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Courage at IRT Crown Gardens

Care Services Community Stories

In January 2020, bushfires ravaged the NSW South Coast. With the largest aged care presence in the region, IRT faced a catastrophic bushfire threat across seven sites. In this series of stories, we celebrate the courage, resilience and leadership of our employees, who kept our centres operating and our residents safe.

10 February 2020
(From left) Kim Milliken, Karen Broadribb, Chris Bellette and Wayne Ashton at IRT Crown Gardens, Batemans Bay. (Credit: Andy Zakeli)

The courage and quick-thinking actions of occupational therapist Wayne Ashton and ACFI co-ordinator Chris Bellette helped save IRT Crown Gardens from ember attacks on New Year’s Eve. Armed with garden hoses, they watered down the care centre roof and gardens, as the fire front – only a few kilometres to the west – threatened the entire town of Batemans Bay.

Care workers Kim Milliken and Karen Broadribb, worked all day and most of the night, doing double or triple shifts to cover colleagues who couldn’t get to work. They cooked and cared for residents, keeping them safe and calm. When they could, they slept on mattresses on the floor. Wayne, Kim and Karen were all evacuated from their own homes. Chris came off annual leave to come to work.

IRT Crown Gardens in Batemans Bay on New Year's Eve

Read their stories below.

Wayne Ashton: “I got evacuated from my house at 6:30am. I came into the centre of town and didn’t quite know what to do. I came to the care centre and ended up driving the bus downtown, going to the chemist and getting supplies. By 11:45am the sky went completely black. Then the industrial estate on the other side of the highway went up and you could hear the gas bottles exploding. I ran outside and started hosing everything down. I did firefighting training when I was in the Navy so I’d done this before. But obviously I wasn’t wearing an oxygen bottle or mask. I didn’t have a 125 pound fire hose. I had a garden hose.”

Kim Milliken: “I don’t care what anyone says, you are scared. But we had to stay calm and positive to keep our residents calm. You’re looking at 39 faces, all saying ‘what do we do now?’ You just run on a high. Did I sleep? No. I know I didn’t and I know I didn’t snore because I wasn’t sleeping. You get about four or five hours sleep and then you just kick back in.
I don’t know what it was that kept me going but you do, you just keep going. It was possibly the most frightening experience of my life. But would I do it again? Of course. I wasn’t going anywhere and I would stay here and do it again. We had the best team. We just came together and gelled.” ​

Karen Brodribb: “They said, ‘we need your help, can you stay?’ and I said yes. I stayed on the floor till about quarter to 12 on New Years Eve. Then we all bunkered down. I didn’t sleep. I was just watching, just watching the whole fire show. I worked all that night and all New Year’s Day.
The whole town is absolutely shell shocked. It’s the people you wouldn’t expect, like tough guys, who are absolutely in shock at what’s happened and the devastation. I’ve been hearing stories from people who say they were running out the front door as the fire was at the back door. That’s how quick it was. It just jumped and rolled kilometres ahead. It was like a demon.”​

Chris Bellette: “I was on holiday, and the team was short here, so I came in. The first thing we did was make sure we all had lanterns and got everything settled. Then we just sat with the residents and talked and made sandwiches. All you could hear all night was the explosions. When the oldies got frightened, we laughed and made a joke of it. We said ‘let’s have a cup of tea’ and that’s all that was left to do, just have a cup of tea.” ​

Read more of the heroic stories from the NSW South Coast Bushfires

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