Among the most catastrophic bushfires in recent memory, a number of alumni, staff and students from the University of Tasmania answered the call and deployed to Kangaroo Island as part of Operation Bushfire Assist.
At the height of the bushfire disaster, the Australian Army Reserve made a callout requiring mandatory attendance from its trained volunteers. This type of callout had never been done before and reflects the scale and impact of the bushfires.
The Tasmanian contingent is made up of soldiers from the 12th/40th Battalion Royal Tasmania Regiment and 9th Combat Service Support Battalion, many of which are University of Tasmania alumni, staff and students. Proudly reflecting the commitment and dedication that these units are known for, the Tasmanian soldiers had all indicated they were ready to support the operation even prior to the callout becoming mandatory.
After a week of training and preparation the soldiers departed for Kangaroo Island aboard a Japanese C-130 Hercules as part of a contingent of about 100 drawn from units across Tasmania.
Located off the coast of Adelaide, Kangaroo Island has a population of around 5000 and an economy fuelled by agriculture, wine and tourism.
Landing in hot and dusty conditions, the contingent quickly established a base of operations at the local Kingscote Football Club and started to engage with the locals to determine how best to be of assistance.
Reflecting a message received from the Chief of Army to ‘lead from behind’, the approach is to engage with local agencies and individuals, determine what needs to be done, and let them continue their great work while bolstering those activities with people, equipment, and expertise.
Teams worked with the Country Fire Service and Parks and Wildlife Fire Service to ensure the fires were contained, and with local individuals and a myriad of agencies like BlazeAid on recovery efforts.
They patrolled both burnt and untouched bushland to identify and remove ‘hot spots’ such as smouldering trees. With GPS trackers in hand, some walked up to 15-20km a day to provide highly accurate maps that would be used to plan future operations and assess the scale of the damage.
The contingent also supported recovery efforts, restoring vital community infrastructure and services. Teams worked to restore community assets like fences, sports clubs and community centres. They also helped groundskeepers prepare for the start of the school term and worked with farmers and the local council to remove hundreds of kilometres of burnt fencing from farms and roadways.
Operations such as this is where the reserve soldier shines, combining the strength, discipline and determination that soldiers are known for with a myriad of civilian skills, qualifications and experience. The Tasmanian contingent of the operation, with University alumni, staff and students among them, bring together arborists, landscapers, fencing contractors, tradespersons, paramedics, zoologists, engineers, asbestos experts, and much more.
Among the alumni who answered the call out were: Luke Andersen (BNurs 2019), James Fagg (BCom 2006) and University Council member Paul Gregg (BCom 1997, MIS 2002).
Also involved was Jake Hearn, who graduated with a Bachelor of Mechanical Engineering (Hons) in 2017 and now works as a licensed asbestos assessor. He has been conducting make safe assessments on damaged buildings to aid in ensuring community safety.