Schools step up as bushfires threaten communities

From the classroom to the fire ground, staff and students from NSW public schools are among those who help out when the going gets tough, as Kristi Pritchard-Owens reports.

Students working in a kitchen. Students working in a kitchen.
Image: Tenterfield High School students bake muffins and treats to donate to people at the town’s evacuation centre.

Public schools are the heart of NSW communities, and never more so when those communities are under threat.

This public school spirit was on show in Term 4, when communities across northern NSW were in the path of fast-moving bushfires.

With the New England Highway closed and nearby properties evacuated, students and staff from Tenterfield High School made muffins and biscuits for people staying on Bundjalung land at the town’s evacuation centre.

Principal Stephanie Scott said the school’s hospitality teacher, Karen Cooper, quickly took charge of the situation.

“She organised the ingredients, the helpers, and the delivery of the baked treats, and got the students to help out,” Ms Scott said.

“Our school is so thankful for the volunteers and firefighters who once again helped keep our town safe.”

Tenterfield High also hosted students from nearby Jennings Public School while it was non-operational, when out of control fires bore down the cross-border community, located on Ngarabal land.

Ground crews, water bombers, farmers and homeowners fought the flames, which destroyed several properties and came within half a metre of buildings at the school.

As soon as students could safely return to the classroom, the first thing they did was send out a heartfelt thank you to firefighters and the community.

Fourteen students gathered on the steps of the administration building with signs that read ‘Thank you to everyone who has saved or supported Jennings Public School’.

Students sitting on steps holding cards with words on them. Students sitting on steps holding cards with words on them.
Image: Jennings Public School students sent a big thank you to the volunteers who saved their school.

Public schools can become information hubs, an evacuation centre and a source of support for the wider community, as well as being a place of learning and normality for students during a crisis.

In some cases, public schools can also be a recruitment ground for local Rural Fire Service (RFS) crews.

Situated on Gamilraay Country, Boggabilla Central high school Head Teacher, Laura Trevethan, joined the Boggabilla RFS as a volunteer earlier this year.

Executive Principal, Suzanne Galvin, said during the recent fire outbreak Ms Trevethan was on the frontline saving homes in the town.

“Somehow, she still turns up to school the very next day ready for work and also keeps on top of her other school commitments,” Ms Galvin said.

Former Boggabilla students Charlie McIntosh and Daniel Jarrett are also RFS volunteers.

“One of the houses that the RFS saved was a sight to witness … the fire burned up to about two metres from the back of the house,” Mrs Galvin said.

“Apparently, the lady who owns the house has been singing the praises of the local RFS crews.”

On Ngarabal land, Emmaville Central School is also involved in supporting the local fire brigade.

Principal Gill Davis and PDHPE Teacher Josh Barden run the RFS Cadet program after school on Thursdays, which has already boosted recruitment in the town.

“The delivery of the RFS cadet programs has seen four of our students’ become members of our local crew,” Mr Barden said.

“It’s impressive that they have taken what they’ve learned and decided to use it to help their local community.”

People in firefighting gear standing in a paddock. People in firefighting gear standing in a paddock.
Image: Tenterfield High students have joined the RFS Cadet program.
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