Australia / Canada — Kelly Bedford was travelling the world a few years ago, when, like many Canadians, he fell in love with Australia and decided to stop for a while.
He settled in the state of Victoria and was still there in early 2009 when bushfires swept through 51 townships, killing 173 people and destroying 2,000 homes, along with businesses and schools.
Bedford, who says he had fought forest fires in Alberta as a member of the crews that rappel into remote areas, had never seen anything like it before.
I know what fires can do and what big fires are and how dangerous they are, and this one was off the charts, he said. Just apocalyptic.
With winds and temperatures that reached 53° C, the fires wreaked unprecedented havoc. Bedford, like many others, was evacuated to the small town of Alexandra, about 140 kilometres from Melbourne.
It was in absolute chaos, he said. There were people that were burned, there were people looking for family members.
He tried unsuccessfully to join the fire crews before contacting the local Rotary Club to see if he could help with their relief efforts. It was the scene in town, he explained. It was the fact that all my buddies were going out in fire trucks … People needed help.
Maybe because he came from elsewhere and was a bit removed from the situation, Bedford found he could focus on doing something constructive with his time.
You were either helping or you were sitting back on the sidelines in shock, he said.
Within days, he was jointly running a donations depot, organizing and distributing the massive amount of goods flowing in from across the country. He also provided support at a local recovery centre.
Later, he produced a CD as a fundraiser for bushfire recovery efforts; $5 from every sale goes to the Alexandra Rotary Club, where he is an honorary member.
Bedford stayed in Australia for about four years, before returning to Canada in 2011. He now lives in the Comox Valley with his Australian girlfriend, Shelby Miller.
He works at the Whistle Stop Pub in Courtenay and produces music on the side.
Until recently, the bushfires of 2009 were a distant memory. This is something that I forgot about, to be honest with you, he said. This is something that Ive moved on from.
But if Bedford had put the bushfires behind him, the people of Australia never forgot his contributions.
Two weeks ago, a friend at the Rotary Club in Alexandra sent him an e-mail with the subject line: Isnt life interesting?
Thats when Bedford learned that he had won Australias National Emergency Medal for sustained service during the Victorian bushfires of 2009.
On Wednesday, he was in Vancouver to receive the medal from Australian Governor-General Quentin Bryce, who is on an official visit to Canada.
Australia honoured Bedford for his sustained service in the protection of lives and property, and in the interest of others, in direct response to the Victorian Bushfire emergency.
Bedford said it was overwhelming to be honoured for something that happened so many years ago.
I love Australia, he said. God bless that place. God bless the people. It was such an honour to serve and such an honour to receive the medal.
Australian Governor-General Quentin Bryce pins the medal on Kelly Bradford on Wednesday.