Kevin and Trish Bourke live in Myrtleford, a small rural town of 3,500 in the state of Victoria. He is a volunteer firefighter. They tell of the damage caused by the disastrous fires that still continue, but of many episodes of courage and solidarity as well.
The recent fires have been devastating. Our small district has lost over 102,000 hectares of national park, pine plantation forests and fertile farmlands to fire. We have also lost livestock and stock feed, but we are fortunate as we have only lost one house and no human lives.
The fires have impacted every state and territory within Australia. They started in August 2019 and are still burning. The height of the flames has reached 40 metres, fanned by winds up to 100 kilometres per hour. As I write this account on 30 January 2020, large fires are still threatening a number of areas, including the southern borders of Canberra, Australia’s capital city. So far, the fires have burned in excess of 19 million hectares (nearly two-thirds the total area of Italy). The current number of lives lost is 35, thousands of houses, businesses, stock and native wildlife have perished. Yet the human spirit endures.
People demonstrated an endless desire to help those impacted in any way they could. Many, especially those based in major cities, often stated that they felt somewhat helpless, as they couldn’t work out what they could do from a distance, as most of the fires were burning in rural locations. But people did help.
Sometimes it was just by offering support through social media. Some made donations, and there was an extensive range in between. We were fortunate to be able to witness the good from the fire front. We saw people consoling others, sometimes when they just needed someone to listen to their story.
Emergency services came to the fire effected areas, often from a distance, in some cases thousands of kilometres away, to help fight the fires. Most were volunteers, often incurring financial losses to assist us. Some firefighters came from across the seas. Canada, the U.S. and New Zealand were represented. The Army, Navy and Airforce have all provided troops and equipment, some fighting fires, and others ensuring water, food, health facilities and emergency accommodation were supplied and of a high standard.
Relief agencies, including St. Vincent de Paul, Red Cross and Salvation Army, received donations from international musicians, actors, sports people and regular Australian citizens. To date this fund is AUD$500 million.
Some farmers from areas that were not impacted provided stock feed to others who had lost their supply. In one instance a large group of farmers drove over 3,000 kilometres to deliver 140 semi-trailer loads of hay to fire-affected farmers. All of the hay was donated. The value of the hay was in excess of AUD$1 million.
Neighbours checked on each other to ensure they were safe and well. Elderly and those with young families were offered additional support to make sure they were able to evacuate if the need arose. In some instances, the elderly needed to evacuate just to escape the smoke that drifted over the valley. They had respiratory difficulties and eyes that stung due to excessive exposure to hazardous smoke.
People showed genuine concern for each other in so many ways. We loaned our trailer to a property owner who wanted to re-locate stock. As we were located in a zone that was blocked from traffic, the rubbish collection ceased – and our trailer was being used. So the neighbours collected ours, and many bins from the neighbourhood, and took them to the transfer station.
Families donated food and clothing to those who had to evacuate without time to pack; others accommodated those who required shelter. Horse transport operators from outside the region provided free cartage of horses to safer locations. Businesses in nearby towns provided free emergency accommodation.
On one of the days that I was fighting fires, a volunteer went to buy food for everyone’s midday meal. A couple waiting to be served in the shop realized that the food was for the firefighters and paid the entire amount: AUD$600. We didn’t even know who they were.
Grandparents have appeared at the station advising that their grandchildren had asked them to provide their Christmas money to the firefighters to help them ‘stop the fires’. We sent the children a card and photo saying thanks. We have some new friends.
This country has witnessed so much suffering through natural disaster. In most cases the fires were ignited by lightning reaching a parched landscape. No one was to blame, yet the memories will stay with many for a lifetime. It is often said that it is how you react to situation that defines us. We are happy to report that people reacted with love and compassion, and that too will be remembered for a lifetime.
Kevin and Trish Bourke