“Our helmets were melting, our masks were melting, and some nights we just saw red as far as the eye could see.”

That’s the way one New South Wales volunteer firefighter, Gareth Jamieson, described the unprecedented and unpredictable 2019/2020 bushfires.

Based in Picton’s Rural Fire Service, Mr Jamieson was on the front line battling the devastating Green Wattle Creek blaze that burned from November 2019 to January 2020 and destroyed more than 275,000 hectares of land.

Together with his fellow firefighters, Mr Jamieson fought the fire for more than 700 hours, often going days without sleeping.

“I recall days where I would go 36 plus hours without sleep. But, you would see other members of your brigade getting on the truck each day doing the same thing as you, and I just thought: ‘I’ve got to do this not only for the community, but the members in my brigade’,” he said.

“I don’t think you can really put it into words, to see that ferocity, that sort of devastation. And it was completely overwhelming to feel like you are just one fire truck.

“It was devastating to see people lose their livelihoods in the space of one night and wake up the next morning and people have no homes, no places to go back to. As a member of our brigade, you want to do all that you can to help, but unfortunately sometimes we couldn’t do enough.”

The Green Wattle Creek fire damaged or destroyed more than 30 homes in Wollondilly alone and impacted more than 270 rural landholders.

While all of the firefighters involved in the fight against the Green Wattle Creek fire did an amazing job to control and eventually stop the blaze altogether, Mr Jamieson said the bushfire made it clear that despite the Brigade being equipped with the right skills and determination, the facilities could have done with some improvement. 

“I think the biggest thing the Christmas fires showed us was that while we might have the heart and the manpower, we don’t necessarily have the facilities to make us as efficient as possible. We had cramped lockers, and we didn’t have the space to engage with the community,” he said.

As part of its Bushfire Recovery Grants program, Commonwealth Bank donated $53,760 to the Picton Rural Fire Service for the purpose of upgrades to the station.

Mr Jamieson said the funds had helped Picton Rural Fire Service build a station that best serves the community and is now better fit for purpose.

“What I know is Picton Rural Fire Brigade is now ready to be on the front line again if and whenever we need to be,” he said.

Over the course of 2020, the bank provided 213 Bushfire Recovery Grants to different organisations, like the Picton Rural Fire Service, that were impacted by the 2019/2020 bushfires.

In addition, the bank and its customers donated in excess of $4 million to the Australian Red Cross, and raised over $350,000 via the ‘Fiver4Fires’ National Staff Fundraising Day.

Through the bank’s Bushfire Recovery Grants Program and various fundraising efforts, CBA donated more than $10 million to fire-impacted communities across Australia.

Commonwealth Bank’s Head of Community Investment, Nathan Barker, said the bank was proud to be able to help so many organisations and communities impacted by the 2019/2020 bushfires.

“The story of the Picton Rural Fire Service is just one of many harrowing tales we have heard this year from different businesses and communities that were directly affected by the fires,” he said.

“At Commonwealth Bank, we are committed to supporting the communities in which we serve, and the 2020 Bushfire Recovery Grants program is just one of the ways we have shown that support.

“2020 has been a tough for year for so many Australians in more ways than one, and we wanted to do whatever we could to ensure 2021 is a brighter and better year.

“It is pleasing to see so many communities rebuild and rebound following the devastating fires. But, we know there is still a long way to go and we remain committed to supporting Australian communities and organisations as they continue along their path to recovery.”

To commemorate 12 months following Australia’s devastating bushfires, over the coming weeks and months CBA Newsroom will share some of the stories of hope and optimism that the bank was privy to through our Bushfire Recovery Grants program.