This article first appeared in The Australian newspaper on Monday 1 February 2021.
On Kangaroo Island, the January night sky had turned a ghostly, unnerving burnt orange.
Kaytee Collins kept one eye on the sky and one on her computer as the emergency unfolded. One piece of advice, an odd rhyme, stuck in her head.
“When you see the glow, it’s time to go,” the Bank SA branch manager at Kingscote, the island’s biggest town, recalled.
What had begun as more of a social evening, with the Collins house filled with colleagues, friends and family watching the fire map on the South Australian Country Fire Service website and listening to updates on the radio, had quickly descended into something much more worrying.
The island community had been on edge for weeks as fires spread from the north coast, but in the first few days of 2020 the threat spread to most parts of the island. Now on January 9, the fires were out of control and the digital CFS map switched from blue to yellow. Kingscote was no longer considered a safe zone but it was too late to escape.
Instead, residents, tourists and others who had gravitated to Kingscote from across the island as the fires worsened were evacuated to the local jetty, where they packed into cars for a nerve-racking night.
“There was just complete and utter fear. I actually don’t think I’ve ever been so scared in anything before,” Ms Collins told The Australian.
As the threat subsided in the early hours, an exhausted Ms Collins was allowed to return home, but realised she’d given up all her beds to people who had been unable to leave the evacuation zone.
After an hour’s sleep, Ms Collins rolled up her sleeves, opened the BankSA branch doors and got to work.
“It was a no-brainer for me, I just went — people have to be able to go somewhere. And we need to be ready to do whatever it takes,” Ms Collins said.
Her dedication to the Kingscote community led to her being nominated as a finalist in The Biggies — a new award launched by the Business Council of Australia to recognise individuals who went “above and beyond” in 2020. She is in the Big Heart category.
“One of the experiences I had, because we live and work in the same community and we know our customers by name, we had lots of people come here (rather than) the relief centre because we didn’t have to process them, because we didn’t have to ID them,” Ms Collins said.
“This was familiar and safe. So it was really, really important for me that anyone who felt displaced, lost, or didn’t know where to turn, could go somewhere where they were comfortable and where they were accepted and OK.”
She made it her goal to help anyone — whether or not they were a bank customer. This included sending one family who had a 10-year-old daughter on holidays to ensure they got a summer break. But her proudest moment was helping someone who walked into the branch wearing second-hand clothes, having lost everything.
“Instead of being told by someone else, here’s the clothes to wear, they could choose something that made them smile, or gave them a small glimmer of hope and happiness,” she said.
“And being able to be there and make that difference. I’d do it all again tomorrow.”
Ms Collins purchased food and fuel vouchers from local businesses to distribute in the community, using funds from Westpac’s “EmpowerMe’’ program
The winner of The Biggies will be announced in April.
The Australian is the media partner of The Biggies.