Australia’s credit unions and farm co-ops face bushfire challenges

'A lot of staff are very traumatised ... the fires can move so quickly that you can't outrun them'

As the wildfire disaster continues to devastate huge areas of Australia – with the peak bushfire month of February still to come – credit unions and co-ops are among those counting the terrible cost.

It is estimated that damages wildfires will run to more than AU$100 billion. At least 25 people have died in the fires to date, and it is thought that one billon animals have been killed, with some species facing extinction.

Credit Union Journal (CUJ) has reported that a number of organisations have been impacted by the crisis, with at least eight credit unions forced to close one branch or more because of power cuts and smoke hazards. It reports that some credit union staff have lost homes and been sleeping in cars or on the beach.

Among those affected are Horizon Credit Union, headquartered in Wollongong, New South Wales, which has seen 50 members lose their homes, with one member confirmed dead, according to the Customer Owned Banking Association (COBA), which represents mutual banks, credit unions and building societies in Australia.

CUJ said Horizon has seen nearly half of its 500km footprint affected, and with staff unable to reach certain branch locations after major roads and highways were shut down, and some staff would have been cut off from work by the fires. It was also forced close its main branch after a cellular tower went down for two days, cutting off communications.

The branch in Bermagui was closed for nine days with the town’s 1,500 population mostly evacuated. With power down, ATMs stopped working and residents resorted to bartering food with each other in lieu of cash.

No branches were damaged and all have reopened, CUJ reports, but Horizon chief executive Jon Stanfield said: “A lot of staff are very traumatised … These fires can just move so quickly that you can’t outrun them.”

Horizon says all its staff are safe but it is offering them access to counsellors.

The destruction of members’ homes could impact the credit union’s loan portfolio, but for now the focus is on helping those members. Staff are working to defer loan payments, help members file insurance claims, and promoting public health and temporary accommodation services from the government .

Staff have also been working to help rescue wildlife from the fires, with one staff member bringing orphaned joeys to the office with her to care for.

On its website, COBA has given updates on other member organisations.

It says Beyond Bank, an Adelaide based mutual operating in several states, has closed its branch in Batemans Bay, NSW, until further notice. Hardship assistance is available for affected customers and the bank is running a Foundation Bushfire appeal with 100% of funds going to the St. Vincent DePaul Society’s relief efforts.

In Victora, WAW credit union has closed its Corryong and Walwa Service Centres and is providing assistance to customers and staff.

And NSW mutual IMB has closed one branch, in Batemans Bay, and activated a disaster relief package.

Credit unions and individuals who want to help in the relief effort can visit the Worldwide Foundation for Credit Unions website at doglobalgood.org for a link to the Australian Bushfire Appeal set up by the Australian Mutuals Foundation.

The bushfires have had a devastating effect on Australia’s agricultural sector, with the government expecting livestock deaths at more than 100,000, and farmers struggling to get fodder and feed to animals. This is expected to have a knock on to the dairy industry, which is already suffering from market uncertainty and price fluctuations.

Related: Co-op movement responds to Australian bushfire crisis

Grain-handling co-op CBH Group has teamed up with oat and grain company Blue Lake Milling on a AU$50,000 donation to BlazeAid, a volunteer-based organisation that works with families in rural Australia after natural disasters, rebuild destroyed infrastructure.

On its Facebook page, CBH said: “We are supporting local firefighting efforts in the Esperance Port Zone, providing sunburn cream, lip balm, hydrolyte and dust masks to packs made for Esperance firefighters by local grower Jodie Bower.

“Our hearts go out to all the communities and families that have been affected by the overwhelming fires and we would like to express our admiration for the courageous firefighters that continue to battle the fires.”

Meanwhile, the global co-op movement is continuing its support efforts. In the USA, the the Cooperative Development Foundation (CDF) – a mutal aid affiliate of apex bod NCBA Clusa – has issued an appeal for through its Disaster Recovery Fund, which helps local co-ops get back to business after a disaster.

CDF is working with Australian sector body BCCM to ensure 100% of donations go to disaster recovery; donations can be made online donation or by cheque to CDF at 1775 Eye St. NW, 8th Floor, Washington, DC 20006. Please indicate Disaster Recovery Fund in the memo line.

And in the UK, sector body Co-operatives UK has joined BCCM in backing an appeal by the Australian Mutuals Foundation, to help the sector in its relief and reconstruction efforts. Click here to support the appeal.

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