Whether fighting fires, assisting evacuees, supporting those who lost loved ones in the fires, helping to rebuild towns and lives, caring for injured, thirsty and frightened wildlife, or donating money to the many charities and community groups assisting vulnerable people, Australians stepped up.
Sr Magdalen Mather, one of the 25 Benedictine sisters at Jamberoo Abbey in NSW, spoke of the openhearted hospitality and generosity that their community received and that she believes Australians are known for – particularly in times of crisis. Perched on the side of a mountain above the small town of Jamberoo, the Abbey has faced three evacuations since early December.
Sr Magdalen expressed gratitude for the RFS (Rural Fire Service) firefighters who supported them, and the local community who opened their homes to various sisters and their dogs during the evacuations. “Our local RFS have been so supportive and encouraging and available,” Sr Magdalen says. “They have kept in contact with our fire team at the Abbey and check in regularly with the sisters who remain.”
No strangers to the threat of bushfires, the Abbey buildings and cottages have a sprinkler system and a fire plan that includes a ‘fire team’. In the event of catastrophic fire conditions, it’s the team’s job to stay behind and turn on the sprinklers, secure the buildings, and finally evacuate themselves.
Sr Magdalen says the decision to evacuate is not taken lightly, because, with the “number of very elderly sisters who are in need of care and four dogs – the evacuation of our 25 sisters in four cars – takes all day and many trips.”
In late December, Deanna Sherwin found herself, her husband, Brent, her three children (aged one, five and seven), her parents, and her brother and his family, trapped by the fires at Lake Conjola in NSW. With little prior notice, they received a text message warning of an approaching fire and to seek shelter.
Deanna talks of the confusion and fear that grew steadily over the next couple of hours. Her husband remained in the caravan park to prepare their van, while her elderly father was in a mobility scooter and needed significant help to get to the water’s edge.
Deanna and her family watched for five to six hours as four helicopter bombers dropped water on the fire that was burning on both sides of the lake. Saved that afternoon by a southerly wind, the relief they felt when the worst was over, was incredible.
“The next morning the smoke and smell in the air was something I’ll never forget,” Deanna says. “We had no phone reception, no power and no hot water. We cooked everything we had, but with nowhere to store it, most of our food had to be thrown out. We lived on packets of chips and cereal after that.”
Like Sr Magdalen, Deanna also speaks graciously of the incredible community spirit in the days following the fire. “Everyone checked on each other and made sure we had enough food. We were desperate to go home,” Deanna says. “It was a very heavy feeling.”
On the third day after the fire, they received the all clear to head back to Sydney. The usual two-and-a-half-hour trip home took nine hours by police escort and in heavy traffic, but the relief to be out of the area, was enormous.
It was the people who brought a glimmer of hope into the darkest of situations that kept Deanna going. “I am thankful for the beautiful couple who helped me that day, and for the men who helped my dad get out and onto the beach,” she says. “I’m also extremely thankful for all the firefighters, volunteers and those helicopter bombers who worked for hours upon hours that day.”
Bruce Daniele, a husband and father from Bargo NSW, also expressed gratitude for the work of the local RFS and other volunteers. After his wife and daughters were evacuated, Bruce returned to their property to defend their home. On his way back, he passed his neighbour’s houses and was stunned to see a fire truck on every second property.
Bruce says the fire came within 500 metres of his property, but then “a strong southerly pushed it on top of itself and they got control of it. So, if the wind hadn’t changed, my house was gone.” Bruce and his wife Belinda were incredibly relieved, but mindful that while the southerly wind meant their property was saved, other homes were razed in their small community.
Bruce is thankful for his neighbour, who is the captain of the local RFS, and to his neighbour’s wife who came to their property to encourage his wife to evacuate in Bruce’s absence.
Sr Magdalen speaks of her Benedictine vocation and how it sustains her in difficult times. “Benedictines believe that the presence of God is everywhere,” says Sr Magdalen. “There are no exceptions to this, no where or when God is absent. Part of what sustains in these difficult and traumatic times is the conviction that God is not absent in our pain and suffering, or the pain and suffering of our earth. God is right here with us. My vocation asks that I am open to questions like, what is God asking of me in this? What is God asking of us as a people?”
With the number of Australians and others who stepped up in this crisis, to help financially or practically, this perhaps shows that within each of us, there is a small voice that, if listened to, gently prompts us to also consider these questions.
Sr Magdalen believes we can reach out to those most in need by helping them through love and prayer. She says it is always good to be of service, but it is also important to pray and to connect with each other and with our God.
 The Rule of St Benedict. Chapter 19.