By Robyn Douglass
If the four horsemen of the apocalypse were Aussies, one of them would represent a bushfire.
Wildfires are a perennial of summer in Australia; indeed, the indigenous inhabitants used fire to shape the landscape. But summer infernos can cause massive devastation, and the weekend of Feb. 11-12 was one of catastrophic conditions — “like sitting in a fan-forced oven,” as one witness described the heat and wind.
The little settlement of Uarbry was at the center of a fire that burned 55,028 hectares (136,000 acres). There were only half a dozen houses and two other buildings in the village. One was the Anglican Church of St. John the Evangelist.
The Rev. Robert Bowman, rector of St. John’s, said the building had been a 1920s church that seated 50 people at most. “All that is left now is the concrete steps at the back,” he said.
The local hall was just a tin shed, “but the people looked after it; it was where the community met.”
When TLC spoke with the rector and his wife, the Rev. Beth Bowman, associate priest of St. John’s, they had not been free to walk near the ruins. Electric wires had not been cleared and it was unsafe.
The miracle was, as he said, that no lives were lost in the blaze.
“I am so grateful, I am still saying thanks,” he said.
But as the far-flung community takes stock, the church that is at the heart of the ruins is also at the heart of recovery.
Fr. Bowman had been fielding calls for days from parishioners and supporters. Many have lost houses and farms. For the first few days, farmers have been in the fields finding stock, shooting those that were too badly injured to survive, and calling on vets to treat others.
Bowman’s warden, a volunteer firefighter, was out battling the fire that destroyed his home.
People keen to donate have been directed to a central appeal, and offers of prayer are acknowledged.
Bowman’s parish of Coolah-Dunedoo is huge. He said it takes him more than an hour to drive across, and as far north to south. The Bowmans serve in six centers.
At Uarbry, services met monthly, with perhaps half a dozen regulars.
It used to have a couple of families, “but people retire, move on, die,” he said, sadly.
It’s simply too soon to tell whether the church will be rebuilt. The Rt. Rev. Ian Palmer Bishop of Bathurst, said there is no decision yet on how many people from the community will return, let alone whether they will need to rebuild their church.
Bishop Palmer said this week that two people were working flat out as the disaster response team and the Anglicare welfare organisation was providing practical help.
Four days after the worst of the fires, the temperature had soared back over 100°F (40° Celsius) and Bishop Palmer said people were still feeling anxiety about what might happen next — or whether, indeed, the fires would flare up again.
Bowman is simply waiting on his community for the present, and being a constant support “when all the helping agencies have moved on.”
“At this stage we are still picking up the pieces and trying to work out what to do,” he said.
“My job is ‘being there,’ being continual pastoral support when the physical supports start to leave, providing emotional and spiritual support,” he said. “Grief’s not over in a month — it goes on for years.”
He was serving elsewhere in the diocese years ago when his parish was ravaged by floods, and has seen how disaster affects people.
Beyond the physical changes, he said people feel a sense of loss that their community has changed. The large town of Coolah escaped harm, but people could see the flames as they approached.
“People lose safety and lose their sense of security,” Bowman said. “It can be worse than the physical loss.”
He said the community has been buoyed by the support from far and wide.
“We need all the prayer we can get,” he said. “It’s great to know that people are thinking of us.”