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Generosity to fire-affected strangers 'humbling'

Donations from Melbourne Anglicans are aiding the bushfire recovery effort in Gippsland and Wangaratta

The Right Revd Dr Richard Treloar, Bishop of Gippsland, with the Revd Jude Benton, Priest-in-Charge, Croajingolong Parish, at fire-affected Croajingolong National Park in East Gippsland in mid-January.

By Nicola Templeton

April 21 2020Anglicans giving through the Melbourne Anglican Foundation, along with donors from around the world, have contributed well over $115,000 to the Diocese of Gippsland’s Diocesan Emergency Relief Fund to assist people during and after the summer 2020 bushfires, says Richard Connelly, Registrar of the Gippsland Diocese.

“The cost of fuel and groceries at the height of the fires was prohibitive for many, due to distance and isolation. We provided clergy with a voucher system to distribute to those in emergency need and support through pastoral care and services by locums in remote communities,” Mr Connelly said.

The fires, which began by lightning strike near Bruthen, East Gippsland in November, persisted until mid-February, burning for 91 days. Over one million acres of bush burned in the region, almost 90 per cent of the area. Bruthen, Omeo, Orbost, Cann River and Mallacoota took the brunt of the devastation, while Lakes Entrance was cut off by the fires and evacuated.

“Daily, Gippslanders lived on tenterhooks waiting for a change in the weather pattern to shift the fire away from their direction with towns coming under repeated threat by fires,” Mr Connelly said.

“With the Bruthen fire I called the priest offering help and support, only hearing that ‘all we can do is wait to see if we’ll be wiped out’. And so we’d wait.”

In the Anglican Diocese of Wangaratta, the fires devastated small communities like Walwa, Cudgewa and Corryong, 218km from the City of Wangaratta. They then stretched south-west into the Alpine region to Harrietville, Bright, Myrtleford, Carboor and Whorouly.

Starting on 30 December, the fires burned continuously for two weeks.

“The Corryong area is the farthest outlying area of the Diocese, about 85km from the closest parish. It’s only a small community and the major concern was how we would be able to respond given the need,” the Bishop of Wangaratta, Clarence Bester, explained.

“These areas were heavily impacted economically as both Corryong and the Alpine region depend on tourists for economic survival,” Bishop Bester said.

“Following the fires, $10,000 from the Melbourne Anglican Foundation was used in Corryong to repair and fence properties damaged by the fires. We sponsored a community-building activity providing a music band and jumping castle for children and families affected. Two groups of people numbering 28 and 45 then visited the areas, enjoying morning tea, buying goods in local shops and visiting restaurants.

“We gave a small donation for petrol costs to four VCC [Victorian Council of Churches] emergency personnel who cancelled their leave to assist in the crisis. We also supported a counselling service offered by Queenslanders who came to help. Later we financed the appointment of two part-time coordinators and enabled ongoing Anglican ministry in Corryong throughout January and February.

“We would like to express our thanks to all donors who gave to the Melbourne Anglican Foundation,” Bishop Bester said.

Coordinator of the Gippsland Diocese Bushfire Recovery, the Revd Cathy Turnbull, said a key concern now is for people’s mental health following this summer’s horror.

“Trauma experienced can manifest itself in so many ways and is not immediately apparent. So many people will say ‘I’m OK’, but when you spend a length of time with them, you discover often they are not. We have been able to respond to needs by linking people to services and grants or providing direct help through the Diocesan Emergency Relief Fund.

“Sixty per cent of the funds have been dispersed, including those received from the Melbourne Anglican Foundation. We have a number of requests from clergy for those who have their home but lost everything, including their income. To be able to provide immediate financial support helps people materially and reminds them that they don’t have to do it all on their own,” she said.

“Fire can sweep through an area in such short time and leave a legacy of destruction, both physically and emotionally,” Richard Connelly said. “The whole East Gippsland region has been devastated. How the community can be expected to support their church at this time is so reduced given people’s personal need for recovery. We have been continually overwhelmed by the generosity of so many people. The simple act of one person being generous to strangers in fire-affected towns is so humbling. The generosity of the Melbourne Anglican Foundation has been greatly appreciated.”

In January and February 2020 Melbourne Anglicans gave nearly $70,000 to the Melbourne Anglican Foundation for bushfire recovery in the Diocese of Gippsland and Wangaratta, all of which has been distributed.

If you would like to give a donation to bushfire recovery in Gippsland or Wangaratta, please click here.

The Royal Commission into Australia’s 2020 summer bushfires opened online from Canberra on 16 April. Under COVID-19 restrictions the Royal Commission will hear stories from witnesses, those who lost homes, businesses and families of those who lost their lives.

Nicola Templeton is Director of Development and Communications, Melbourne Anglican Foundation.