These days, Comox Valley resident Kelly Bedford serves people their favourite beverages, but Bedford was served Wednesday with one of the highest medals a civilian can receive from the Australian government.
Making the event even more special, Bedford received his award in Vancouver on Wednesday from Quentin Bryce, Australia’s governor-general.
“I’m totally overwhelmed,” he said on Monday of the Australian National Emergency Medal. “I got an e-mail (entitled Isn’t life interesting) telling me that I was going to get the award….”
Bedford, a former woodland firefighter in Alberta who now works as a bartender at the Whistle Stop Pub in Courtenay, was recognized for his exceptional volunteerism during the 2009 Australian (Victorian) bush fires.
Trained in both firefighting and in emergency services, Bedford didn’t expect to be be co-ordinating an evacuation and rescue centre on his trip down under, but said he can’t imagine doing anything else.
“I was living in Toronto and left Canada to travel the Pacific, but got stuck in Australia,” he explained. “I came as a tourist checking things out, but just absolutely fell in love with the community.”
Bedford remembers the date — Feb. 7, 2009 — when that morning, he saw the initial column of smoke.
“It was full on, and I was right there,” he said. “My friend and I looked at each other and knew it was really bad.”
Bedford recites the temperatures from that day without missing a beat — 47.8 C in Melbourne and 52 C in the State of Victoria where he was situated.
“There was just so much heat, humidity and winds the fire blew up,” he added.
Although the home in which he and his partner were residing was under threat, Bedford said the toughest part for him was having the firefighting and emergency rescue skill set and not being able to use them.
To work for the fire service, or be employed anywhere in Australia (over the age of 30), Bedford would have had to find a sponsor.
“I went to the forest service and asked how I could help, but they couldn’t take me,” he noted.
As a member of Rotary in Toronto, Bedford approached the local Rotary club, and within 24 hours he found himself the second-in-command for the main relief effort.
Despite having experience dealing with fatalities and emergencies in his former job, Bedford said nothing would have prepared him for what he saw.
“The town was evacuated, people were burnt, people were looking for family; it was awful.”
Bedford and his team created, organized and maintained a warehouse-sized donation centre, where they collected donations for those who had lost their home in the fire.
They also organized and offered counselling services and worked with Australian Red Cross, as they were cut off from Melbourne, the capital of the State of Victoria.
The Black Saturday bushfires as they came to be known, resulted in Australia’s highest ever loss of life from a bushfire, killing 173 people and injuring 414.
Bedford said he worked at the centre for about four to five weeks, working 60 to 70 hours a week.
“It was pretty challenging … but it was so rewarding.”
He returned to Canada in November 2011, and about eight months later, received an e-mail from the Rotary Club of Alexandra, which informed Bedford of the medal his nomination.
“It was such an honour to be nominated, especially given that it was a particularly bad year for natural disasters.”
Tom Farrell, secretary of the club in Victoria, Australia said Bedford along with a fellow Rotarian were asked by the shire (local Australian government) to organize the receipt and distribution of the “tsunami of donated goods arriving in the town from the first morning after the fires.”
“The club accepted challenge … when closed by the shire 10 weeks later, over 200 volunteers including most of the rotarians, had supplied over 8,000 hours of work.”
Bedford said following his work on the fire relief, he worked at an outdoor education group, and then returned to the Comox Valley to take up a job as a bartender.
“I needed a job with no stress,” he said with a bit of a laugh.
In addition to to shifts at the pub, Bedford doubles as a music producer, and created a CD to raise funds to give back to those in Australia.