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Sydney Fires: Hospitality brings devastated communities together

Posted on: January 7, 2002 10:47 AM
Related Categories: Australia

The story behind the Cross St, Winmalee, New Year's Eve gathering

At 10am on Christmas Day, Rob and Lesley Scott's son spotted smoke drifting up from deep in the valley beneath their house, located in the beautiful Blue Mountains west of Sydney. By midday an immense firestorm, whipped up by strong westerly winds, had hit them and their neighbours on Cross St, Winmalee. In its wake the fire left 7 out of a line of 13 houses in ashes.

Cross Street is at the end of the water supply, so when taps were turned on during the peak of the battle, there was little water. The fire fighters made the decision to pump water from the Scott's swimming pool onto the fires. Although at one stage the firestorm was so intense that the Scott's were sure they had lost their house, this action not only saved the Scott's house but their two neighbour's houses as well.

"There was a sense of shock because it happened very quickly," said Mr Scott. "A lot of people weren't here because it was Christmas Day - so many were ill-prepared."

Mr Scott said that those who weren't there on Christmas day to fight the fires have found the devastation particularly difficult to cope with.

"Even those who came back to find that their houses were still intact have found it hard to deal with," he said.

The Scotts are members of St George's, Winmalee. In the following days the Scott's friends at St George's and its sister church, Christ Church Springwood organised food hampers for them to deliver to their affected neighbours.

"We thought one of the best thing we could do would be to help them support their neighbours," said the Rev Graham Crew, rector of Springwood and Winmalee parish.

But hospitality must come naturally to the Scotts. As soon the fires were contained, the Scotts together with another neighbour, organised a barbecue for the street.

"The response was encouraging so we decided to do the same thing on New Years Eve," Mr Scott said. They handed out flyers to their neighbours inviting them to a special barbeque 'gathering and de-briefing' on New Years Eve.

The Premier of NSW, Bob Carr, who was touring the various communities affected by the fires came to hear of the barbeque. When asked by the media if Sydney's spectacular New Years Eve fireworks celebration should be abandoned in a mark of respect to those still fighting the week-long fires, Mr Carr responded that, 'If Cross St, Winmalee can have a New Years Eve party, so can the rest of us'.

The Cross St barbeque became the New Years Eve story for the Australian media. The TV carried images of the Premier turning up at the barbeque with a slab of beer.

"We became the centre of the universe for the media," said Mr Scott. "The media began to annoy us in the end. It was a feeding frenzy. There was competition between some of the media saying, 'We were here first' and asking us not to do interviews with their competitors."

Mr Scott said the media scrum was so intimidating that many of the people who had lost houses in the fire wouldn't come to the barbeque while the media were still there.

"Some of the media turned up saying they wanted footage of the 'party'. But we said, 'This isn't a celebration. That's why we called it a gathering and a de-briefing'."

But overall, Mr Scott said, the experience was positive.

"In the end everyone did come and it was a very positive time of bridge building. People were able to share their stories. They were able to swap information about how to get support as well as relevant telephone numbers."

Mr Scott said that even the Premier's attendance was positive. It meant that the politicians heard the real concerns of those affected and were able to act on them.

"I don't doubt that it was a political stunt but his concern was genuine. He and his wife actually stayed the night in Winmalee."

Mr Scott said that in the end the blanket media coverage even had its positives. A woman from another part of Winmalee whose had been burnt down in an otherwise unaffected area.

"She apologised at turning up uninvited but said her neighbours couldn't understand what she was going through."

Mr Scott said that the immediate needs are the hardest to overcome, and now prayer is perhaps the most helpful thing Christians can do for the victims.

"At first many couldn't even find somewhere to stay because all the real estate agents were closed over the Christmas period. They also needed cash to get by because their credit cards had been destroyed. Now they need prayer to help them cope with the realities of what has happened."

Mr Scott said friends from the church lost everything in the fires. Even though they are not materialistic and have told others that what they have lost 'are just things', there is still a lot of pain.

"They were sorting through the rubble and came across some tangled wires. Cecily said, 'That's my mother's piano'. You can buy another piano but it will never be her mother's piano."

Mr Scott said that many Australians also find it difficult to accept charity, so if you want to help people it's important to be there for the long haul.

"It's like grief - at first everyone is terribly sympathetic but then the people go away and you are left all alone. The most important thing you can do is maintain the friendship and continue to offer support even when it seems like they have settled in."

Every Easter Springwood parish runs a special 'rescue church service', where they give thank you gifts and pray for the emergency service workers. The Rev Graham Crew says this service will go ahead in March but they will probably run a special service for the bushfire fighters before March. The Combined churches of the lower Blue Mountains are also planning a community thank you in a local school.

Article from: Anglican Media Sydney by Jeremy Halcrow