Eyewitness: East Gippsland burns

A small part of the devastation in East Gippsland. Photo: Alan Broughton

East Gippsland is one region among many affected by disastrous bushfires. Three quarters of it — stretching about 250 km from west to east and 150 km from south to north — has been burned as I write this: about 700,000 hectares.

The last two years have been dry with 2019 being the driest on record, with less than half average rainfall. Fires started by lightning strikes last November 21. Despite the efforts of professional fire crews, the Country Fire Authority (CFA) and water bombers, the fires continued and expanded in bursts. Much of the terrain was inaccessible.

On December 30, at 44° Celsius, they raced out of the forests and devastated communities, including mine at Sarsfield, 12 km from Bairnsdale. They left our mud brick house but little else, including our grandsons’ cabin and most of their possessions. Dozens of houses were lost in Sarsfield and neighbouring Clifton Creek.

We had six weeks of warning and expected to be hit, so we evacuated in time with what we particularly did not want to lose. Many people had friends or relatives in Bairnsdale to go to. We used the Organic Centre. A relief centre was set up by the shire, then an additional one as evacuee numbers mounted.

New fires started and most joined up, leaving islands of farming communities where defence was concentrated. Most roads are cut. The 30,000 holiday makers in this beautiful area, who heeded warnings, fled. The remainder were trapped with provisions running out.

The community response has been fantastic. So many goods have been donated that signs went up to say “no more”. Unfortunately, tools, what I needed most, were not part of the mountains of donated goods.

Food is supplied free, including a food van by a group of Sikhs from Melbourne. Chaplains, counsellors, the Salvos, Vinnies and many from out of the area, are helping.

The Victorian government handed out $1000 per couple for immediate relief. My thought was wouldn’t it be wonderful if people were allowed to respond like that to asylum seekers.

Tragic as these fires across Australia are, maybe they will indicate to more people that what the climate scientists have been warning about is here — now.

Global temperatures are just 1° C higher: what happens when they reach 3° C which is inevitable? With current inaction, they will rise well above that. No wonder the Prime Minister gets booed in fire-ravaged areas. We have to force change.

[Alan Broughton is co-editor with Elena Garcia of Sustainable Agriculture vs Corporate Greed: Small farmers, food security & big business available via Resistance Books.]

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