Out of the Fire
Bushfires in February 2009 in the Australian state of Victoria killed more than 200 people and left thousands homeless, eventually coming to be recognised as the worst disaster to hit the country in modern times.
The Salvation Army responded quickly and effectively, providing practical, emotional and spiritual assistance. A public appeal brought in more than Aus$14 million. Around 30,000 meals were served to emergency workers and already more than $4 million has been distributed to fire victims facing financial hardship. And yet, as these stories show, the one-to-one support of Salvationists and Salvation Army officers has had benefits that are more than money could buy.
Lending a hand
GRAEME Howard and his son, Matthew, travelled from Ballarat to lend a hand in the kitchen of the Whittlesea Eagles’ footy club, which became a staging area for emergency services workers and relief staff.
|Above left: the remains of a Salvation Army centre for troubled young people – one of two Salvation Army facilities destroyed by the fires; above: Graeme (right) and Matthew (middle) Howard help Major Glenys Ford in a kitchen in Whittlesea|
‘We’ve been here since five this morning,’ Graeme says while buttering toast for hungry emergency workers. ‘We left about three am, having stayed overnight at a motel near the airport.’
The kindness of strangers, he says, has been a constant even before they arrived: ‘The night before we got here we went to a restaurant named De Caprios and they paid for us – the manager donated the cost of the meal to us because they knew where we were heading.’
‘Over the past couple of weeks we have been out to a couple of fires near Ballarat,’ Matthew says, ‘and the firefighters always appreciate what we do. It’s always a privilege to help them out.’
The Howards are fairly typical of the people who have, in the words of Salvation Army Territorial Emergency Services Coordinator Warwick Wilson, ‘been falling over themselves to get stuck in and help’.
More than 130 Salvationist volunteers, from across the state, staffed posts throughout Victoria.
In the heart of Whittlesea’s community relief centre Major Mim Adams is in perpetual motion. She explains to a staffer from another non-governmental organisation (NGO) the best set-up for children’s and teenagers’ facilities in the short term.
‘Most of the kids here are older siblings who’ve been looking after their brothers and sisters – but we’ve now moved into a new phase, where it’s not so much crisis and practical, hands-on care. People are beginning to assess and analyse this situation.
‘The little children are being taken care of, with some professional analysis of their drawings, and we’ve got health professionals looking after them as well as offering face painting and clowns and things like that.’
Mim points out, however, that for now the focus has shifted, and the teens aren’t having to take responsibility for their little brothers and sisters.
‘It hits them – “My mate’s dead”, “My schoolfriend’s missing”,’ she says. ‘These teenagers come from four or five different suburbs but they all go to the same high school and they’ve lost teachers, they’ve lost classmates. If they haven’t heard from or seen their mate by now they may not again ever.
‘That’s what we’re addressing now,’ she adds. ‘There is professional counselling and care but a lot of them, right now, just need Ipods and Wii consoles and to play music ... They need to spend time with the friends they’ve got.’
Captain Jason Davies-Kildea, who is fulfilling a coordinating role between the Army and other agencies, knows that help comes in many forms, and that responses follow suit.
|Some of the huge amount of clothing and other goods donated to The Salvation Army|
|Major Jenny Barnard, on duty at a relief centre|
Early on, Jason initiated a twice-daily meeting of all the agencies involved ‘to ensure coordination and cooperation, which is helping to provide information and clarity regarding agencies, and clear delineations of their roles’.
‘If people laugh then we laugh with them,’ he says. ‘If they cry, we cry. You can’t wear a Salvation Army uniform here and not have direct, real contact with people. The uniform is a big flashing beacon that says: “I’m here if you need me.”’
While Jason notes the strength of country communities where everyone is known and part of the place, he acknowledges: ‘It makes it even harder in these circumstances when they lose neighbours, loved ones and friends. Death has impacted every single person here.’
Not far away in the community sports centre, Preston corps officer Major Daryl Crowden was coordinating the distribution of material aid in a huge makeshift department store.
Stocking anything and everything, from clothes, tinned and packaged food, shoes, toys and lollies, the hall had been transformed. Tables laden with donated goods, the floor stacked with boxes and pallets, and volunteers busy carrying piles of clothes, tidying tables, arranging cans of food on trestles.
‘People have been incredibly generous,’ Daryl says, his voice hoarse from talking for days on end.
Volunteers are paired up with bushfire survivors to ‘go shopping’, to help them choose items, but mostly, Daryl says, to encourage them to take goods. ‘People are reluctant to take things because they say there are others worse off,’ he explains. ‘A little girl came in and one of the volunteers offered her some jellybeans but she would only take one because she said other children would need them.’
Daryl says the hard work for the survivors will really begin when the media leaves, the volunteers go home and life starts to return to ‘normal’ for everyone else.
