Tales From an Australian Work Exchange, Part 3 (a.k.a. Wildfires & Wildfire-Fighting Firefighters)


I would like to start off by saying that, when the first flashes of lightening struck, I was – I swear to the holies above – helping roll a 12-foot tall water tank up a hill in the backyard.


Think about that one: a group of people pushing a giant piece of metal up a tall hill during a lightening storm.


I can think of no better way to be electrocuted.



Of course, as soon as the storm began, my work exchange host, Penny, called for us all to “stop what you’re doing and get yourselves inside right now.” There was a moment of confused hesitation as we all wondered how exactly one could stop rolling something uphill halfway up the hill. In the end, we tied the water tank to the excavator, left both the tank and the excavator balancing together precariously, and super-safely sprinted down the hill beneath them (because if making yourself into a human lightening rod isn’t thrilling enough, why not also try to get rolled over by a several-hundred-pound piece of metal?)


The storm lasted just a half hour, but it was intense and loud and I loved it. I stood out on the porch with a few other workers to watch the wind and lightening because I am a genuine maniac whose favorite weather is rain and sleeps best during raging thunderstorms (fun fact about me that you didn’t ask for).



By the time I sloshed back into the house dripping wet, the rest of Bandusia was busy charging flashlights and lighting candles because – surprise – the farm’s power was out.


As you know, my work exchange farm sat outside the tiny town of St. Albans in the Blue Mountains (You didn’t know that? Come on fam, keep up).


Fun fact about St. Albans: because there is no cell reception and most residents (including my work exchange hosts) have no backup generators, when the power goes out in the area, people have literally no access to the outside world. The only way that residents can check on each other or get updates about the power situation is to physically walk or drive themselves over to the nearest neighbor and knock on their door. Which – to my absolute joy – they do.


Throughout the next two days – as we waited for the power to come back on and I fell off the balcony running after chickens in the dark – neighbors from every direction dropped by Bandusia to deliver news, trade gossip, and make sure everyone was accounted for after the storm. They came on foot, on tractor, and on horseback (OK, no one actually came on horseback. I just really wanted to write that sentence). Penny, Geoffrey, and I quickly learned that the storm had started several large wildfires in the Blue Mountains National Parks surrounding St. Albans and that the National Parks Service had begun sending in their firefighting teams to control the blaze.


I waited patiently to see if this news was cause for panic, wondering vaguely if “yourself and all your belongings burning to ashes in an Australian wildfire” was covered in the overseas student insurance policy I had been required to buy. Apparently, wildfires nearby is not a reason to panic (and I would not be able to cash in on my insurance policy. Damn) and is actually a fairly common occurrence due to the area’s crazy-dry climate and frequent storms.


In fact, Penny and Geoffrey acted like the National Parks Service sending in their firefighters was a good thing. When I questioned Penny about this, she assured me that – yes – it was a very good thing for Bandusia.




Because all of those firefighters need somewhere to eat, sleep, and land their helicopters between shifts. And is there – one might ask – a bed & breakfast in the middle of the Blue Mountains with enough rooms to fit a team of pilots and enough space to land a fleet of water-tank-carrying helicopters?


Good question. Yes, there is. I am on it.




So, I unknowingly picked a work exchange site that doubles as a firefighting-helicopter-pilot hotel and landing ground (lol. Of course) and there happened to be a series of major wildfires during the three weeks that I was working there (also of course). Which meant that I had the flippin best time of my life playing bed & breakfast host for a dozen very friendly, very hungry, very funny Australian firefighters that flew into and out of the farm each morning during my last week of work.



From the moment I stepped out of my room each morning to the moment my head hit the pillow late each night, I was surrounded by animals and people and noise and movement.


To be fair, this last week of work was not too incredibly different from my first few weeks of work, except that there was 10x as much food to prepare and I now had an audience to watch me alternately chase and be chased by Chomstock the turkey.


The pilots were amazing. They told the best stories, showed me the coolest pictures from trips they had flown all over Australia, and drank A LOT of beer. I may or may not have secretly fallen in love with a few of them, but that is neither here nor there.



By the end of the week, the wildfires had been contained (super snazzy technical term the pilots told me to use instead of saying “put out.” You are all impressed, I know) and the National Parks Service made the call for Bandusia’s little squad of firefighters to head home. On their last day on the farm – which also happened to be my last day of working before I headed back to Sydney – the pilots asked me, Penny, and Bandusia’s next door neighbor, Michelle, if we would like to have a ride in one of their helicopters. It’d be our way of saying thank you for a great stay, they told us.


I mean, obviously, yes, I would like that.



So, I got a free ride over the Blue Mountains in a National Parks firefighting helicopter – which is not a bad way to end a 3-week adventure that began with me homeless in an airport.




My weeks work-exchanging at the farm were more ridiculous, more hilarious, and full of more amazing stories than I could have ever made up on my own (I have tried).


When I asked Penny if it was OK for me to share some Bandusia pictures and tales on this-here-thing-called-a-blog , she reminded me that I was always welcome to come back and stay with her and Geoffrey whenever I wanted. That made me smile because – if it wasn’t for classes beginning at my new uni in Sydney and my apartment lease starting (for real this time)  – I would happily never have left.




Oh. And if you’re wondering what ever happened to that giant water tank that we abandoned halfway up a hill when this whole storm and story started:


Don’t worry. We (meaning mostly everyone else because me standing around taking pictures was probably not incredibly helpful) got it up there eventually.




If you’re interested in work exchanging at Bandusia or learning more about permaculture and sustainable living, check out www.permaculturesydneyinstitute.org