Members reported safe in worst bushfire crisis in eastern Australia

The Sydney Australia Temple and Church offices, located in the geographic heart of Sydney metropolitan area, are just seven kilometers (4 1/2 miles) from one of the first outbreaks of monstrous fires that have burned out of control across New South Wales, Australia's most populous state.

Although in no danger, temple workers and office staff were constantly reminded of the drama going on around them, with smoke and ash filling the air, the acrid smell of burning timber, the sound of fire engines racing past, and the sun, which viewed from the haze of the fire, seemed to be colored blood red.As of Jan. 11, nearly 1.5 million acres had been consumed by 130 fires, many believed set by arsonists. The fires began around the first of the year. Damage to residential and commercial properties is estimated at $69 million; forest losses are put at about $34 million.

Firefighters received their first real break on Monday, Jan. 10, with the coming of cooler temperatures, high humidity and a light, sporadic rainfall. The rain was enough to give firefighters the upper hand in what is described as the worst bushfire crisis in the history of Australia's eastern seaboard.

To Australians, bushfires (or forest fires in U.S. parlance) are an unfortunate regular occurrence during the country's often hot summers (December-February). However, superlatives to describe this season's bushfires are barely adequate - a city of 4 million people surrounded by fire, smoke and ash blanketing the entire metropolitan area, major freeways barred from traffic, 600,000 hectares (1.482 million acres) of land burned out, 12,000 people evacuated from their homes, 298 homes destroyed or damaged.

The fires killed at least four people, one of whom was Robert Page, a 56-year-old volunteer fireman and father of 10, who died instantly when a burned tree fell on his fire truck. He was not a member of the Church, but his mother, Kath Page, is a member of the Sydney Australia Paramatta Stake.

Although many Church members were evacuated, reports as of Jan. 12 were that only one LDS family - in the Sydney Australia Mortdale Stake - lost its home.

For many other Latter-day Saints who live in New South Wales, it was only miracles that protected them from tragedy. The home of Mike Davis, second counselor in the Mortdale stake presidency, and his wife, Freda, backs onto bushland in a Sydney suburb. "All day we were watching a big fire on the ridge about one kilometer from our house," Pres. Davis said. "Then, with no warning, it reached the gully on the other side of our back fence.

"The police later told us that the fire was traveling at about 30 kilometers (20 miles) per hour. When it reached the gully it was just two minutes before the flames were in our back garden."

Sister Davis said: "A 50-foot wall of flame, pushed by a frightening wind, came racing up toward us. There was a dreadful roaring sound, and gums [eucalyptus treesT and gas bottles were exploding in the heat. I ran through the house to the road at the front with our six children, while Mike stayed at the back with another Church member, Geoff Ireland, trying to stop the fire. In just moments, I saw the flames jump over the house and begin to burn the bush in our front yard."

As the conflagration was going on all about them, Pres. and Sister Davis, with Brother Ireland and neighbors, moved their families to the top of the road. When it was safe to return, Pres. Davis took stock of the damage: "Through the haze, and to my great relief, I saw our house come into shape still in one piece. When I went into my back yard, there were two other brethren from my ward, hosing down the surrounding trees. This was the true definition of Christianity."

The Davis family's home is intact but, as they described it, their front and back yard and surrounding area look like "the valley of desolation." Two homes alongside them were destroyed. One simply exploded in the heat.

Daniel Hamilton, president of the Sydney Australia Greenwich Stake, lives in the suburb of Ingleside on the northern outskirts of Sydney. "We fought the bushfire for hours and hours and days and days," he said. "Cindi [his wifeT took our five children to stay with Church friends, Brent and Elizabeth Young, while the men of our neighborhood battled the fire from block to block.

"Although we were able to save our house, the worrying thing is that the Youngs' home was literally attacked by a firestorm. Fortunately, the police had ordered everybody to evacuate."

In an experience similar to that of the Davis family, the Young home was left intact while the homes on each side burned.

Pres. Hamilton said one of the valuable lessons he learned from the experience was the importance of preparedness. He praised Dianne Kay, former stake Relief Society president, for encouraging stake members to prepare 72-hour emergency kits after her own ordeal in earthquakes in California.

Members from throughout Sydney responded speedily to calls for assistance from community organizations. The five Sydney stakes arranged for clothing to be made available to the St. Vincent de Paul Society, a service organization of the Catholic Church.

Members of many wards participated in preparing food for the thousands of firemen. The Hebersham stake managed all food arrangements on behalf of the Penrith City Bushfire Brigade, the unit responsible for fighting the major fires in the Blue Mountains to the west of Sydney. As regional coordinator, the stake has been organizing the local community to provide food for 3,000 fire fighters.

Other members were also involved, including those in the Sutherland Ward, Mortdale stake, and the Pennant Hills and Hornsby wards in the Greenwich stake. Assistance was offered by leaders of the Mortdale stake to the Como Presbyterian Church whose building burned.

Two Latter-day Saints with first-hand experience in fighting the fires as trained volunteers are Ron and Beth Stokes of the Pennant Hills Ward. They have been working 12- and 16-hour shifts each day, she as a radio operator, he at the front-line.

Elder Rulon G. Craven of the Seventy and president of the Pacific Area said that the spirit of the New South Wales saints during the crisis has been strong.

"We have been proud of the resilience of our Church members, and their willingness to help each other and assist in the general community," Elder Craven said. "This applies to whole units and individual Church members.

"One family, the Cashmans of the Gosford Ward in the Newcastle stake, had been evacuated first from their home and then from another location as well. Yet, they still found the time to go down to the Gosford Youth Club and serve food and refreshments to those in need."

Elder Craven continued: "So far, we believe that few, if any, Church members have suffered major damage or injury. All full-time missionaries are safe and no chapels have been damaged. We feel that this is very much due to our Heavenly Father watching over His faithful saints in this part of Australia.

"We have been very pleased with the efforts of each of the stakes in supporting the various community organizations, including the Salvation Army and the State Emergency Services. We hope to use this experience to open up further lines of communication with these and other organizations so that we can take a vital role in future community challenges. Yet, we believe there is much that we can learn from these events. We are anxious for the saints to become even better prepared. Each family needs to ensure that their 72-hour kits are ready so they can confidently face any future emergencies."

Subscribe for free and get daily or weekly updates straight to your inbox
The three things you need to know everyday
Highlights from the last week to keep you informed