Good-will gesture for firies sparks up home-baked brouhaha

When a group of Bairnsdale residents decided to cook up a storm for the hundreds of firefighters battling the Aberfeldy inferno, they didn't expect their toils to develop into a bureaucratic tempest.

Mother of three Tarlia Rajeswaran and about 50 other Bairnsdale residents baked dozens of cakes, biscuits and other sweets, on the understanding it had the approval of the Department of Sustainability and Environment, one of the agencies fighting the blaze.

But when Ms Rajeswaran delivered the food to the firefighters' camp at Heyfield on Thursday night she was told it was not wanted.

Mrs Rajeswaran said the DSE had decided at a meeting earlier that day that "it was not a good idea" to accept the food donations because they had not been cooked in a commercial kitchen.

"But they only told me that once I had arrived at the camp with the food that evening," Mrs Rajeswaran said.

"It was heartbreaking and frustrating for all these people who had helped [cook the food] to have their generosity and big hearts turned away."

Mrs Rajeswaran, whose husband is a doctor, said she understood food safety well and the baked goods had been labelled and dated, and carried allergy warnings and ingredients lists.

She said the Bairnsdale community had got behind the offer to donate food, with the town's supermarkets giving water, energy drinks and other items, as well as bakeries donating bread and the use a three-tonne truck to deliver the goods.

"It was all about helping the firefighters who are out there risking their lives."

Ms Rajeswaran said what seemed a simple gesture had been strangled in red tape from the start. "I had to jump through a few hoops to find the right person to speak to about what we wanted to do.

"I spoke to a man from the council and he suggested that we sell the food and donate the money. But it was not about that, it was about giving the firefighters some home-baked goods."

After she was given the shattering news on Thursday evening, the camp's caterer suggested she donate the food to the Heyfield Cricket Club and the firefighters could eat the food there if they wished.

"So we bypassed the DSE," she said. "It was all insane".

Fairfax Media contacted the department and was put through to CFA spokesman Gerard Scholten. "It's not DSE or CFA here, we're all in this together," he said from Heyfield. Mr Scholten admitted that "perhaps we had been a little bit officious" and should "have accepted the kind donations".

He said the cricket club had been raffling donated items.

"It is an unfortunate set of circumstances and we owe an apology to that lady," Mr Scholten said.

"We are very grateful to the community and their show of support. It certainly lifts the morale of firefighters."

"But we have to monitor their health and safety closely and that includes serving them food that has been prepared in a commercial kitchen.

"We can't take any risks no matter how well meaning [donated food as been prepared]".

CFA chief officer Euan Ferguson has apologised to Mrs Rajeswaran.

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