Stories of service still rising from the ashes of Australia's fires

The monstrous fires that thrust Australia into news headlines throughout the world in January are now history. Records list the damage throughout nearly 1.5 million acres as the nation's worst bushfire crisis. Future records, perhaps, will mention volunteers who stepped forward to help in the aftermath.

As reported in the Church News of Jan. 15, Church members were spared major damage or injury, with the home of just one member having been destroyed in a fire south of Sydney. In the weeks after the fires, much has been revealed about the involvement of Church members in community assistance during and after the crisis.Member involvement has ranged from individual acts of courage to organized community service by wards and stakes. Members from the Hornsby Ward, Sydney Australia Greenwich Stake, joined other community volunteers at a suburban community center to assist people stranded in a 20-mile traffic jam on Sydney's main northern freeway. They offered shelter, food and counseling.

Sydney region stakes arranged for clothing to be made available to the St. Vincent De Paul Society, a service organization administered by lay members of the Catholic Church. Members in the region also offered 110 homes to those families who had lost their homes to the bushfires.

Requests for assistance were relayed from the area welfare committee, of which Sydney Australia Parramatta Stake Pres. Warren Meyer is chairman, to the other stake presidents in the Sydney region, who then passed the messages on to ward leaders.

"It was great to see each stake in the region take initiatives to quickly assess the needs of their own members and, in addition, utilize forces to assist the community," Pres. Meyer said. "Much can be learned that will help us face such crises in the future."

Many wards participated in preparing food for the thousands of firemen in action. Parramatta stake's Liverpool Ward was set up as the Church's control headquarters in the south of Sydney. Church members made up more than 1,000 meals during the height of the crisis from 8 p.m. on a Friday evening until the following Tuesday morning. The stake was the only one in the region to escape the fires.

As dangerous as the overall situation was, good humor was in evidence throughout the crisis. "You are like angels from heaven," said one fire-fighting control officer when Parramatta stake members delivered food for the firefighters to the government's control center in the southern suburb of Menai.

As reported earlier, the Sydney Australia Hebersham Stake managed all food arrangements on behalf of the Penrith City Bushfire Brigade, the brigade responsible for fighting the major fires in the Blue Mountains west of Sydney. As the coordinating group for the Blue Mountains area, the stake's members organized the local community to provide food for nearly 3,000 firemen.

Early during the crisis, 65 elderly people were evacuated from Blue Mountains nursing homes and were forced to spend a week at the Richmond Royal Air Force Base. The nursing home residents were aged between 80-90 and were incapacitated. When the patients arrived at the base, RAF serviceman and Church member Slade Beard contacted Habersham stake Relief Society to provide assistance.

Relief Society sisters and missionaries from the Richmond, Emu Plains and Penrith wards responded by volunteering to help with the daily care of the patients, performing such services as feeding, bathing and dressing the elderly folks for a number of days. Although a number of Church members were involved, three of the sisters went the extra mile by working full-time for a week.

One nursing home staff member was heard to say, "Thank goodness for the Mormons!" A Blue Mountains radio report also praised the LDS effort at the air force base.

As well as gaining experience in giving community service, Church members also learned much to prepare them for future disasters. Sydney Greenwich stake Pres. Daniel Hamilton, whose own home was threatened by a major fire in Sydney's north side, said a valuable lesson that he had gained from the experience was the need for personal preparedness. He praised Sister Dianne Kay, his former stake Relief Society president, for encouraging stake members to prepare 72-hour emergency kits.

"You never know what might hit," Pres. Hamilton said. "It might be a strike, a gas explosion, a fire or a flood. It's imperative to be prepared."

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