Walwa Bush Nursing Centre CEO and nurse practitioner Sandi Grieve was at work on 30 December last year when the order came to evacuate the town.
Walwa, a town with a population of about 200 people, 56 kilometres west of Corryong, was under threat from a bushfire originating over the nearby NSW border.
But Sandi had just received a call from Ambulance Victoria asking her to attend to six firefighters’ facial burns. By the time she had finished, a roadblock had been established on the road to her home.
‘At the time we did have (mobile phone) communication, so my husband was sending me increasingly distressing texts showing the fire impacting on my own property,’ Sandi said.
From 4am on New Year’s Eve, telecommunications disappeared, with many phone towers in bushfire-affected areas impacted by power outages. It would be three days until Sandi knew whether her husband – and the horses and cattle on their hobby farm – were alive, and their home still standing. It took days to clear the hundreds of trees which had fallen across the road between the town and Sandi’s property.
‘I drove home on the 2nd (January) and was literally home for five minutes to see that all was OK and I came back into work where I’ve pretty much been ever since,’ Sandi said.
She discovered that the fire ‘literally came to my front door’ but five tankers and two firefighting strike teams arrived just in time.
‘They helped my husband save the property. And it turns out that one of the people on those strike teams was the son of one of my nurses here,’ Sandi said.
The bush nursing centre’s patients are community-based and as the town’s residents had been evacuated, most care provided since 30 December has been to firefighters and farmers becoming injured while struggling with extra workload.
‘We’ve seen musculo-skeletal injuries – strains, sprains; fractured ribs, partially amputated fingers, cuts, scrapes,’ Sandi said.
For a week following the 30 December fire incursion, the nursing centre was mainly staffed by volunteers, as staff could not get back to the town. One volunteer was tasked solely with maintaining the generator which powered the centre for 10 days. Another volunteer – Ambulance Victoria-auspiced advanced first aider, Sue Martin, assisted Sandi throughout the bushfire disaster.
As the town’s designated relief centre was unstaffed, the Walwa Bush Nursing Centre kitchen became a proxy food supply base for the firefighters and Sandi and her crew ‘morphed into short order cooks’.
‘Certainly for the first four days we were open 24 hours a day and we were cooking for CFA staff who were arriving exhausted, wanting to sleep on the floor. We’d provide them with a feed and a cup of tea,’ Sandi said. Two weeks later, the centre was still providing food to army personnel.
The CFA has saved Walwa as fires flared on three occasions – on 30 December, on 5 and 6 January and on 10 January – and fires are still burning in the area. About 24 homes have been lost, and 90 per cent of farms surrounding Walwa have lost cattle or pasture.
There is a strange solace to the lingering thick smoke, Sandi said, as it means there is no wind to carry the flames back to the town. Then again, there is little vegetation left to burn.
‘People are feeling a bit more comfortable now because properties have been burnt out literally up to their houses,’ she said.