The town that walked through fire

The bushfires in January created a powerful and enduring bond between the people of Batemans Bay and the team at the town’s Coles, says Regional Manager John Appleby.

Regional manager John Appleby holding a tray of apples in a coles store

Coles Regional Manager John Appleby with his team

At the height of the New Year’s bushfires John Appleby was busy ferrying food to evacuees sheltering in army tents on the Batemans Bay sports oval.

“I rocked up there at 2am and there were 5000 people at the evacuation centre,” he recalls. “It was a pretty scary time – all the roads in and out of town were blocked.”

As a long-time resident of Bateman’s Bay, Mr Appleby was proud of the holiday town’s strong community spirit, but even he was awe-struck at the sheer bravery on display as bushfires swept along the South Coast of NSW in January 2020.

“This is a proud community and absolutely resilient but the unity here is really amazing,” he says. “I had no idea just how tough these people are until I saw the way they came through the hell of those bushfires. That’s something to be really proud of.”

With fires raging around Batemans Bay and frequent power cuts, the Coles supermarket found itself on the front-line – providing supplies to firefighters and other first responders and ensuring a regular flow of fresh food to local people.

“I’m really proud of my team because for three days we were the only supermarket open in town,” says Mr Appleby, Coles Regional Manager, South Coast and ACT. “We basically fed the whole community, including the people at the evacuation centre.”

Although most of his 120-strong team were busy protecting their own homes, the supermarket continued to supply essentials such as bottled water, fresh bread and hundreds of roast chickens to battle-wearied fireys.

“Despite all the problems with electricity and transport one of our bakers worked through the night so we had fresh bread and bread rolls for everyone in the morning,” he says.

When Coles’ own bakers were not capable of keeping up with the local demand for fresh bread, Mr Appleby placed an emergency order with Tip Top Bakeries for an extra 14,000 loaves, with many delivery trucks arriving in Batemans Bay under police escort.

“I don’t imagine any supermarket in the history of Australia would have sold and donated 14,000 loaves of bread in a single day,” he says proudly.

Ten months on from the devasting bushfires that destroyed 1,500 homes across the south coast, including Batemans Bay and the nearby communities of Mogo and Malua Bay, Mr Appleby says the team at Coles continues to support the local community as it deals with the ongoing impact of COVID-19 and legacy of the fires.

“We recently raised $9000 for the fire stations in Bega, Eden and Batemans Bay,” he says. “We remain mindful of the community and its needs and we’ll be available  throughout the new fire season. We have a responsibility now to continue doing that.”

Apart from supporting the Rural Fire Service, local sporting clubs and fire-ravaged Mogo Zoo, Coles is also busy promoting South Coast primary producers, such as Bodalla Milk; the dairy’s milk and cheese is being sold in Coles supermarkets across NSW.

With strong forward bookings for the summer holiday season the people of Batemans Bay are hoping to rebuild the regional economy and secure jobs, but Mr Appleby knows that the road to recovery is long and presents many more challenges.

“The community has just got to keep going,” he says. “Stopping, slowing down or thinking about what we have lost is not an option. We must go forward.”

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