But The Salvation Army will be there for them.
‘We have developed such a good relationship with the community that we will play a part in rebuilding it, not just with supplies, but with emotional and spiritual rebuilding.’
‘The counselling never stops’
EMERGENCY services chaplain Major Arthur Ford was at the Whittlesea command centre just hours after devastating fires swept through nearby Kinglake on Saturday 7 February.
|The AXA 614 bus, from Melbourne 614 Salvation Army Corps, in Whittlesea to help provide resources for work with children and young people|
|Major Arthur Ford being interviewed by a journalist|
|Captain Mairi Mitchell talks to a volunteer support worker|
‘I was asked to go to the surgical and medical section to be with people who had been very badly burnt,’ he says.
Being with people that night – and the following days as he went up and down the mountain – meant offering what comfort he could to severely burnt people and those who had suffered terrible losses.
‘There were some horrific scenes that I will never forget: people with flesh hanging off them – and the smell of burning flesh – they’ll be with me forever,’ Arthur says.
But he was able to offer comfort – to the severely burnt young man who was frantic because he couldn’t find his wife (‘He gave me her mobile phone number and I was finally able to get hold of her and reassure him as he was put in the ambulance’); to the injured woman who had lost her son and grandchildren; to the traumatised emergency services workers.
‘On Sunday morning a firefighter came up to me, saying: “I’ve got to talk to you; I’ve just found five bodies.” He was shaking all over,’ Arthur says.
It was a situation he faced again and again. At Kinglake, a police officer asked Arthur to spend some time with one of his young colleagues.
‘This officer had found 16 bodies,’ Arthur says. ‘He has little kids of his own. For him to find children up there … he was emotionally disturbed. It will have an effect on him for the rest of his life, just like the rest of us.’
Arthur later remembered it was his 65th birthday.
‘I was sitting down with a group of emergency workers with a coffee – it was about 3.30 am – and they sang happy birthday to me. It’s a birthday I’ll never forget,’ he says.
By Wednesday, an exhausted Arthur was told to go home and rest.
‘But I was very emotional, trying to comprehend it all; I had a shower and as I was getting out clean clothes I burst into tears because of the hundreds of people up here who have nothing,’ he says.
‘I was distraught because of the horrific things I had seen and the people I’d spoken with. A friend who is a doctor organised a psychologist to debrief me before I went back, which I really appreciated.’
As soon has he arrived back at Whittlesea on Wednesday an emergency worker rushed to find him. This person had just learned that the remains of a close friend had been found on the mountain.
‘The counselling goes on, it never stops,’ Arthur says. ‘It’s not what we say, it’s listening, listening and listening. Also, reaching out and giving them a cuddle, holding their hand and saying we care about you. That physical touch is very important.
‘Up on the mountain, people come up to talk to us and cry; we just put our arms around them and they say, “Thank God for the Salvos ... thank God for all those people who are helping us.”’
Text used with permission from articles by Barry Gittins (Editor, On Fire magazine) and Faye Michelson. Photos by Barry Gittins, Ben Knop and Bruce Redman
An Army responding in love
Commissioner James Knaggs, Territorial Commander of The Salvation Army’s Australia Southern Territory, used the pages of
On Fire, a Salvation Army in-house publication in Australia, to reflect on the impact of the bushfires and pledged long-term support. The words below are excerpted from two of his columns:
THE Salvation Army has joined forces with the emergency workers, the police and ambulance staff, and thousands of other people in reaching out to those who are in pain.
I have witnessed first-hand both the trauma of these fires and the powerful grace of God, expressed through our people on the job.
I thank God for so many willing volunteers, who have ‘poured themselves out’ for others. They have given themselves unselfishly, preparing and serving food, meeting victims, offering financial support and counselling as needed.
We are serving and journeying with so many in this crisis of indescribable dimensions. We share the raw pain and shock of this incredible loss of lives and livelihoods. We are witness to the despair in the minds of the victims, and the horror in the faces of the workers. Yet in the hearts and actions of Salvos, we see an ‘outliving of hope’.
|Lieut-Colonel Peter Walker (centre) and Major Brendan Nottle talk to a local man from one of the fire-hit communities|
We understand that the depth of pain and grief of loss is impossible to measure or describe. Those who have lost loved ones will never be the same.
Fellow Salvationists, staff, friends of the Army; please understand our depth of commitment to the people of Victoria. We are in this for the long term. The Salvation Army will not walk away or give up after the initial emergency is over.
In communities that are broken and hurting we will endeavour to be stewards of healing and hope.
The Salvation Army will remain connected with other service providers, government, the business community and all whose desire is to work together over the long term to restore life and vitality to these communities.
Thank you to those who have managed to help so far. We’re going to need more help as we go forward.