Fire and Resurrection

By Robyn Douglass

Easter’s festival of rebirth and renewal makes sense when you are welcoming spring. The days are lengthening, the trees are budding with new life, nature seems to echo Christ’s resurrection.

It does not happen like that in the Southern Hemisphere. Easter comes at the end of Australia’s long, hot summer and revival comes in the form of a cool breeze, or autumn rains.

For southern Australia, summer is the danger time for wildfires — bushfires, in our parlance. Fire is part of the Australian landscape; over millennia the Aboriginal people used fire to farm, and the seeds of many native plants cannot germinate without it.

But Australian bushfires bring death and destruction to our communities. They often precede Lent. The Ash Wednesday fires of 1983 were among the worst bushfire events in Australian history.

This January, western Australia was hit by a series of devastating bushfires, whipped up by savage winds and temperatures hovering above 100 degrees. Two people died; more than 300 square miles of land burned.

The town of Harvey was evacuated, twice; the historic town of Yarloop was razed. The people are still not allowed back in to see what is left of their homes, and the authorities have decreed it unsafe.

Farmer Simon Holthouse grows grapes in the Geographe Wine Region. When the fires hit, he stayed to defend his farm and described the smoke, flames, and noise of helicopters and earth-moving equipment as “apocalyptic.” Like his neighbors, he lost the entire vintage. The grapevines that were not burned were tainted by smoke.

He says it’s hard to comprehend the trauma people suffer in the immediate onslaught of the fires, and the grieving that follows.

The worst of the western Australia bushfires were in the Diocese of Bunbury, a vast rural area of 38,000 square miles (larger than Ireland) and 34 parishes.

Churches, along with the government and other agencies, sprang into action amid the fires. Churches’ second-hand shops provided clothing and household goods, and parishes raised money to provide immediate relief for those who had lost their homes.

Adrian Price, a parish warden at St. Saviour Anglican Church, Boyup Brook, has spent weeks volunteering for BlazeAid, an organization that takes practical help to farmers after bushfires.

“I thought this is what Christ would have wanted us to do,” he said simply.

BlazeAid volunteers camp close to where they are needed, cleaning up the devastation and helping replace fences and other crucial infrastructure so farms can be re-established.

Adrian noticed that native bush regenerates “with or without rain,” although in some parts the fire was so hot it had killed even native plants.

His parish joined with churches of other denominations in the area to donate money to BlazeAid. It had been earmarked for overseas mission, but he said the local churches felt their contribution was needed more back at home.

Simon Holthouse, a licensed lay minister in a Harvey parish, had nothing but praise for how BlazeAid volunteers came to farms like his to help restore fences and essential equipment.

They “asked nothing of us, but brought themselves and insist that they work alongside farmers. It was the first step in recovery.”

“The incarnational nature of that relief is a remarkable story,” he said.

The cheerful contribution of strangers has been a powerful support for people shattered by fires and the loss of crops, stock, and infrastructure.

After the hard work, they shared a meal, sat together, and talked about their experiences.

“This whole experience has become the Easter story,” Mr Holthouse said.

Summer’s fires have devastated communities and left the earth blackened. The renewal of communities, the rebirth of the bush, is part of Australia’s Easter reality.

And beginning in Holy Week, the people of Bunbury welcomed the first of the cooler rains.

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