EXHAUSTED fire crews battled flames in catastrophic conditions, as unprecedented bushfires claimed lives and livelihoods, and smoke shrouded east coast towns from Sydney to far north Queensland.
“All it takes is one spark to start a fire that may burn for days,” Queensland Fire and Emergency Services acting commissioner Mike Wassing said, declaring a state of emergency on November 12.
Amid tinder-box conditions, unpredictable winds pushed firefronts towards communities with a speed and intensity that have shocked even the most hardened firefighters.
More than 100 fires are burning across New South Wales and parts of Queensland.
“Everyone should have a bushfire survival plan and know what they are going to do if a fire approaches,” Mr Wassing said.
On one day last week, air quality in Brisbane was worse than Beijing – at an emergency level that can cause shortness of breath and aggravate heart conditions.
St Vincent de Paul Society Queensland launched the Vinnies Bushfire Appeal calling for cash donations to help victims through the unprecedented bushfire emergency.
“Vinnies is ready to assist families and individuals whose homes and businesses have been destroyed by this ongoing terrible disaster, but we need the public’s help,” Vinnies state president Dennis Innes said.
“We are hearing from people who have seen their homes, sheds and livelihoods lost, who have been sleeping in evacuation centres, fearful of what they might return home to.
“This disaster is far from over and the worst may be yet to come with summer ahead, but Vinnies will be there to assist in any way we can.
“Our volunteers have been on the ground providing mattresses to sleep on, personal hygiene items and moral support to those who have been forced to flee their homes.”
Catholic parishes and priests are among those on alert and boosting emergency preparations.
Across Brisbane archdiocese, 104 parishes were urged to have plans ready to secure churches, including removing valuable assets like baptismal records, chalices and vestments, and to move Mass if necessary.
“Very high to extreme fire danger ratings conditions have been experienced by parishes in the archdiocesan deaneries of North Country, North Coast, South Country, South Coast and Logan,” a Work Health and Safety newsletter sent to parishes said.
“It may not be safe to hold Mass at some churches during periods of extreme alert.
“Remember the safety of people must come first.
“Parishes should discuss and develop plans to conduct Mass and house the parish priest(s) away from bushfire danger areas in these circumstances.”
In the Gold Coast hinterland, Pauline Father Albert Wasniowski was watchful and “praying for rain” as smoke descended into the Marian Valley, shrouding the Shrine of Our Lady Help of Christians.
“It is very dry, and weather conditions can change at any time,” Fr Wasniowski said.
“As long as we don’t have any bushfires close to us I think we should be fine.”
Two months ago Marian Valley was lit up by flying embers as bushfires raged around Beechmont, and Fr Wasniowski was close to evacuating more than 25 visitors sleeping in retreat cabins.
“In Marian Valley, we are pretty much surrounded by the forest. In reality if there is fire coming we have to run. We can’t really defend here,” he said.
Capricorn Coast parish priest Fr Matthew Moloney said about 11 houses in the community had been completely burnt out.
“Many families have had loss of machinery, loss of sheds, loss of crops – that’s been devastating to some family members,” Fr Moloney said.
Fr Moloney said there was a lot of fear and a lot of trauma felt among community members, but there was also a surge of support and people caring for one another.
He said many of those who couldn’t return home due to fire warnings had stayed with relatives or friends to wait out the fires.
Emergency services had told the local community the current fires were unprecedented.
“We thank emergency services personnel and the (Queensland Fires and Emergency Services) people who are doing extraordinary work,” Fr Moloney said.
“We pray that people stay safe and we pray too in solidarity with those who have lost lives in northern New South Wales.
“We pray in prayers of support and prayers of hope that we can overcome and that our land will be replenished with rain that is so desperately needed.”
Properties of family and staff from St Ursula’s College and St Brendan’s College were among those affected.
Due to smoke and fire warnings, St Ursula’s was shut for one day and St Brendan’s was almost evacuated last Sunday.
St Ursula’s receptionist Donna Stafford evacuated from her Woodbury property on November 9, returned the next day, but was forced to flee again.
“The ferocity and speed of the blaze was intense,” Mrs Stafford said.
“There was an eerie feeling before we evacuated; burnt leaves were landing on my verandah when the fires were still kilometres away.
“Before we had to evacuate, we helped our neighbours because the flames were at their property boundary.”
Fr Moloney said many of the students, who had stayed with relatives or friends, had simply worn to school whatever they had on.
“At this stage, everyone is safe,” he said.
“The school communities are safe.
“And the community is banding together with a great spirit.”
Across the border in New South Wales, a forecast for catastrophic fire danger on November 12 closed at least 76 Catholic schools, including 27 in Lismore diocese, where the North Coast was blanketed in thick smoke.
Lismore diocese has launched its own bushfire appeal.
Donations can be sent to the Diocesan Investment Fund BSB 062-565, account number 1085-4726.