Ashburton helps Aussie fires

Nerriga Volunteer Fire Brigade fire chief Justin Parr, left, and Nicole Blenkinsopp-Stephens, creator of Black Summer Fire Memorial in Nerriga Australia.
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The Black Summer Fires in Australia in 2019-2020 have a connection with Ashburton.

To raise funds to support some of the volunteer firefighters battling the Black Summer fires, international firefighter ribbons were made by Volunteering Mid & South Canterbury and exchanged for a donation.

Over $500 was raised and the money sent to the Nerriga Fire Brigade to use for an event to thank the firefighters and their families. Nerriga is a small country town in New South Wales.

Nerriga Volunteer Fire Brigade fire chief Justin Parr said ‘‘during the fires we were blessed to have strike teams from New Zealand come to the New South Wales fires,so to then receive a donation on top of such an effort and know people from outside Australia care, is truly humbling’’.

On December 21, 2022, the third anniversary of the fires when the firestorm hit the town a memorial was unveiled by Justin. The memorial was created by Nicole Blenkinsopp-Stephens, whose grandparents are the late-Moses and Noeline Dickson of Westerfield, Mid Canterbury.

The memorial is located at the Nerriga Hotel which is the main hub of the small county town and was the evacuation centre and supply hub during the fires.

Sarah and Phil Smith, the owners of the hotel, approached Nicole and asked if she could do a silhouette of a firefighter, as she had created a silhouette of an Anzac soldier situated just down the road.

Nicole donated endless hours to designing and creating the memorial. Her inspiration for the design came from photos she had taken during the fires. It was her perspective on the fires, Justin said.

‘‘Out of respect to all those involved in the fires it was decided to have a male and female firefighter on the memorial.’’

The design was transferred on to the steel and was cut out free hand with a plasma cutter.

Nerriga has been part of Nicole’s life for many years.

During the fires she and her husband, Todd were out at their property most of the time.

The fire was on three sides of their property.

‘‘We got evacuated a couple of times but we were one of the lucky ones that didn’t lose it.’’ Nicole spent a lot of time helping during the fires mainly at the hotel preparing and cooking food for all the firefighters who had come from all over the place.

For Nicole ‘‘The memorial is a testament to the community’s spirit, the hardships they went through that bought a community together.

‘‘It tells a story of which I am very proud and honoured to be a part of!’’

Fires were started but lighting strikes from dry thunderstorms late November 2019. On December 19 the Currowan fire came out of Morton National Park and breached containment lines in Nerriga area.

Early afternoon of December 21 strong afternoon easterly created a fire front that impacted Nerriga township and surrounding properties with the front about 20km wide.

In total around 20 houses, weekender dwellings and sheds were lost on that day. Over the next nine weeks the fires didn’t stop.

No human lives were lost in the fire around Nerriga. ‘‘Our biggest losses wereon our native wildlife which for the most part could not escape the fire front,’’ Justin said.

The fire impacted all brigade members with some not knowing if they had houses to go back to on December 21.

May 4 is International Firefighters Day, ribbons made in Ashburton will be give to members and family of the Nerriga Volunteer Fire Brigade.

Justin said they will be worn with pride and those receiving them will know ‘‘wonderful people we don’t even know have thought about us’’.