The country’s worst bushfire crisis in years has drawn a spirit of courage and compassion as thousands rally to help those at risk or who have already lost homes, livelihoods and loved ones.
Weeks of bushfires reached catastrophic conditions last week with almost a million hectares destroyed and lives and homes lost across NSW alone. At least three people have died and at least 200 homes were razed across the state, with the mid to north coast diocese of Lismore heavily affected.
Other NSW dioceses affected include Broken Bay, Maitland Newcastle, Wollongong, Sydney and Parramatta.
Further north another dozen homes were lost, almost all near Yeppoon in central Queensland while firefighters and volunteers in the northern state continue to face extreme conditions.
Lismore’s Bishop Gregory Homeming OCD told The Catholic Weekly the bushfire season started early this year with at least 30 homes lost in previous weeks in communities at Rappville, 70kms south east of Lismore and Dorrigo near Coffs Harbour.
The diocese was assisting some families with emergency accommodation and other help but the most urgent need was for rain, he said.
“Virtually everywhere from Lismore down to Torrington we have fires and blackened sky. In Port Macquarie on Friday there was ash falling from the sky,” he said. “There are probably thousands of people impacted by all of this.
“People that I know, both in the diocese and out of the diocese, have lost property, have been evacuated. My own aunt has been evacuated from Wauchope today to Port Macquarie, so it’s all pretty awful.”
“If rain doesn’t come things will just continue to dry up. There can be no real alleviation without rain.”
Bishop Homeming said he planned get advice soon including from local civic leaders to work out the best way for the diocese to help bushfire victims in the weeks and months ahead. “This is now a national issue and the governments will be sure to provide assistance for the physical needs so at the moment my thinking is to focus on caring for the persons,” he said.
“That’s not to say we won’t provide financial assistance as well – once we know exactly what the loss is and what the government is doing, then I will step in and work out what the diocese will do. But I am very conscious that Christmas is approaching and anything which will assist these people to have something of a Christmas would be a wonderful thing for us to do.”
Almost 80 Catholic schools across the state were closed on 12 November with Catholic Schools NSW CEO Dallas McInerney urging students and families to follow instructions provided by the NSW Rural Fire Service and to remain alert to updates of any nearby fires.
In the Sydney region these included at least five primary and secondary Catholic schools in Menai, Engadine and Como.
Service and solidarity
Just a few examples of selflessness from the community supporting the firefighters and other first responders as well as fire victims:
In Port Macquarie, staff from St Joseph’s Regional College packed food, drinking water and care items for battle-weary firefighters and bushfire victims at a donation collection and distribution point set up in a small art gallery in the town.
At Yeppoon in northern Queensland, St Benedict’s Primary School principal Tim Collins said that a number of parents and staff had made themselves available to assist the school’s families with moving to safer ground or providing emergency accommodation.
In NSW the St Vincent de Paul Society ramped up its support to those affected by bushfires, including by supplying evacuation centres. At Vinnies shops in Foster, Walcha and Ballina locals forced to leave their homes were given with food, clothing and vouchers for groceries.
“In communities big and small, Vinnies members are ready and able to help,” said CEO Jack de Groot. “We will be working closely with the affected communities to determine the best ways to help them get back on their feet.
“While we are thankful for donations of quality clothing and items, the best way to make an immediate impact is to give money. This enables us to direct your donation right away to those who need it.”
“Incredible” power of prayer
Sonja Maree, who lives in The Rock near Wagga, posted on social media asking for people to join her in a novena of the Memorare prayer beginning on 12 November for the protection of lives and properties, and for all those fighting the fires.
Her family lives near Grafton and while her mother and younger siblings were evacuated to the town her father and three of her brothers remained to protect their 133-acre property.
“The novena is the only way I can think of to help my family from here,” she told The Catholic Weekly. “I feel very helpless to do anything but I know the power of prayer is incredible. There are so many people who are in the same boat as us, just anxiously waiting.
Prayer is about the one thing we can do, but definitely it is a very important and powerful way to help.”
More than 500 government and non-government schools, preschools, and TAFES were closed along with businesses and some churches on Tuesday.
NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian declared a state of emergency for seven days on 11 November, while the Australian Army was put on standby to support thousands of firefighters and SES volunteers including reinforcements from interstate.
Donate to Vinnies’ bushfire appeal at 13 18 12, at vinnies.org.au, or in any Vinnies Shops.