Team Rubicon volunteers at the end of a long day dropping and chopping trees in Cobargo and Quaama. Photos: Ben Smyth

Team Rubicon volunteers at the end of a long day dropping and chopping trees in Cobargo and Quaama. Photos: Ben Smyth

Viking gods and the grey shirt army: Team Rubicon Australia in action

Team Rubicon helps massive bushfire cleanup effort in Cobargo

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I was given an opportunity to embed myself in a specialist team and theirs is an incredible story worth telling.

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Team Rubicon's "army" of grey shirts is two weeks into an eight-week deployment to Cobargo and surrounds.

As the second wave heads out for a day of assisting the community, I was given an opportunity to embed myself in the team, lend a hand as best I could, and tell their story.

And theirs is an incredible story worth telling.

The model of disaster relief and veteran transition started in the US as a response to mental health impacts and suicides among returned service personnel.

The growing movement of volunteers deployed to the world's disaster zones has gone beyond that to incorporate a multitude of people from all walks of life. But all of whom have the desire to help.

They are police officers, paramedics and firefighters, Vietnam veterans and special forces personnel, and as it turns out in Cobargo, photographers and winemakers.

Sourced primarily from first responders - retired as well as serving - Team Rubicon runs as only an outfit of veterans can.

They are well drilled, get stuck into laborious jobs without question, commit to their assigned task - and love a good bit of banter.

Whether it's ribbing any Air Force or Navy personnel who are unlucky enough to sign up, or between the Aussies, New Zealanders and Norwegian "Vikings" it's all in good fun and no doubt makes the long days pass that much quicker.

Editor Ben Smyth lends a hand (honestly, I did do some work!)

Editor Ben Smyth lends a hand (honestly, I did do some work!)

One of the Norwegians, Tore, quips to his safety officer that he has a sore neck - from looking up constantly on the lookout for drop bears. It was several days before they picked up on the joke.

While the drop bear was the ever-present "threat" there have been others much more tangible.

It was only the first job of the first day of their deployment that the Norwegians came across a snake among the fallen trees they were clearing.

Read more:Bushfire affected communities pull together

And as I arrived on site Thursday morning, Chuck - who works in Norway in insurance and accounting when he's not covered in soot and sweat and felling trees in disaster zones - was backing away from a huge spider that had emerged from his latest chainsaw cut (a huntsman, but try telling someone looking at one for the first time that they aren't dangerous!)

Norwegians JD, Chuck and Delta.

Norwegians JD, Chuck and Delta.

"No matter who you are, or what drew you here, we're a family," public relations officer Ian says.

The TR Australia motto is "Disasters are our business. Veterans are our passion".

"Our core existence is to give veterans a purpose. We've all got skillsets that we can put to good use helping communities," Ian says.

"You'll find we have similar ideals and work ethic. We get in and get the job done.

"We all speak the same language, and love the banter - especially if you're Navy or the RAAF the firie adds with a chuckle.

That friendly back-and-forth and the satisfaction they all clearly get from assisting communities hit with the worst Mother Nature can throw at them, is encouraging.

With the work done for the day, a cold drink in hand and mouth-watering smells emanating from the camp kitchen, the team gathers to recite "The Ode", honour the flag ceremony and debrief.

Ian says this is an important part of the day - perhaps among the most important. They share a "lightbulb moment" each, that one moment of the day that struck them the most.

Rivulets of molten metal following the New Year's inferno at Cobargo.

Rivulets of molten metal following the New Year's inferno at Cobargo.

It's not uncommon for these sessions to have tears and silence, or perhaps laughter, as the volunteers reflect on the day.

For me there were many such moments on which to reflect.

  • The description by a woman who has lost everything of the way the fast-approaching inferno sounded like rolling thunder and how the ground shook the energy was so intense.
  • The rivulets of molten and rehardened metal through a devastated yard indicating temperatures of well over 600-700C.
  • The woman photographing butterflies in her lush and beautiful backyard as the grey shirts fell blackened trees in the front.
  • The incredible generosity and selflessness of everyone who dons a Team Rubicon T-shirt and helmet.
  • And the sight of Thor pulling out a tree stump and throwing it over his shoulder!
Torleif aka Thor

Torleif aka Thor

Thor's story

What a treat to find out TR has a group of Norwegians helping out and that the big muscled and bearded one is called Thor!

Well actually, as he explains it, his name is Torleif - named for both the Norse God of Thunder, and king, explorer and founder of North America Leif Eriksson - but his team-mates reckon Thor is easier to pronounce.

Their vehicles and camp fly the Norwegian flag alongside the Australian flag - and the Team Rubicon one.

Thor's the more talkative of "The Vikings" at the afternoon shift. He's the team leader, but the three of them work seamlessly as one, felling fire-damaged trees in Quaama, calling out what I assume are helpful instructions to each other in Norwegian.

Tore

Tore

Frode is master of the chainsaw, every tree falling just as he planned, and earning high praise from even his Aussie TR counterparts.

