What does it take to be a bushfire volunteer?

By Ellaine Downie

May 17 2020Tammy Shepherd, a member of the St Hilary’s Network, says she feels “personally called” to volunteer where she can. Ellaine Downie, who worships with Tammy, spoke with her in February about her volunteering experiences, the most recent of which was relief work in bushfire-devastated East Gippsland.

“I was interested that she would volunteer for the dirty work of bushfire clean-up, which many would see as a ‘menial’ task,” says Ellaine. “Yet her commitment to volunteering reveals a philosophy and understanding of volunteering as Christian service that I find quite inspiring.”


Tammy, your most recent work as a volunteer was going to East Gippsland last week to help clean up after the bushfires. How did that happen?

I went to Bairnsdale with a Disaster and Relief Team from Samaritan’s Purse, a US-based Christian charity. Samaritan’s Purse plays a role during floods, bushfires and other disasters, both internationally and in Australia. 

So you left your job as a physiotherapist in Melbourne to get your hands dirty in the bushfire clean-up? 

Yes. For me it feels like it is too easy to just give money. I am a practical person; I wanted to be there and physically help. 

What was the daily routine?

Samaritan’s Purse had set up its coordination centre at a local church site in Bairnsdale. Each day we would meet at 7am at Riviera Church for breakfast and devotions, talk about the plans for the day, where we were going and what had to be done. 

Samaritan’s Purse had a container onsite full of equipment – chainsaws, spades, trimmers, helmets – and all the required safety gear. It was really a portable mobile disaster centre!

And you were in a team of about 10 volunteers? 

Yes, Samaritan’s Purse sent two main groups of people – a chaplaincy team of four, and our on-the-ground teams. About a third of the people came from interstate, a third were Victorians, and a third were internationals from New Zealand, the United Kingdom, United States and Canada.

What kind of people volunteer to help clean up bushfire disasters?

All kinds of people really! One man got involved with Samaritan’s Purse after he had lost his job. He felt at the time that he was worthless and had lost all his self-esteem. Since volunteering, he and his wife have been to help in extremely needy places like Haiti during its cyclone disaster. His wife said this work has given him back his life.

Another volunteer was a salesman who was just passing through Bairnsdale on his way to somewhere else. He had a spare day and offered his time. He wanted to do something practical to help. 

And one day a person just turned up out of the blue with a bobcat! He was not a Samaritan’s Purse volunteer but had come across other SP volunteers cleaning up his father’s burnt-out farm at Sarsfield. He said he saw what great work they were doing and volunteered to bring his bobcat to help with the hard lifting. He had seen SP in action and it inspired him to come and do the same.

So what did you actually do on the ground? 

The owners of burnt-out properties put in a request for help, through the local council, I think. BlazeAid, Samaritan’s Purse and other local service organisations then provided the practical response.

I ended up working on three properties, mainly clearing burnt bushes and small dead trees. We used chainsaws and other cutting tools plus spades and sieves for sifting through the ashes.

So the volunteers were asked to sit on the ground and sift through the ashes?!

Yes – especially where whole houses had been totally destroyed. Elderly people particularly needed help to go through the remains to try and find any precious belongings … anything of personal value. 

That must have been heartbreaking for them.

Yes. It was difficult seeing just how little there was left of a whole house destroyed by fire – to see what little was left from a whole life.

On two out of the three properties I worked on, the houses were completely flattened. You could see the remains of twisted metal sometimes – things that were recognisable as an exercise bike or a kitchen chair … but there was really nothing left but a small pile of ash and other debris.

Did it seem to you, being there several weeks after the fires, that these people were still in shock?

Definitely. People talked about the guilt they felt if their house was still standing while someone else’s was not. The ones who had stayed to defend their houses all said they would never do it again.

How did that make you feel when you walked into a place of such devastation? Did you find yourself feeling anxious, thinking “This could have happened to me!”?

I think I was actually able to distance myself from it a little bit, emotionally speaking. That is probably because I’ve had a bit of experience of having to “step back” emotionally in other traumatic situations.

Like when you were volunteering as a physiotherapist on the Mercy Ship and in the Congo?

Yes. If I were the sort of person who got overwhelmed by the enormity of the task, I probably wouldn’t still be going regularly to the Congo. 

I think I tend to be fairly pragmatic and say, “Well I can only do what I can do” and what God gives me the opportunity to do. 

How did the property owners react to you coming onto their land?

We only did the work that the owners wanted – we were guided by their needs. If they wanted a particular tree left, we left it – so long as there was no safety issue.  

But our brief was not just to do the dirty work. If the owners were present we stopped work and talked with them. The work was really about showing love and care to these people. 

Many said they were so appreciative of the love and the fact that people were prepared to travel long distances to help them. 

On one particular property, after we had chatted with the owner for about half an hour, our team leader said, “Would you mind if we prayed with you?”, and they were happy to do that.   

When we finished the work, we always left a Bible signed by members of the team and encouraged them to link in with their local church community.

You work four days a week as a physiotherapist, you are a wife and mother, you volunteer weekly with disabled people, you are always cooking for events at church, you head off each year to Africa to help in a hospital there, and now you take time off to do the dirty cleaning up after the bushfires. Why on earth do you do all this?

I guess I feel personally called to do it. It is my Christian mission to help in this way. We are told by Jesus to be “fishers of men”: I want to help use the gifts and skills that I have to help grow the kingdom of God.

So I have arranged my life to work casually to have flexibility. This way I can be available to be a volunteer as part of my “normal” life.

People often ask me about going to the Congo, for instance. The place is very unstable with much violence. So they wonder why I keep going to such a dangerous place. Or why I want to get involved in “menial” tasks like cleaning up bushfire debris in Gippsland.

I tell them I feel called to volunteer and I have been encouraged by others who do the same – people like Gary Brandenburg [of Dallas Theological Seminary and board member of Mercy Ships]. He has a lot to say about Christians being open to volunteer practical help wherever it is needed. 

I have found the following quote of his very helpful whenever I have had doubts about continuing my work as a volunteer:

Don’t ask, “If I go, what will happen to me?”

But rather, “If I don’t go, what will happen to them?”

What has this experience of volunteering in a bushfire setting taught you?

I have learned that you don’t have to have specific skills to be useful as a volunteer. The bushfire survivors didn’t need me as a physiotherapist, they just needed me as a person, as a Christian person who wanted to show them God’s love. 

You don’t have to have a set of “skills” to be a volunteer; you just have to offer yourself.