BISHOPS of the two regions most affected by the current Australian bushfire crisis have issued pastoral letters to their congregations.
The Bishop of Gippsland, Dr Richard Treloar, in a letter read in churches across his diocese on Sunday, wrote that “our hearts and hand go out” to the people in the fire-ravaged areas of east Gippsland. Two people have died and hundreds of homes and other buildings have been destroyed.
He continued: “We commit ourselves to a sustained relief effort, working within and beyond our churches with people of good will to support those most affected by the fires and their aftermath, and to rebuild hope where hope has been lost.”
PAThe burnt-out remains of a house in the Southern Highlands town of Wingello, 160km south-west of Sydney, on Monday
The Bishop of Canberra and Goulburn, Dr Mark Short, has also written to all parishes in his diocese, which extends to the south coast of New South Wales. Some small towns in the south coast region have been virtually obliterated, and at least one church was burnt down.
“We grieve with and for those who have lost property and loved ones”, Dr Short wrote. “We groan with and for creation as it waits for rescue. We long for quenching rain and relief. . . Please join with me in thanking God for every act of courage and kindness.”
Bushfires continue to blaze across New South Wales and Victoria, although cooler conditions and light rain this week have eased the strain on firefighters. Hotter conditions are expected in the coming days, however. Almost all the holidaymakers stranded in coastal resort areas cut off by the fires have now been evacuated by naval ships and helicopters in the largest such evacuations in Australian history.
PAOne of a team of Rural Fire Service volunteers and Fire and Rescue NSW officers contain a small bushfire on Princes Highway, south of Ulladulla, on Sunday
The losses from fires, which have affected almost all states and territories since they began in September, have so far resulted in the deaths of 25 people, some of them volunteer firefighters. More than ten million hectares have been burnt, almost 2000 homes and 100,000 livestock destroyed, and countless wildlife killed. To date, the insurance bill amounts to $700 million.
The Australian economy has been estimated to have suffered a $2-billion loss. Community leaders are warning that they expect worse to come, because the peak bushfire season in Australia is usually late January and February.
While the fires have raged, a debate about the federal government’s response to both the fires and climate change has continued unabated. Last year was the hottest and driest on record in Australia, during which a years-long severe drought affected much of the country. Yet the government says that it is doing enough to mitigate climate change. Tinder-dry vegetation has combined with long, early, and extremely hot heatwaves: temperatures in some places have been in the mid to high 40s for successive days.
NASAA satellite captures images of the fires and the resultant billowing smoke cascading off the edge of Australia on New Year’s Day
The Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, has been criticised in many quarters for the government’s slow response to the fire emergency, and for his decision to go on holiday to Hawaii when the fires were burning. He was heckled on a visit to the New South Wales town of Cobargo, one of the worst hit in the disaster.
A coalition of former fire-fighter organisation leaders have condemned his refusal to meet them in April last year, when they wrote to him warning of a dangerous season ahead and asking for major investment in fire-fighting equipment.