Picking up the pieces from bushfire disaster in Australia

by AZREEN HANI / pic by AFP

CITIZENS of Australia are reeling, families are trying to rebuild their lives and the government is counting the billions of losses and potential impact to the economy.

The bushfires have ravaged over 12 million acres (4.9 million hectares) or almost six times the size of the state of Selangor.

At least 28 people have died, with more than 2,000 homes destroyed, according to news reports.

Experts estimated that a billion animals could have perished and the disaster will cost the Australian economy about A$5 billion (RM14 billion) in direct losses.

Horrific images of red skies, burning houses, dead animals and thousands having to flee their homes dominated global news.

“To say it is really bad is an understatement. We woke up with the red sky upon us and we are always on alert,” said Sydney resident Linh Dover-Ong to The Malaysian Reserve in a phone interview.

“The disaster is real. The red sky photos, the smoke, the devastating situation — bear in mind all the photos were not edited or ‘Photoshopped’. It is what we had gone through for the past couple of weeks,” she said.

While the worst is over, the impact from the environmental disaster continues to linger and locals are still living in despair.

“The fire has died down but there’s still a bit of smoke where we are. It was worse two weeks ago,” she added.

Ariff Azmi, a Malaysian-born restaurateur in Melbourne, said although bushfires are an annual natural occurrence during summer, it was so “distressing” to see a sheer size of the disaster this year.

“The size of the fires this year has been unprecedented and it’s scary to think what’s to come in the future,” Ariff said.

Ariff learned that his old home, where he used to live two years ago, had been destroyed by the fire.

“Alhamdulillah, we moved recently to a new suburb, so we escaped any direct contact with the bushfires.

“However, our old home that had beautiful wetlands behind it and with kangaroos coming right up to the backyard, had been destroyed.”

“It’s sad to think about the hundreds of kangaroos and animals that were burnt. Even our former neighbours had to be evacuated. The wetlands based on media images are just black and burnt from its former beauty,” he said.

For both Linh and Ariff, the thick smog they are facing is reminiscent of Kuala Lumpur’s haze, but the dry climate in Sydney and Melbourne make the haze situation worse.

“Sydney’s haze was the worst due to the burning. We were shielded here in Melbourne at the time,” said Ariff, adding that it was quite a spectacle how the fire spreads to all over Australia.

He said his family in Malaysia is very concerned about the situation. They had deferred their travel to Australia this summer due to the impact of the bushfires.

Finding Strength Amid the Calamity

Both Linh and Ariff were overwhelmed with the show of support from their respective community as they confronted the disaster.

“It’s amazing to see the volunteerism from the different communities here. From the heroes who are assisting the firefighters at the front line to the various communities who are donating time, money, food, comfort and housing to those who are affected.

“People are distraught, but there’s a sense of strength. Everybody in the country is trying to help out in any way they can,” Ariff said.

Linh, who runs a local sewing business, was touched when her seven-year-old daughter, Belle, wanted to learn sewing pouches and wraps for the rescued animals.

“This is a good time as any to teach her how (to sew) and so far, she alone had sewn about seven wraps and pouches, together with her younger brother, Recce,” said the proud mother.

Her contribution may be small as it is estimated that the animals will need up to 10,000 blankets, wraps or pouches.

“If one person can donate about a hundred, imagine what a thousand people can do,” she said.

Ariff, who has been living in Australia since 1991, at times feel “almost guilty” as he and his family live in a safe part of the country.

“The best I can do is donate money and pray for the best to those who are suffering and to those fighting the fires on the front line,” he said.

Ariff said climate change would make future bushfires even more devastating and frequent.

“So, we’ll have to review our plans in the future,” he said.

Calling for International Support

Linh said local celebrities such as comedian Celeste Barber had managed to raise A$41 million in donation, and other A-listers such as Nicole Kidman, Liam and Chris Hemsworth, as well as Hugh Jackman had pledged A$500,000 each to help rebuild the country.

“I am sure we will need more especially to rebuild the houses. I can’t imagine how much it will cost,” she said.

Last week, Economic Affairs Minister Datuk Seri Mohamed Azmin Ali said the Cabinet has agreed to send help to Australia and the mission will be coordinated by the National Disaster Management Agency.

Linh and Ariff expressed hopes for more international aide to arrive in Australia.

“We are overwhelmed and grateful with all the kindness shown to us. This crisis has shown us the real face of humanity from all over the world.

“I hope we can get more support as we are making the best as we try to rebuild our lives the best way we can,” she added.