I don’t know what gets into the international news, but a very large area of Australia is currently on fire or burned out as a result of the worst bushfires in several decades. Because Australia is dry and we like our trees and our native eucalypts (gum trees) burn well, we get bushfires every summer. However, this means we’re good at dealing with them, so most years property is lost, but not lives. When people die, it’s usually only a very few.
This year is different. Just a few minutes ago, the confirmed death toll in Victoria was 128, with a warning that it could go as high as 230. The latest report in the Australian newspaper says
The weekend’s blazes are likely to have destroyed almost 1000 houses. They wiped two whole towns – Marysville and Narbethong – off the map and left the town of Kinglake decimated.
There are more fires burning on the Central Coast of New South Wales, although I don’t think people are dying there, and then in Queensland there are floods!! Bear in mind when looking at these figures that the population of Australia is only 21 million.
There are stories of firefighters who have lost their own homes while out trying to save the homes of others. Recovery workers are going through the wreckage of burned out houses and dragging out the bodies of whole families who died. Most of the fire fighters are volunteers. They are all well trained but quite a few will be dealing with the reality of death from bushfire for the first time.
There is a higher death toll than in either of the other big fires in our history, but our population is also significantly higher, so I’m not sure if this really is the worst since European settlement. It’s one of the three worst, though.
Armidale, where I live, is a long way from these fires and the surrounding area is not drought affected, so any fire that might start would be far easier to control. However, one of the areas affected is Churchill, where I lived in my last chaplaincy placement at Monash Gippsland campus. From what we are hearing, the house we lived in then has almost certainly been burned and quite likely the homes of friends who still live there. The Fire Service is almost positive that this fire was deliberately lit.
If you are the kind of person who prays, please keep the people who have lost homes and loved ones and the emergency service personnel working in the area in your prayers.
Update 23 February
Yesterday was declared a national day of mourning and there was a memorial service in Melbourne, with live feeds all over the country. The official death toll is over 200, with the homes of over 7,000 people destroyed. There are still fires threatening other places near Melbourne and people were told that if they hadn’t got out by early this morning, it was too late to try to leave and they had to stay and try to defend their homes. Just horrible.