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Goal is $5,000

Belfast woman raises funds for wildfire aid in Australia

'It's Australia right now, but we're one world.'
By Sarah E. Reynolds | Jan 08, 2020
Courtesy of: Callie Cook Australians rally to raise awareness of how climate change has worsened bushfires raging in their country, and to demand a more robust response from their government.

Sydney, Australia — Belfast native Callie Cook, 20, hopes to raise $5,000 for BlazeAid, an Australian charity that helps people in the rural areas of the country affected by natural disasters, including this year's catastrophic bush fires, which have burned more than 10 million acres.

As of Jan. 8, four days into her Facebook fundraiser, Cook said she had raised $1,500. She started with a goal of $1,000, but when she received more than $600 within the first eight hours, she said, she was inspired to set her sights higher.

Cook has always been the sort of person who tries to makes things better where she is. As a student at Troy Howard Middle School, she took it on herself to raise money for her softball team — and said she and some friends raised a couple hundred dollars for equipment.

She came to Sydney, Australia, about two and a half months ago, to pursue her study of winemaking through the London-based Wine & Spirit Education Trust. Australia was a good place for her to study, she said, not only because of the many vineyards in the Adelaide region, but also because she could get a working holiday visa for a year — much longer than she was able to stay in the countries of Europe where she had previously studied the vintner's trade, she said.

Her interest in winemaking came out of a senior project she did in high school. She initially chose the topic as a joke, she said — but the joke turned out to be on her. Visiting vineyards in New England, she became passionate about wine production and decided to pursue it as a career. "Working in the vineyards makes me really happy," she said.

With her plans to visit the vineyards of Adelaide on indefinite hold — she explained that some 60 vineyards, about a third of the ones in the region, have burned — Cook researched nonprofits helping out during this worst-ever bushfire season. She chose BlazeAid because it was one of the smaller charities and because it does more than just provide funds.

Crews of volunteers set up camps in badly burned areas and help clear away burned debris and rebuild fences and other structures for people in rural communities. The crews remain in a community for weeks or months, until the community is back on its feet, Cook said. The organization also helps affected communities by buying materials from local suppliers and employing local contractors to do repair and rebuilding work.

She said she has been following developments in the ongoing disaster online, and was moved to help because, "I don't think this is a problem specific to Australia. I think it's a problem on our planet. ... It's Australia right now, but we're one world."

In addition to helping BlazeAid with funds, she said, it is important to her to raise awareness about the crisis and its connection with climate change.

Though she has been in Sydney, away from the fire zones, Cook has still been affected by the runaway bushfires. On the day she spoke with The Journal, she said, the air quality index was 358, and there was a day when it was 2,000. Anything over 200 is hazardous, she said.

The smog caused by smoke from the fires hangs over the city, filtering the sunlight into an orange haze, and forcing people to wear masks on the streets, she said. Smoke alarms inside buildings go off because of the smoke in the air outside.

She has attended some protests in the city to bring attention to the severity of the situation and demand more assistance from the government.

She hopes eventually to be able to travel elsewhere in Australia to visit wineries and will finish her diploma in wine back in the U.S., where her mother, Blair Offen, and brother Chase Cook, still live in Belfast.

She has even inspired her brother, a sophomore at Islesboro Central School, to start a BlazeAid fundraiser of his own at school.

"It's been great to see him get involved and take initiative like that," she said. Contributions to Chase's fundraiser may be dropped off at the school.

To contribute to Callie's fundraiser, go to


Belfast native Callie Cook is in Sydney, Australia, raising funds for disaster relief charity BlazeAid to help farmers and others affected by record bushfires. (Courtesy of: Callie Cook)
Smog from wildfires burning outside the city hangs over Sydney, Australia, making the air hazardous to breathe — even setting off smoke alarms inside buildings. (Courtesy of: Callie Cook)
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