Salvo reporter Lauren Martin shares her recent experience in the NSW fire zone and her admiration for Salvation Army personnel involved in relief efforts.
As a writer for The Salvation Army, I have spent many years reporting on the work that we do during emergencies and disasters.
I have visited fire-staging areas and evacuation centres and interviewed Salvation Army Emergency Services (SAES) crews feeding emergency services personnel and members of the public affected by floods, fires and other catastrophes. I could talk with ease and confidence about how our people serve in times of crisis.
Now, having been personally impacted by the bushfire crisis on the South Coast of New South Wales, I can say my awe and respect for our people who serve in these situations has grown exponentially.
On New Year’s Eve, my two children and I were staying at my parents’ home in Batemans Bay. I woke in the early hours of the morning to the sound of howling winds and sticks and tree branches hitting the roof of their home. A quick look at the Rural Fire Service ‘Fires Near Me’ app revealed a huge increase in fire activity that had pushed the blaze across the highway at Mogo to the south. Immediately, images of houses owned by friends in that area sprang to mind and a little knot of dread began to form in the base of my stomach.
Things escalated quickly. The sound of the fire and the high-pitched whistle of the wind was unnerving. Sirens, lots of sirens, and in every direction. Water-bombing aircraft and the constant calling and beeping of every mobile phone and device in the house. We decided to leave for a safer location.
Apart from the noise, the mental chatter was also deafening — thoughts twitching every which way, as erratic as the wind on a fireground. What do I need to pack? I wonder how so-and-so is going. How much food will we need to take? Gosh, those sirens sound close. Should we take bedding, or will we be back?
The noise seemed intolerable, but the silence that followed was more unnerving. The wind stopped, then started to shift and do funny things. We saw a column of smoke charge across the Clyde River, like a wave. Phones were no longer going off. The streets became deserted, except for fire trucks with lights and sirens blaring. The sky started turning a strange colour. We saw water bombers intensify their efforts, the sky turned red ... and then black. Black as night. My kids were scared.
What seemed like hours lasted only minutes and the sky began to clear again. Later that morning, convinced of my family’s safety, I got in my car and drove to the Batemans Bay evacuation centre to offer my assistance as a Salvation Army volunteer.
The evacuation centre was overflowing with tension, heartache, but above all, goodwill. Ambulance personnel treated people, the Red Cross and government agencies were hard at work and the SAES volunteers were serving lunch. There was so much going on it could easily have seemed overwhelming but with four simple words — I’m here to help — I was soon given a task which moved me out of a state of confusion and into action.
I unloaded boxes of water, buttered bread, and listened to people’s stories of how the day had unfolded for them. Over the following two days I watched the seasoned veterans of this Salvation Army Emergency Services team respond to left-of-field queries and arrange meals for hundreds of people in a centre that at one stage had no power. I have been overwhelmed by the sheer enormity of what our people juggle in such testing circumstances. And they do it with smiles, compassion and a heck of a lot of grace.
The community support kept rolling in. Different churches united in the relief efforts. Individuals and businesses emptied their freezers and donated meat. Chefs offered assistance and, at one stage, a man was handing out free ice-creams to all the kids.
The journalist in me took photos. I posted to Facebook and received numerous comments of support. But I’m just a bit-player in this scenario — the real heroes are the SAES teams that have been hard at it for months now, putting their lives (and sleep) on hold to support people in their darkest hours.
I would like to take this opportunity to urge anyone connected with The Salvation Army who is able-bodied and available: please get trained to be part of our emergency services response. It truly is God’s love in action at such a critical time. You won’t regret it.