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Port Arthur employees pitch in, despite own troubles

FOR those working at Port Arthur Historic Site (PAHS), the bushfires in early January saw the world turned on its head.

Driving down to the Tasmanian Peninsula, blackened landscape stretches for tens of kilometres. Letterboxes stand marking homes that are now piles of rubble. Many PAHS employees live in these towns, with some homes no longer there.

While some battled blazes at home, some workers helped look after hundreds of stranded tourist, trapped by fires and closed roadways.

The site was transformed into a refuge. The CPSU visited employees on Wednesday after the site reopened and talked to some Members about their experiences.

 

PORT ARTHUR Management Authority CEO and CPSU Member Stephen Large lives onsite at Port Arthur, and was one of many who helped cater to the needs of 600-some visitors from the Friday of the fires until the following Tuesday.

He described Friday when the fires hit as Friday “controlled panic”.

Stephen Large

“We hadn’t been an evacuation centre before, so it was learning as we went,” He said. “In those situations, common sense prevails. We were just concerned about the visitors, and everybody just chipped in – it was amazing.”

The tourist attraction converted quickly into a haven for trapped tourists, manned by Port Arthur staff, many of whom volunteered their own time. “Those who had tents, pitched tents, people with campervans stayed in front of the penitentiary and some people slept in cars. We have a lot of beds in hostels, so we moved those into the visitor centre and some locals donated beds. It was like tent city on the oval, and the visitor centre – there were beds everywhere, as well as downstairs in the interpretation gallery.”

“Without power at the site on Friday, we cooked, I don’t know for how many, on gas cookers.  We did some big stews and curries and things like that. We got a generator for the visitor centre late Friday night or early Saturday morning.

“We had no communication at all until then because power went off, computers went off, mobiles and landlines didn’t work. We had lots of concerned visitors who wanted to call family and get messages to people out there but they were really understanding.”

Ferries evacuated thousands of visitors to Hobart over the few days, with some deciding to stay behind.

“A lot of people initially stayed and didn’t want to leave their cars, or we had a lot of dads staying and mum and the kids went to Hobart. We had about 200 cars left here after everyone left on the Tuesday. Most of those are gone now.”

Stephen said it was a strange feeling after the last tourist left on the Tuesday after the fires.

“It was surreal – the adrenalin went and I think that’s when what happened really hit home for a lot of people.

“Now it’s time to get back to business. We’re up and running again but a lot of local operators aren’t because of reservation cancellations.”

After the site re-opened on Monday, the number of visitors astounded Stephen.

“The first day really took us by surprise with the number of visitors – staff really worked hard. We thought we’d get 600 but we got over 1400.”

Tourists queue at the Port Arthur Historic Site visitor centre on Wednesday

For some workers at the site, it’ll be a long time before normality returns. “Three staff lost their houses and most staff live on the peninsula,” Stephen said.

There’s also of extra lot of work to do in the wake of the fires. “We’re trying to put together a submission from Treasury to give them some understanding of what it’s (the fire) has cost us.”

“The loss of nine days at the busiest time of year – this year we make most of our money to get us through winter, so lose 9 days like that… We’re going to put a case to government to get that back.”

Everyone at the site has their own story about the terrifying ordeal, some are devastating, with property lost, or hours and days worrying about friends and family.

ONE MEMBER told the CPSU that they were at work when the fire threatened near their home on Friday and later that day they were evacuated by the police. The shed, filled with many sentimental possessions was lost but their home was spared.

The fire too close for comfort for this Tasman Peninsula resident. “On Sunday night, I felt the quilt on the bed and thought “why is this patch so rough?”.  I turned my phone on as a torch and saw a hole burnt in the quilt, then I looked up to the ceiling and saw a hole – we were so lucky. You count yourself lucky – look at the people living in Dunalley – a friend of mine lost their house.”

For this Member, coming back to work meant a bit of normality.

