Fires can’t destroy the heart of the people

Catastrophic fires burnt across NSW and Queensland throughout November and many readers will have firsthand experience of what it looked and felt like. It will remain raw for many of us for some time to come.

Some fires burnt to the very edges of houses, taking out sheds and cars but leaving homes intact — a testament to the fighting spirit of the Rural Fire Service and the communities that were able to stand their ground and defend. Not all were so lucky. Four lives were lost, and more than 200 homes destroyed in the bushfires affecting NSW alone. It will take many communities and families here years to recover.

I am confident the tenacity and resilience displayed across the region, as communities stood side by side to defend their homes, will see those affected rebuild and carry on.

Schools across the region, including Catholic schools, remained closed during the critical fire days. Smoke reduced visibility. The RFS advised residents to stay off roads and to remain indoors as much as possible. Smoke hazards together with the fires themselves made many of our roads unsafe during the height of the crisis.

Forster Tuncurry like many towns in the region has been blanketed for weeks in thick, acrid smoke, heightening the anxiety of many members of the community. The more elderly and those with respiratory problems suffer more during these times but it affects everyone. There is a sense of foreboding as the smoke thickens and remains.

Driving around the Parish of Forster Tuncurry and to the edge of the Taree Parish in the aftermath of the fires that began here on 7 November, I’m shocked by the level of devastation to the natural landscape. However, I’m also amazed by how many homes were miraculously saved.

Incredible stories are emerging of neighbours and strangers pulling together and of genuine community spirit in the face of adversity. At times like this we really witness the heart of the Australian people and the determination of our communities to do more than simply survive these disasters.

Evacuation centres have been places of support and safety for many during the crisis. Within minutes of the fires deteriorating to “catastrophic”, centres were open in community halls, church halls and local clubs. They have provided shelter and security in collaboration with organisations such as CatholicCare, St Vincent de Paul. Other government and non-government organisations have provided information and counselling to those directly affected. Supported by the generosity of many volunteers they have fed and housed thousands.

Our communities here remain on alert but continue to be upbeat.

This is the beginning of a very long, dry summer. Communities will become fatigued, fire fighters and first responders in particular. It will be important to monitor the mental and physical wellbeing of all and ensure people are rested and supported.

When I asked CatholicCare director Gary Christensen for advice recently, he responded: “It is important for everyone to support each other at this time and to seek counselling should you need to. We can only get through this by working together.”

CatholicCare offers a free counselling service for those directly affected by the fires. St Vincent de Paul, through its bushfire appeal, can also be approached for support.

Talking with families during the crisis I was impressed with the calmness of everyone as they prepared. Good decisions were made as some chose to evacuate and others decided to fight. Afterwards all spoke of the sound of the fire and the speed in which it approached. There was no time to second guess, only time to get on with it.

Mark Mowbray, principal of St Joseph’s Primary School, Taree was directly affected. On 8 November the Rainbow Flat fire burnt to the back of his home destroying sheds and pastures. The fire moved quickly he said, which prevented his family from evacuating.

“The wind got fiercer and fiercer, the fire louder and louder, raining embers everywhere,” he said. “It was like a war zone. Thank God for the RFS. The back of the house was scorched but its quick action saved us.”

The RFS members came from Forbes and Condobolin with one member missing his daughter’s engagement party to help in the crisis.  Mark and his wife Marina are thankful for their tireless efforts to save them and their home.

I am saddened that wildlife and their habitats have been lost to the fires. There will be much needed and quickly to assist in the replanting of vegetation and the resettlement of the displaced native animals. Heartening are the green shoots already starting to appear in some places. Signs of hope.

“Hero”, like the word “love” is often misused. However, it is certainly appropriate when speaking of the brave souls who have stood firm in the face of terrifying bushfires over the past two months. The men and women of the RFS are true heroes and together with members of the SES, Police and Fire and Rescue in towns and hamlets across the region they have saved lives, property and communities without counting the cost to themselves.

A member of the community in Forster said recently that the Australian of the Year should go to the RFS members this year, all of them. Amen I say to that. Amen to that.

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