Bushfire affected Catholics cling to faith as fire rages in four states

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Volunteer men and women of the Rural Fire Service across New South Wales, Queensland, Victoria and South Australia have been heroically battling flames since August 2019 PHOTO: CNS/REUTERS

As some of the worst wildfires in Australian history rage across four states, thousands of people in affected areas in New South Wales and Victoria continue to be evacuated to safety – incuding many Catholics.

Record breaking temperatures bordering on infernal and a protracted drought have contributed to an unprecedented national emergency which, by Christmas, had already seen more than  5.8 million hectares (14.8 million acres) of forest and rural land burned.

Entire towns such as Cobargo have been razed in bushfire regions PHOTO: CNS/REUTERS

Amid conditions regularly described as catastrophic, fires have continued to rage in hundreds of locations in Western Australia, New South Wales, South Australia and Victoria states for months. As of 4 January 3,000 Australian Defence Force reservists have been called to assist the exhausted and outstretched Rural Fire Service.

Many roads in Australia have been cut off or destroyed by fire preventing many from escaping. Intervention from the Australian Defence Force in towns such as Mallacoota have rescued evacuating refugees by boat PHOTO: CNS/REUTERS

Marie Burton, a parishioner of Our Lady of Sorrows Church, in the New South Wales Diocese of Wagga, lives on a farm in Jingellic, near the border with Victoria. In late December and early January, Jingellic was surrounded by fire twice.

“We know so many Catholic people who are being affected. There’s a lot of suffering going on, and we’re continuing to pray,” Burton said in tears.

“Twice our home was saved. On Monday evening – and again on Tuesday. “The fire came up over the hill but there was no stopping it. My husband was getting things out of the house, but he was told to just get out of there. We didn’t know for 24 hours (what happened) but luckily, it was saved.”

For many in bushfire affected areas, the veneer of the holiday season has quickly given way to the impending fdanger with many fleeing their homes with little to no belongings to save PHOTO: CNS/REUTERS

Burton has taken shelter with her sister’s family, the Darlows, including nephew Matthew Darlow, a member of the local brigade of the Rural Fire Service. The Darlows live at Lankeys Creek, approximately 12 miles north of Jingellic. While staying with her relatives, Burton has been cooking at a shelter to feed firefighters.

“We just need to band together, get the fires out and support those who have lost their homes and livelihoods,”

“We’re waiting on a change in wind that could affect things, and an increase in temperature, tonight or tomorrow,” said Darlow, who asked Catholics around the world to pray. “Offer up prayers for the people who’ve lost their lives and those who’ve lost their livelihoods so that they can rebuild as quickly as possible,” he said. “And pray particularly for widespread rain across the whole country.”

Farmers have had to abandon livestock in the wake of encroaching flames. It is estimated that approximately half a billion animals- both wildlife and cattle- have already been killed by the fires PHOTO: CNS/REUTERS

Bishop Shane Mackinlay of the Diocese of Sandhurst expressed concern about “the impact that fires have already had on communities and by the anxiety that the threat of fire is causing.”

In a statement Jan. 3, he urged “political and community leaders to continue efforts to identify and respond to the underlying causes that have contributed to the heightened risks we are facing this summer, (and) we pray for those who lost their lives, and for the safe recovery of people who are missing.”

Photo of parishioners at Christ the King Catholic Church in Walwa, the Upper Murray; a town that has been evacuated. Regular Mass has been cancelled in the region for the safety of parishioners. PHOTO: Diocese of Sandhurst Media Team

The fires have been burning since August and have destroyed an area comparable to the combined region of the Netherlands and Belgium. By Jan. 3, thousands of people were given less than 48 hours to evacuate fire-ravaged coastal communities in New South Wales. With the heat forecast for 48 degrees Celsius (111 degress Fahrenheit) Jan. 4, the fires were expected to worsen.

Despite Mass being cancelled in the area – such as at St Michael’s Memorial Church Tallangatta – the faithful on the ground – both in the RFS, the affected, and those supporting them – have kept praying and urge all to send prayers and material support in any way possible PHOTO: Catholic Diocese of Sandhurst

More than 2,500 buildings have been razed and at least 21 people – 16 from New South Wales, three from Victoria and two from South Australia – have died. Officials fear the toll could rise steeply, with Victorian emergency services saying 28 people are missing in the state.

Smoke clouds, which can be seen from space, have reached New Zealand, nearly 4,000 kilometres (2,500 miles) away across the Tasman Sea.

Sattelite footage demonstrating the immensity of the ongoing fire catastrophe with smoke plumes reaching New Zealand across the Tasman Sea PHOTO: CNS/REUTERS

The Gippsland region in Victoria’s east has seen convoys of people escorted by police and emergency services personnel evacuating from towns such as Corryong and Walwa in Victoria’s Alpine country.

Catholics such as the Burtons and Darlows say their faith is strong. “We have a very deep faith,” said Burton. “I put a scapular on the door and sprinkled the house with holy water, and we have statues in our home, including the Infant of Prague.”

“And so I prayed — we prayed very hard, and asked other people to pray.”

“All of these people are amazing people, with an amazing Catholic faith, and we know God will protect them,” she said. “Every time we hear good news, we’re overjoyed that these people haven’t lost their homes. There is just miracle after miracle happening.”

In his statement, Bishop Mackinlay applauded the heroism of firefighters – mainly volunteers – risking their lives for their country and community.

Swathes of UNESCO National Park such as the Blue Mountains and Wollemi have been severely affected by the flames with countless unique and endangered flora and fauna lost PHOTO: CNS/REUTERS

In Jingellic, a young volunteer firefighter, Sam McPaul, died Dec. 30 after a freak tornado caused by the fires flipped his 11-ton truck. His wife Megan, whom he married in May, is expecting their first child.

Similar stories can be heard across the country. In Sydney, the Mass for Sydney firefighter Andrew O’Dwyer was due to be held in the Horsley Park Parish Jan. 7. O’Dwyer, 36, and fellow firefighter Geoffrey Keaton, 32, were killed Dec. 19 when a fallen tree caused their tanker to roll as they fought fires south of Sydney.

The Order of Malta Australia announced Jan. 3 it would use money from its Natural Disaster Fund to provide emergency relief to those directly impacted. “We are exploring opportunities with our regional Hospitallers to provide some direct assistance, with our top priority currently to provide support to the thousands who have lost homes or are stranded,” said a statement from the order.

By David Ryan and Jordan Grantham