Frode says he is following in his grandfather's footsteps in his work assisting Australians. His grandfather was here in the 1950s working on the Snowy Hydro Scheme and Frode plans to visit there after his deployment.

Back home he breeds highland cattle in the mountains of Norway, while colleague Tore is a breeder of show rabbits - although on this day he is the man with the axe, backing up Frode's saw work as we watch on.

Between trees - as Frode enjoys a well-deserved water - Thor explains he served in the Norwegian infantry. He fought in the Balkans conflict, serving in Kosovo in 1999.

With his military background he was then recruited as a specialist trainer for safety, rescue and survival at sea - on ships and oil rigs.

With TR he has helped clean up in Missouri after floods, and in Houston Texas following Hurricane Hervey.

In November last year Hurricane Dorian devastated the Bahamas, with the Norwegians again jumping in to help. Thor describes that as the most devastating catastrophe he'd seen - until now

Richard's story

Team Rubicon operations planning officer Richard 'Chief' Lucas

Team Rubicon operations planning officer Richard 'Chief' Lucas

Richard Lucas, the big Kiwi, is known as "Chief" among the team. However, he says it's more to do with the big mute Indian from One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest than being the operations planning officer.

He is scoffing down a salad roll - his first sandwich in four days - and a Red Bull as he coordinates Teams Alpha, Bravo and Charlie across the multiple job requests coming in daily.

Chief's day starts about 6am when he makes sure the crews know where they're off to for the morning shift before he heads out to conduct damage assessments on the latest requests for help.

That may mean visiting and chatting with up to four homeowners or landholders to find out what they need done and how urgent that work is.

It's up to Chief to prioritise those jobs - making sure anyone who's lost their home, or who has burnt trees preventing safe access to their property goes to the top of the list.

With assessments, preparing the work request documents, briefing team leaders at each job site, conducting welfare checks on everyone who's made contact with TR, filing completion details at the end of the day and vetting priorities for the following day, Chief gets to bed around midnight, ready to do it all over again from six the following morning.

"We try to spread the love and priorities as best we can."

'Chief' and Tore at the end of a day's work.

'Chief' and Tore at the end of a day's work.

He also jumps in with the team and gets his hands dirty helping lug branches and logs about - although they are quick to point out he's not as dirty as everyone else!

He moves and speaks with purpose and pace and it's no surprise to find out he is a still-serving station officer with the Bankstown Fire and Rescue squad, with a background in conducting fire impact assessments.

What is a surprise is that this is his first deployment with TR and that he is here during his annual leave from FRNSW following an extended period fighting fires further north in the Armidale and Kempsey areas.

Scott's story

As I began my day at TR base camp, aka Narira Oval, Cobargo, Scott Herring arrives, kelpie in tow.

He's there not only to thank TR for the work they have done at his property already and see if there is a chance they might be able to assist further, but also to offer his own services to the town-wide effort.

It's an incredible gesture for someone who has lost his home and two sheds and whose business is on hold as a result.

Scott Herring (second from left) with Team Rubicon's 'first wave' following the Cobargo bushfires. Photo submitted

Scott Herring (second from left) with Team Rubicon's 'first wave' following the Cobargo bushfires. Photo submitted

"It doesn't sit well with me to accept help but not give help," Scott says.

Scott only moved to the area with his wife and two children 12 months ago.

He says on that fateful early morning on New Year's, he awoke to fire coming right up to his property just north of town.

"I had a go at holding it back, then a fire caught in the back of one of the sheds and it was just a furnace, the metal was melting on the shed.

"I thought I'd have more time."

"There was twisted wreckage everywhere" says Cobargo resident Scott Herring. Photo submitted

"There was twisted wreckage everywhere" says Cobargo resident Scott Herring. Photo submitted

Team Rubicon were at Scott's place almost as soon as the first volunteers arrived in the village.

"There was just twisted wreckage everywhere.

"They didn't even have tools at that stage but said 'we're here and we're keen to get stuck in'.

"It was great, I wasn't expecting that help so quickly."

Scott asks, with his job on hold as the cleanup continues, how he could offer his skills and service to TR and the community.

"I'd rather spend one day with a crew than a week on my own.

"It's a horrible feeling to look at the wreckage and think where do I start?

"This is a good community that has the attitude of 'how can I contribute to the community?'"

Back to Team Rubicon

To support the work of Team Rubicon Australia, consider donating, or even signing up yourself.

Ian says they are always on the lookout for new people and "we'll take anyone - people from all over, from all walks of life".

Visit the website by clicking here, or the Facebook page here for more details.

If you need Team Rubicon's assistance on your property - email opryan@teamrubiconaus.org or call 9158 9380.

Quaama residents Sharon Bowen-Smith and Debbie Osiecki thank the boys for a job well done.

Quaama residents Sharon Bowen-Smith and Debbie Osiecki thank the boys for a job well done.

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