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Emergency teams brace for catastrophic conditions

Salvation Army on standby as bushfires intensify

As bushfires rage along much of the eastern coast of NSW and Queensland, Salvation Army Emergency Services (SAES) teams are bracing for tomorrow’s catastrophic weather conditions.

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“This is absolutely unprecedented,” Major Topher Holland, the Salvation Army’s head of Strategic Emergency and Disaster Management Australia, tells Eternity.

More than 70 SAES team members and volunteers are working around the clock to cater for evacuees, police and emergency services personnel. Alongside providing meals, the Salvos are also supplying personal care kits, with toothbrushes, clothing and other material and financial aid at evacuation centres.

When asked where the fires are at their worst, a weary Holland answers, “the whole of New South Wales.”

“We’re at Glen Innes, Tenterfield, Ballina, Coffs Harbour, Port Macquarie, Taree, Foster/Tuncurry, Grafton – all up the north coast.”

There are also SAES teams stationed in Queensland – which have already provided over 1000 meals – and in Western Australia.

“It could be worse than it was last week, so we have a lot of teams designated and prepared.” – Major Topher Holland

Holland notes that this is merely the “front stage” of their relief efforts, and teams are on standby to replace those in the field as weather conditions are expected to intensify in the next 24 hours.

“We’re preparing a bit more for the things that we need to put into place. We won’t know until tomorrow hits, but we’re working with local councils, governments and other agencies in our preparation for what that may look like,” he says.

“We have a lot of people on standby, ready to go … It could be worse than it was last week, so we have a lot of teams designated and prepared.”

Holland also points to the importance they are placing on prayer: “We’re asking that the Lord would release his hand and not have this happen. We have a lot of people going to prayer, which is absolutely vital for us.”

In terms of providing emotional and spiritual support to those affected by bushfires, Holland says: “We work alongside the Disaster Recovery Chaplaincy Network and our Salvation Army people in local communities are also involved in helping people in their community. We look at the physical, emotional, psychosocial and spiritual care of people, no matter what their faith is.”

Holland admits that the devastation caused by these fires is taking a toll on SAES teams: “Our volunteers are under stress and they’re seeing some devastating circumstances. They’re seeing people’s lives being destroyed … They are working through the challenges, and they also have their own support networks around them.”

In summing up the way that his teams are carrying out their work, Holland says they try to follow a quote by Dutch evangelist and author Corrie Ten Boom: ‘There is no pit so deep that love can’t reach you and hope can’t help you.’ ”

“It was very scary, terrifying, like a holocaust, and I just didn’t know how we would get through.” – Noel Freshwater

Noel Freshwater, 70, is among those who have been forced to flee their homes. Noel was evacuated on Saturday from his property at Bellbrook, 72km northeast of Kempsey on the mid-north coast of NSW. He was taken to the evacuation centre at Kempsey, where SAES teams are catering.

“We drove down the road with fires burning on both sides, hectares of land and properties just burnt out, trees falling and thick smoke billowing,” Noel told the Salvation Army journal Others about the drive to safety, his voice breaking with emotion. “It was very scary, terrifying, like a holocaust, and I just didn’t know how we would get through.

Noel Freshwater at a Salvos evacuation centre near Kempsey

“I had my dog, but had to leave my horses behind. Someone was going to try to get water to them but I don’t know how they are.

“I got to the evacuation centre in just the clothes I had on. I was able to have a shower, was fed, given some clothes, and had people supporting me, listening to me, spending time with me.

“The Salvation Army are just wonderful people; angels. I feel okay now. There are a lot of people in the same boat here, and we are all supporting each other.”

Further south, at Taree, Prime Minister Scott Morrison and NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian visited the Salvation Army evacuation centre and spoke to bushfire victims and Salvos.

Salvationist Rach Mills also had an unwanted first-hand experience of the ferocity and unpredictability of the bushfire crisis, while driving from Sydney to visit family in Brisbane.

“I took a wrong turn and, with my kids in the car, we were stranded on the side of the road amidst thick smoke, with the fires close by,” said Rach, who will begin Salvation Army officer training next year.

“We prayed and a couple with a four-wheel drive came along, stopped and helped us drive to safety.

“Eventually, after more than 1000km of driving, through three roadblocks, five bushfires, three dirt roads, one wild rescue, an evacuation centre and an overwhelming amount of prayers and thoughts for us, we have safely made it to Queensland.”

In the central north of Queensland, a blaze at Adelaide Park, north-west of Yeppoon, reached emergency levels over the weekend. An evacuation centre was opened on Saturday night, with the Rockhampton SAES team activated to provide dinner that night, and meals on Sunday.

SAES teams in Noosa are supporting police and emergency services personnel.

“Everyone is caring for each other and the community is really coming together,” said Major Peter Sutcliffe, Area Officer, Central Queensland.

“Around 6000 hectares has been lost so far to the blaze, properties have been burnt and structures destroyed. We are on watch and alert to see what develops and will respond as needed.”

In Boonah, 100km south-west of Brisbane, the Kalbar, Gold Coast and some of the Toowoomba SAES teams continue to cater for the staging area of the Queensland Fire and Emergency Services personnel. The Inala (Brisbane) team will provide relief and additional support today (Monday).

“We have also received some really positive reports of all the SAES teams in Noosa are doing to cater for the Queensland Police there, which is great,” said Adam Cole, Salvation Army State Coordinator – Queensland, Strategic Emergency and Disaster Management.

SAES crews are serving at evacuation sites at multiple locations.

“We thank everyone for their support. This week will be a challenge and an opportunity.”

On the other side of the country, SAES volunteers were catering for firefighters at a bushfire in Gnangara, 30km north-east of Perth, Western Australia. The threat from that fire has eased, however authorities have warned that the situation is expected to deteriorate throughout the state as the week progresses.

The Salvation Army has launched a disaster appeal to support communities affected by the devastating bushfires in NSW and Queensland. To donate, go to salvationarmy.org.au.

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Some prayer points to help

  • Pray for a change of weather, with relief from the wind and heat
  • Pray for those affected by bushfires – that they will find support for their practical, emotional and spiritual needs
  • Pray for emergency services personnel, police, SAES teams and other response teams and volunteers at the fire fronts – for safety, strength and courage

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