So far over sixty-five million dollars has been raised by Red Cross for their 2009 Victoria Bushfire Appeal, a staggering amount of money compared with events I have seen staged in the United Kingdom for disaster relief, but then that is how Australia is. Aussies love a battler, and more than a battler Aussies love other Aussies. In 2005 the fires were here on Southern Eyre with the loss of thousands of hectares of farmland, hundreds of animals, and nine South Australians, (including three known to our close friendship group). Then millions of dollars and shedloads of stuff was sent from across Australia to help us; a generosity and acts of love not forgotten by us as we now have the opportunity to give as well.
It may be true that Australia is not the best country in the world in rallying around itself during times of trial, (although it probably is true); and I am certain that other countries must do this sort of thing, but right now I am proud to be Australian and to hear and see the heart of my nation for my people. I was pleased to see the envelope passed down the Regional Express 1135 from ADL to PLO last Wednesday, to see that over $800 had been raised just from that little 30 seat SAAB in a little more than three hours of flying. It was just an A4 envelope, passed hand to hand down the rows and we were the aircraft’s third flight of the day; I was blessed to see bush-blokes pulling several orange and yellow notes from their wallets, not just the pink or blue ones, and putting them in the envelope as if they were posting mail. “Just doin’ me job mate.” Of course you were: and you’d probably already done it at Adelaide Airport before boarding the flight and at Elders before heading for the airport. You know you’re in the right country when the national news tells you to “stop sending stuff as we are swamped”, to send money instead, and the national giving to one appeal total tops ten million dollars a day, each day, for several days on end.
What has also been brought home to me as a Melbourne-boy, born and raised then moved away, is the locality of this season’s fires. The campsite where my brother and I used to go “to camp” as pre-teens lost two of its five bunkhouses and the main dining room/auditorium complex. I think of that place often as I had some great experiences there, both as a growing boy and a growing Christian. Now it’s gone and there are photos on their website to prove it: along with the news that every member of staff and each of the ninety campers onsite at the time were all successfully evacuated. The office is already being moved to Healesville so as to continue their mission of ministering to their community. Legends!
Kinglake was a place suburbanites like us would drive through on our way from “The City” to “The Snow”. I was at secondary school with kids from Bunyip.
In 1983 the fires of Ash Wednesday burned down the houses of two of my school friends in North Pakenham, along with the “other church” of the two-congregation Anglican parish where I was Confirmed. It burned close to us as it went through Mount Macedon, and as it burned across the Adelaide Hills it destroyed places more familiar to us now as new resident citizens of the People’s Republic of South Australia.
My family has stories of the bushfires near Melbourne in the 1930s and 1960s; of my grandfather disappearing for four days while “away at the fires”. My brother and I were present to defend our house in Hobart in 1995 as the flames came over Mt Nelson and burned out a paddock across the road from us while we stood in thick jumpers and jeans and hosed down our roof and spouting. Fire is what we do, but then we are an Australian family and fire is what everyone does and has done for at least 221 years.
It is true that Australia burns like clockwork. This year is an El Nino year: every eleven to fifteen years we see extremes of weather while South America sees the inverse effect. Floods in the north, fires in the south: welcome to Australia in 2009, (1995-97, 1982-83, 1967-69). This has not, as some have said, anything to do with “so what is God saying to Australia”; El Nino means “the child” in Spanish, and yes it is named for Christ since the effects rise around the time of Christmas: but if God is saying anything to Australia is it what He says to anyone in distress; “I am with you”, “behold I make all things new”, and other less Biblical stuff like “yeah I know mate, this sucks it happened to you but you’ll be right”. (Or even “you’se’ll be roit” on occasion; this is The Great Southland of The Holy Spirit after all, and everyone knows Eden is just over the NSW side of the coastal boarder with Victoria, Paradise a suburb of Adelaide, and The Promised Land and Beulah just inland from Devonport in Tasmania.) We learned as children how to live in Australia; primary school when I was a boy featured repeated lessons on how to survive a bushfire, or snake bite, or spider bite, or poisoning by octopus/jellyfish/stonefish; we know this happens and we know what to do.
But this year it has been different, and that is what makes 2009 bigger than normal. (Yes “normal”.) Stay home and defend your well prepared property we are told; and people died. Get in your car and escape because cars will not often explode we are told; and people died. The Adelaide Advertiser today reports on Marysville in narrative form: at 17:15 people were kicking back with the aircon and a coldie as the fires burned ten miles away. By 18:15 the town had been wiped off the face of the earth and almost a hundred had died: maybe a hundred by the time forensics have finished: and what with the chance that this was arson the whole town has been cop-taped off as a crime scene.
When your Prime Minister appears in tears on internationally televised news and swears that we will find every one of the fire-bug arsonists, you know you’re in the best country on earth. When you read of the nine charred bodies found in one house, eight huddled around the baby at the centre, it breaks your heart that “home” could be so cruel.