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On the frontline of Queensland's bushfires

“Pointing people to God” as people leave their homes

John Gilmour has not heard from a mate in two days whose property at mountainous Eungella was engulfed by Queensland’s destructive bushfires.

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Relief minister at Mackay Presbyterian Church, Gilmour is quietly confident about the safety of his friend who lives about one hour inland from the regional centre about halfway up Queensland’s coastline.

John Gilmour describes locals as being prepared, not blasé, about the fire’s threat.

“We haven’t heard anything [from him] but that is mainly because, I suspect, the power is out to that area,” says Gilmour who only came to Mackay in October to fill-in for a sick colleague.

“Mobile phones will run out of power and, if I was him, I would be ‘husbanding’ my mobile phone for really important stuff.”

Fires have raged this week along the coastal corridor of Queensland, from Cairns to Brisbane. The Mackay and Rockhampton regions were intensely threatened during the past 24 hours.

No deaths have been reported and that fuels Gilmour’s hopes for his mate (who is a member of his church).

Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk has labelled conditions in Queensland as “catastrophic”, as hot weather combines with westerly winds and dry conditions in a drought-affected state. The fast-moving fires have prompted firefighting assistance from the ACT, Victoria, Western Australia and New South Wales, which has experienced unusually high rainfall this week.

Urgent evacuation warnings have been steady across Queensland. About 8000 residents in Gracemere, near Rockhampton, were evacuated yesterday. Overnight, residents of Sarina Beach and Campwin Beach (about 30 minutes south of Mackay) were evacuated overnight.

Members of Gilmour’s church live at Sarina Beach and some spent last night putting out floating embers, as bushfires cut off the one road into the seaside town. Gilmour describes locals as being prepared, not blasé, about the fire’s threat.

Gilmour is going to a pre-organised inter-church meeting on Saturday with local ministers. “I can see that turning into a meeting to discuss how we can best support those that need support,” says Gilmour who states his church “will respond as requested” to local needs

Joining Gilmour at the Saturday meeting will be Nathan Cunneen, minister at NewLife Church Sarina. Last night, members of his church were among those who had to flee their beachside towns. Campwin Beach residents were alerted between 1am and 3am to head to safety, such as nearby Sarina.

“We found out this morning … that they are all good, but most of them had to go to work this morning,” comments Cunneen about how life still goes on in a fire-affected areas.

“We’re in the first stages of response …” – Nathan Cunneen

Residents were allowed back into the beachside towns from 10am. Cunneen spoke with one Rural Fire Service volunteer who told him they were able to contain nearby fires overnight – after he had returned home to the Sarina area from fighting fires at Eungella. “They just went from one to the next,” explains Cunneen who commended the RFS volunteers.

No loss of houses occurred in Gilmour and Cunneen’s area, so dealing with shock is what they expect their churches will be responding to.

“It’s not unusual for fires to occur [here] but the scale and the number of fronts which the fire has been on is, probably, unprecedented,” says Cunneen.

“We’re in the first stages of response: physical safety and, then, emotional care and provision of food items.” NewLife Sarina operates a Foodbank each Thursday.

Cunneen’s congregation is volunteer-led and he believes their commitment to personal interaction will be a huge help to the local community

“Being a country town, we have a unique opportunity to provide care and support individually, rather than organisationally.”

“Our pastoral care predominantly happens on an individual basis through the other members of our church. Each member looking after one another and the people in their [lives] … Most people take it on their own back to help those they know who need helping.”

“We don’t preach to our problems; we always point people to God.” – Nathan Cunneen

Cunneen hasn’t yet written his sermon for Sunday. He can see it being shaped by the fires this week but hopes those who hear it will see past immediate concerns, to a source of continual comfort and provision.

“My mentor pastor once told me: ‘We don’t preach to our problems; we always point people to God.’ Obviously, as we point them to an unconditionally loving God, he also cares about our personal and physical needs. Hopefully, [knowing that] does provide some comfort and consolation in this time.”

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