Neil Coombes says he wouldn't hesitate in providing the Wauchope Showground to his community in another bushfire or emergency situation.
On the 12 month-anniversary of the devastating bushfires, the Wauchope Show Society president says he's learnt some valuable lessons from his experiences.
But mostly, he says, he is extremely proud of the response from the society, its volunteers, his community along with the untold number of people who "just wanted to help".
The Show Society was thrust into the centre of the extreme emergency situation as bushfires raged across the Port Macquarie-Hastings in early November 2019.
"They (people impacted by fires) just didn't have anywhere to go," Mr Coombes said.
"At one stage we had over 500 animals on site - from horses to cattle, alpacas, pigs, birds, cats, dogs - along with their owners all camped here.
"And we were providing three meals a day to everyone that was here (at the showground)."
Mr Coombes said there was little warning the showground would play such a key role in the emergency situation, despite what he described as "that bloody Friday with the red sky".
With bushfires impacting homes and properties around Lakewood and Lake Innes coupled with Bellangry, Forbes River, Yarras and Rollands Plains, the first inkling of the impending firestorm became evident.
"The day that was declared a catastrophic bushfire danger, we had more people arriving with their animals. They kept bringing their animals in and we just tried to accommodate them as best we could.
"We were just thrust into the thick of the action.
"It soon became evident that we would need help so I contacted Mark Strachan from Strawny's Breaky Show. He was able to put out a call for more temporary cattle fencing and helpers.
"From there we put up more cattle or horse pens. I was really proud of how that happened.
"It was like the community we live in has come together in our time of need," he said.
"When something like this happens, it is amazing the number of local people and people from everywhere, they just turned up to help.
"It get a bit overwhelming, the help that we got."
The show society president also praised Wauchope Gazette senior journalist Letitia Fitzpatrick also helped with getting our messages out there on a timely basis.
Mr Coombes said the level of donations than came in - including food, hampers, livestock feed, hay, fencing right down to people coming in to clean the toilets.
He described the level of donations as "unbelievable".
Call for change
Despite that phenomenal support, the show society president says he has raised some concerns to a recent bushfire inquiry meeting.
He called for a common sense approach to future management of emergency situations and urged for visiting authorities to work more closely with the local organisations.
"Why would you set up an bushfire evacuation centre at the Wauchope High School? he asked.
"You can't feed people there, you can't house people there, you can't accommodate their animals there.
"The showground can cater for hundreds of livestock and family pets, we can feed hundreds of people three good meals a day, we have improvements for new toilets, upgraded grandstands and new horse stables.
"My other concerns related to not having access to information that relates in a very local way in regards to the unfolding emergency situation.
"At this critical time it is vital that any information relates directly to local matters - to local families.
"Some of the information provided at our daily mid-morning briefings did not relate to local matters," he said.
"Why not put a local RFS member in with visiting RFS crews? This would help give a better outline of the road networks and how accessible a particular property may be."
Mr Coombes says he has also taken up the matter of security with Oxley MP Melinda Pavey. Federal MP Dr David Gilliespie also made himself available at various times during the catastrophe.
Port Macquarie-Hastings Council and director Dan Bylsma were also quick to help out with a number of areas, Mr Coombes said.
Feeding hundreds of people three meals a day sounds daunting, but Mr Coombes says the show society's Maree Stubbs and Wendy Gibbs took on the job with a minimum of fuss.
He says the decision to use the showground hall to store the food was the right decision at the time. But that would change in any future emergency.
"Maree and Bev - along with plenty of other people - did a wonderful job storing food and preparing meals through the crisis," he said.
"The amount of donations was staggering and consistent right up until a couple of months ago.
"Next time we would probably look to open the ladies auxiliary building where we would have access to more refrigeration and storage.
"Overall it was an incredible effort from some very dedicated people," he said.
And the number of random acts of kindness were astonishing, he said.
He said a few that stayed with him included a lady who could only manage to donate $100 but wanted to buy pizzas for all the volunteers.
A Central Coast woman organised truckloads of goods to be delivered to the showground for people in need of clothes or furniture.
A young couple of Brisbane arrived with a truck load of hay - all donated - in the middle of the night.
"That couple actually stayed over for a day and went to CSU to pick up another load of donated goods from Sydney that had made its way up the highway with some firies," he said.
"Hastings Co-op led the way with donations for the duration of the crisis while Colonial Bakery turned up every morning with crates of freshly baked bread. Tanya Newman from Sheathers on High would just turn up and take your order for a coffee every morning.
"We had Kylie Ewart bring in something like 30 horses at one point. While she was here, she also went around to give a vet check on any livestock that needed attention.
"Wauchope vet, Michael Ferguson, also made a strong contribution to the effort."
When the crisis had subsided, there was a huge task in repurposing donated goods with Mr Coombes acknowledging the efforts of Bev Phillipson, Maree Stubbs, Scott Balmer and Heather Lattimore and many others.
The organisation BlazeAid soon arrived to assist in helping rebuild fences burnt in the bushfires.
Mr Coombes says the emotional strain the bushfires had on impacted residents will be long-lasting.
He said people were in a range of emotional states, they needed support, they needed help and they need comfort.
"They were suffering from having limited or no knowledge about what was happening to their property, their livestock, their pets," he said.
"For me too, there was an impact. My wife and I and children have a property at Bellangry.
"Leanne and the kids were there but I was working flat out at the showground.
"While we could go home to sleep some nights, it soon became evident that I couldn't help them if things went pear-shaped.
"At times I tried not to think about my place," he said.
"There were plenty of people helping out though, including Heather Lattimore and Scott Balmer who were really good sounding boards for me.
"They actually slept in the little shed at the Beechwood Road entrance (to the showground) for the week to give the place some security measures.
"But you do what you have to do at the time and without hesitation."
Overall, Mr Coombes says he was very proud of what the show society did as a collective with the support of people from the wider community.
He said there were many people who just "rocked up" and offered to help.
Despite the tiring work and the emotional strain, Mr Coombes was confident the community has come out the other side a stronger unit.
He would also like to acknowledge the work the show society did at "a really critical time for this community".
"I don't know how you'd do it, but I'd really like to get together and look back to 12 months ago and acknowledge what we did," he said.
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