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Hope and hardship amidst fire and drought

Ahead of the day of prayer for the bushfires on 1 December, Rev Kaye Ronalds reflects on the impact of the recent events in Stanthorpe.

I was away on one month long service leave when the fires arrived in Stanthorpe but the Supply Minister was a great help in the immediate aftermath, visiting families and dealing with the offers of help and distributing goods, such as linen and blankets.

Since then I have personally followed up three of the families affected and I have heard many stories about what happened on the night and what it was like to be evacuated. Many families drove to Warwick and Toowoomba in the middle of the night to avoid being stuck in the path of the fire.

Two themes have dominated the conversations. Firstly, gratefulness for the extraordinary effort of firefighters (volunteers and full-time firefighters) plus the ordinary citizens who put out spot fires, pushed down fire breaks, and turned up with generators and pumps to get water onto the fire. Secondly, there is a sense of still being overwhelmed because the stress of the drought is ongoing and significant. The fire comes quickly and then the clean up happens, but the drought is cruel.

I have certainly found it was helpful to have done some Disaster Chaplaincy Training as a framework for helping people make sense of what has occurred and what is a normal response to such disasters. For example, people are always taken by surprise that after the initial shock and relief that it wasn’t worse, and then a gratefulness for the help that comes from elsewhere and within the community, then there is the disillusion phase. They feel disillusioned because the hopefulness that everything will be okay is replaced with the reality that some things cannot be replaced, some things are lost forever, and sometimes the insurance company or the council or the helping agencies just cannot meet all the needs in a timely way.

One lady who lost her house has been grateful for the generosity of the people to her situation. They have cleared the block of all the remains of the house—an emotional experience, but necessary—and will start rebuilding in the new year.

An elderly couple have purchased a small house in town and will move in soon. Some people lost farm sheds with tractors, tools and all of those useful items that you would not replace (nor insure) but just handy to have (apparently you can never have enough old tractors when you are on an orchard!). Another family had been renovating an old cottage and the shed they lost was where they stored all the antiques and vintage furniture that they were hoping to put in the cottage when it was finished.

We have received funds from various parts of the church including the Queensland Disaster Relief Appeal and several churches. We have also worked with other churches, faith groups and service clubs to respond to the needs. Some people will qualify for help from one place but not another. UnitingCare Queensland and the Target Gift Appeal is another partner for us in responding to community need.

Here is an extract from what I sent a group that has offered a donation.

“We have certainly been delighted to be able to distribute financial gifts, hampers and vouchers for food, fuel, fodder and water.

“The drought and the fires have made a significant impact and some people are feeling overwhelmed because there is no significant rain predicted. It will be a long hot summer in our district and many people are on edge. The Lifeline Disaster Recovery worker has also been busy offering practical support and a skillful listening era.

“The UnitingCare and the Target appeal has also been able to assist us with some Gift Cards to use at Target and some fuel vouchers. Much of the farm work, like the dams has dried up and of course many farmers are working hard all day trying to keep stock alive or keep a little water on orchards or small crops. Most small crops farmers have not planted this year. Many farmers tell me that usually they would have some farm labour but with no income they are doing the work themselves. Some of them feel disappointed that they have had to let go some loyal staff. So there are layers and layers of need and meanwhile people still get sick and have relationship issues and have bereavements in the family.

“Churches gather to pray and people are being generous with what they have.

“We are still hoping people will come to the Granite Belt to visit as there is a plan in place to provide water into the town system water distribution system. The cafes, restaurants, accommodation providers and local shops and wineries rely on tourism and those businesses need to continue operating even though some of the farming will be diminished this year.”

UnitingCare is offering some free training in Warwick in a couple of weeks’ time and that will further equip people to respond helpfully as they make connections in the community.

I rang a lady from one of the drought affected orchards this morning just to see how they are going. When I went to visit them they were so grateful that I went to their place and had a cup of tea with them. It is incarnational—like Jesus coming to live among us.

Rev Kaye Ronalds

Rev Kaye Ronalds is the Minister at Granite Belt Uniting Church.

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