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Fire-ravaged parishes show courage and ‘generosity of spirit’ in the face of loss and trauma

Fighting hard: NSW Rural Fire Service crews work to save properties from looming fires along the Old Hume Highway near the town of Tahmoor, south-west of Sydney, on December 19. Photo: CNS/Dean Lewins, AAP via Reuters

PRIESTS working in Australia’s worst bushfire-ravaged districts have praised the courage and “generosity of spirit” of their communities. But with more heatwave conditions expected, they have warned of the long-term impact of disaster trauma.

“We have parishioners fighting fires, those who have lost their homes, and those who are playing a part with the evacuation centres,” Fr Luke Verrell said from the New South Wales south coast town of Bega, an evacuation hub for thousands fleeing danger.

“There has been a great community spirit. The Catholic community has helped just as everyone has helped.”

Tasked as an emergency chaplain, Fr Verrell has travelled to evacuation centres offering solace to farming families, elderly rescued from nursing homes and thousands of holidaymakers caught up in one of the country’s worst and ongoing fire disasters.

The raging fires have consumed five million hectares, claimed dozens of lives (25 at last count), left dozens more injured including firefighters, and destroyed hundreds of homes.

Within Fr Verrell’s Canberra-Goulburn archdiocese one church has also been destroyed.

The count of livestock and wildlife could run into many millions dead.

In the heart of Victoria’s fire country, Fr Michael Willemsen, parish priest at St Mary’s Bairnsdale, East Gippsland, was reflective as light rain fell to bring a short reprieve for volunteer firefighters.

“All of this is mixed blessings for the ‘firies’ (firefighters). These weather conditions can make for bush tracks to be more slippery … adding to the challenges,” Fr Willemsen said.

Amongst his congregation there are volunteer firefighters who are exhausted after days on the fire frontline.

“Their actions are heroic because as people are coming away from danger, they are heading towards the danger,” Fr Willemsen said.

“It’s impossible to count the number of selfless acts that have been carried out and continue to be carried out by all sorts of people.”

Fr Willemsen said a generous community was rallying around people who had lost their homes.

“I was talking to one lady there who lost her home and when I asked was she insured she said ‘no’. That made my heart sink,” he said.

“The whole community are giving in whatever way they can.” 

In Bega, Fr Verrell proudly explains that even in apocalyptic conditions, Sunday Mass went ahead.

He was stirred, not daunted, as veils of smoke turned the sky from blood red to pitch black. 

“Yesterday was 24 hours of darkness,” Fr Verrell said.

“Now you can’t even see the sky because there is so much smoke.

“In a dark place we keep on going and know the light of Christ will lead us along the way.

“It is inspiring to go to the local relief centre and see the number of people bringing donations, and number of people there to accept them, sort the goods and distribute them.”

The St Vincent de Paul Society is one of the frontline agencies providing food and clothing for fire-ravaged communities, and the Order of Malta has provided money from its Natural Disaster Fund.

Adding to local efforts donations have poured in after social media posts went viral showing thousands of stranded tourists on the beach in the Victorian east coastal town of Mallacoota getting evacuated by the navy, and singed, distressed koalas being bandaged and bottle-fed.

International celebrities have donated tens of millions of dollars while many overseas media outlets’ coverage has focused on Australia’s perceived inaction on climate change.

“I urge 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,” Bishop Shane Mackinlay of Sandhurst diocese, also hit by bushfires, said.

“We pray for those who lost their lives, and for the safe recovery of people who are missing.” 

Fr Verrell described the plight of one of his parishioners, a firefighter, who owned a drought-ravaged dairy farm and had lost his property. 

The heavy loss was compounded by also losing all their cows.

“They’ve had to get rid of all their livestock because there is nothing for them to eat,” Fr Verrell said.

“People are keen to get back to their houses, but that will depend on how much damage is done to the roads and the barrier of fallen trees.”

Fr Verrell said there was no doubt bushfire trauma would leave long-lasting scars in his community.

“The reality is many people won’t stay and rebuild. The community is going to be devastated by people leaving,” he said.

“Those who want to stay will have to be very patient waiting for builders.

“They’ll have to go through anniversaries, significant events and daily reminders of the tragedy they have gone through as they try to get their lives back together.

“There are those who have lost everything and those who have saved everything. There’s a disparity.

“There will be a hyper-awareness of the threat of fire. And there will be a weariness for those who helped.”

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