about life beginning to return to normal. The Welcome to Braidwood sign had a hand painted board next to it thanking people for visiting, several businesses displayed placards and blackboards in front of their stores thanking their customers, and bright coloured streams adorned every lamppost in the main street to indicate that Braidwood is open for business once more.
Business, and Braidwood Showground parkrun.
On the outskirts of town is the pretty Braidwood Showground, which has played host to parkrun since September 2018. The bushfires however forced the event to be cancelled from 23 November until 1 February, with the highly anticipated ‘re-launch’ attracting locals and tourists alike who made the journey to show their solidarity.
Lili Mooney from Canberra said “We travelled from Canberra to support the town because my favourite part of Saturdays is waking up and doing parkrun, but we’ve missed out on that a lot recently because our own events have been cancelled due to the bushfires and the smoke.”
Fellow Canberran Dave Turner added “I know how special parkrun is for every community. Unfortunately we’ve had to cancel four of our recent parkruns due to the bushfire smoke so we wanted to come and lend a hand to Braidwood Showground parkrun which has been cancelled a lot longer than us and really share that community vibe.”
The local parkrun community worked closely with BlazeAid to find a way for parkrun to re-start, with the BlazeAid camp currently set up in the middle of the Showground and expected to be there for at least the next six months.
BlazeAid was created in the aftermath of the Black Saturday bushfires in 2009 that claimed 173 lives, working with rural people to rebuild damaged or destroyed fences and other structures after natural disasters such as fire and floods.
Nikki McCarthy Hicks from Wollongong, who travelled more than two hours to volunteer as a course marshal, said: “It’s great to see how closely parkrun and BlazeAid have worked together to get this parkrun back up and running after 10 weeks of cancellations. Lots of people in this community have been involved in fighting the fires and volunteering in other capacities so I think it’s really important that we show the community what support we can.”
BlazeAid not only helps to rebuild towns but creates opportunities for volunteers to utilise their skills and and share them with fellow volunteers. It is fitting that two of Australia’s largest providers of volunteering opportunities are operating alongside each other, working to help rebuild morale in the local community.
Lloyd, a keen parkrunner who was volunteering as a car park marshal, said the presence of BlazeAid in the town was particularly reassuring.
“My wife and I lost the house we were renting here in a fire several years ago. It wasn’t a bushfire but it did effect us and the way the Braidwood community rallied around us and supported us cemented our desire to make Braidwood our home. I feel the same away about the support of BlazeAid.”
Braidwood Showground parkrun regulars Dorothy and Brett Cross, said the social benefit of parkrun restarting was enormous.
“When we moved to Braidwood from the coast we used parkrun to meet people who then became friends,” Dorothy said.
“Our 20 acre property was directly threatened by the bushfires and we were forced to evacuate on several occasions with our two children, who are 18 months and 13-years-old, which cut us off from our social connections. Our family in Sydney were also impacted because they were so worried about us.”
After their second evacuation, Dorothy and Brett didn’t bother unpacking their sentimental items from the car.
“We were stuck in limbo,” said Dorothy. “We had a battery powered radio we listened to every hour and when I woke in the night I couldn’t get back to sleep without checking the bushfire app. For 56 days we were totally on edge, to the point where our daughter asked if we could have a second Christmas.”
Dorothy’s husband Brett, who was volunteering as scanner, remarked how uplifting it was simply to read people’s names as they handed him their barcodes.
Many locals spoke of how parkrun provided their first opportunity for more than two months to simply undertake some physical activity, having been confined to their houses because of the poor air quality.
“The only physical activity has been fighting fires,” said Richard Bunn as he marked out the course with cones prior to the start. “We’ve been calling ourselves ‘the Braidwood cul-de-sac’ because we’ve been the end of the line.”
Richard is part of the ‘Mozzies’, small community-based firefighting teams of volunteers who gathered up what equipment they could lay their hands on to help defend the properties and lives of local farmers and neighbours.
“Everything has been covered in smoke and ash, we haven’t even been able to hang our washing out on the clothesline. The kids were inside for the six week summer holidays and we really need things such as parkrun to help us get back to some form of normality. It’s really important to get into that routine that’s been missing for so long.”
The morning of Braidwood Showground’s parkrun ‘relaunch’ after its long cancellation bore no resemblance to the previous nine weeks.
Deep blue skies, clean air and an electric atmosphere greeted parkrunners at the entrance to the Showground. Music pumped from a loudspeaker and Elton John’s ‘I’m Still Standing’ was greeted by smiles and cheers by 88 parkrunners, more than double the average number of participants at this event.
More than 30 parkrun tourists and a local attending their first ever parkrun converged on the the First Timers Welcome before an emotional briefing from Event Director Kelly Bunn which started with two simple words: “We’re back.”
“We’ve barely left Braidwood over the past 10 weeks,” Kelly said. “With everything that’s happened and being literally covered in smoke and unable to see anything it’s been really depressing. People need a regular outlet that allows them to connect with the community and do something physical which is why we needed to get parkrun back for the community. We all need something we can hold onto.”
Kelly also shared a message of solidarity with other parkrun events in communities that are recovering or still in imminent danger.
“We were expecting a lot more people from Canberra to visit today but it’s understandable that many have chosen to stay with their homes with the fire down there out of control. Our thoughts are with everyone who is impacted, don’t feel rushed to get your event back up and running but please be assured that when you do you will receive incredible support.”
The event finished in a packed Albion Cafe on the main street, with locals and tourists alike spilling out onto the verandah and injecting some much needed cash into the local economy. Several locals commented that it was a relief to see the main street completely full of cars after being deserted for so many weeks.
It’s clear that there is a deep sadness amongst the people in this town and some are certainly still in shock that the fire damaged properties, threatened lives and came so perilously close to the town. There’s also a healthy acknowledgement that ‘yes we’re battling, some people are struggling but that’s ok. It’s normal.’
Despite everything however there’s a defiant, positive outlook that permeates through this community. The people here are caring, compassionate and opening their arms to the outside world.
They’re inviting everyone to come and say hi, have a chat and buy a coffee or a loaf of bread.
What’s clear is that the people of Braidwood are still here, still smiling, and they’d love it if you were here with them smiling too.
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