SITTING IN the Visitor Centre café lanyard-necked tourists stroll around, the line to the till is a steady stream, meals are eaten and tables cleared.

“Looking around now you wouldn’t have known what happened,” Visitor Centre Food and Beverage Manager Sarah Morse said. She was close to losing her home, and counts herself as one of the fortunate ones around the peninsula.

Sarah Morse

Friday was the start of it all. On Friday afternoon I went home to Eaglehawk Neck and helped my partner fill every vessel that we had to get water on and around our house but it was drying as fast as we were putting it on.”

“I called back into work on the way to the civic centre. My partner had his parents over, and being elderly people and we couldn’t take the chance of leaving them at Eaglehawk Neck. They took my five-year-old son with them, and I went back and helped at the house for a few hours”.

Sarah said the Visitor Centre café was inundated with hungry visitors during the stop-in on Friday.

“It was dark; we’d given them everything we had that was defrosted. We couldn’t defrost more food out of our freezer because there was no power to do that – so it was a difficult time. I came back on the Saturday morning and they were madly cooking bacon and eggs for everybody.”

“We went home on Sunday morning, and I had my five-year-old boy in the car. It was burning in the bush behind our property. My son was terrified. The firies were there telling us we had to get out.

“After that they closed the road and we couldn’t get back home where my partner was. We lost contact with him because his mobile went flat. All you could do was take the word of the firies and the police.”

Sarah said the experience was a rollercoaster for everyone involved. “The wind – it’s a love-hate relationship; when it swung one way it was bad for somebody but good for somebody else, and when it changed it was the same thing.

The fire was at Taranna, and then it was where we were at Nubeena, where there were some 2000 people. I certainly had the attitude that there was safety in numbers, and if they’ve (emergency services) taken us there, then there’d be fighting hell for leather to make sure those people were safe.”

One of the lucky ones, Sarah’s house was unaffected; with only the bush at the back burnt.

“We’re all looking at trees a little bit differently now, bulldozers are looking pretty friendly. There’s still a little bit of fire up around our place, with the firies up there yesterday putting a few things out. They’ve got some amazing resources and what they threw at us was just incredible.

“We got back home on Tuesday night and on Wednesday night a fire had started at MacGregor Peak, opposite our place. But that was a nervous time then, thinking “maybe I unpacked my bag a little too well and too early”.

“The fire crews, SES, everyone involved have just been amazing. Even to see all the forestry people out on the road. We’ve got so many tree farms near us, so effectively they’re protecting their own property but at the same time they’re protecting the houses nearby as well.

“One thing I’ve learnt is that you take no chances. It was a good thing that we took it (the fire threat) seriously early on Friday and packed a bag.”

Staff worked to feed hundreds of stranded, hungry tourists. This involved a lot of initiate and hard work.

“They did an amazing job – they were under resourced every day; with only so many people able to turn up each day. There was no cooking equipment and power for a while, so losing that stock within 24 hours and having to replace it was a challenge. And with the donations that were coming in, getting those organised and dispensed properly.

“They did a fabulous job, and under stress too. They were all worried about their work colleagues as well.”

Coming back on the Wednesday there were plenty of jobs for Sarah and her staff to do, with the visitor centre dining area used as make-shift accommodation.

“Coming in, the place was pretty well trashed, all the food was gone, and the fridge was cleaned out. Getting rid of the food that was left over, and getting the stock back in has been a challenge, putting dollar figures to what we lost, what we gave away. They’re impacts that will go on for months now.”

It was business as usual for the kitchen staff, with doors opening to visitors on Monday.

“We needed to get back on the horse, and open up. I understand the importance of what our site has to the region – if we’re open, people will come down here, which helps out other operators.

“Today (Wednesday 16th January) it’s feeling a bit more normal than the last two days.”

One thing’s for sure. The memory of the fire will stick with these workers forever, the landscape a visual reminder of the fire.

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