By Rev Russell Jones
It is a disturbing and frightening moment when the message actually comes to evacuate your home because of an approaching bushfire, especially when that message is immediately followed by another saying it is too late, stay inside and stay alert.
I was thankful to already be in the safety of the shopping centre in Moe and more thankful when, a few hours later, my wife Sheena and I could return to our undamaged home.
The fire had been stopped before it reached ‘Old’ Newborough where we lived, even though the CFA and Emergency Services had been fighting several fires across the Latrobe Valley and Gippsland, so resources were very stretched.
That was Friday the seventh of February this year, the fifth anniversary of the tragic Black Saturday fires.
Several days later, when the freeway and other roads reopened, we discovered how close the fires had come to us, and were thankful again that no lives had been lost in our area.
But the fires were still burning on the Morwell side of the open cut coal mine.
Over the weekend I had to take unfamiliar back roads to Morwell Uniting Church to see people and lead worship, uncertain whether I could get through or return.
Summer bush fires have been a familiar – if nerve wracking – part of life in the Latrobe Valley throughout the 16 years we have been in the area, including the horror of Black Saturday.
Year after year our communities give our thanks to the CFA for their magnificent work and the dangers the volunteers undertake for our safety.
We did not expect the new disaster that Sunday afternoon, when the fires deliberately lit in Driffield ‘spotted over’ into the Hazelwood mine.
There has been a lot of reporting about the mine fire and the impact of the smoke and ash on the surrounding communities.
Chris Morley is a member of our parish, who works at the Hazelwood mine.
“Like previous coal mine fires in Latrobe Valley, this one has taken a long time to bring under control and has involved a huge effort from many people,” Mr Morley (who took some of the photos included with this article) said.
While the dangers have been greatest for those living in the southern part of Morwell on the edge of the mine, the ash and smoke have affected communities all around the mine. Most have stayed away as much as possible, although that has been difficult. Many have to return each day to work in Morwell.
In the first couple of weeks we had regular ash falls in Newborough, and I have spoken to people from Traralgon, Callignee and Mirboo North who have had periods of heavy smoke, an unnerving experience for those who survived the Black Saturday fires. Yet some of the Morwell congregation members, like 96-year-old organist Mavis Coleman, have said: “The smoke is not too bad up the hill where we are.”
There has been regular smoke covering the Morwell UC, which includes the Parish and Gippsland Presbytery offices, the Op Shop, as well as several community groups like the local Men’s Shed.
From about the middle of March, the Church grounds have also housed one of the extra EPA monitoring stations.
Uniting Church member Vicki Hamilton, OAM, is the CEO of the Gippsland Asbestos and Related Diseases Support Group (GARDS).
“It has been a disaster for our members, who are already struggling with lung disease from the asbestos diseases that are endemic in the Valley,” she said.
Like many others, Ms Hamilton is also very critical of the advice from the Victorian Health Department: “It has been contradictory and too little, too late.”
The long term health and other effects of the mine fire over such an extended period are not yet clear. There is fear and anger in the community.
But most people also want to emphasise the huge positive effort made by the CFA, SES, police, government and council officers, the Red Cross and other community organisations and church volunteers co-ordinated by the VCC.
One of these is Latrobe City Mayor, Cr Sharon Gibson, also a member of our Uniting Church parish.
“Many of our Council officers have been working 20 hour days since the fires that started before the disaster in the Hazelwood mine,” Ms Gibson said.
“Thirty other councils around Victoria have sent staff to assist, and we couldn’t have done it without them.
“So many people have worked beyond their duty or volunteered to help others across our community. I have not long come from a morning that the Emergency Services put on for hundreds of primary school children in Morwell, where they explained that all the helicopters, fire trucks, ambulances and extra police are here to help and protect them. They want to help the children to feel less fearful.
“Yesterday some of the same crew took local business owners up in the helicopter to view the fire and this had a remarkable effect on them. They could see that many of their fears were not true and the relief on their faces was remarkable.”
Rev Russell Jones is the minister in the Morwell and Yallourn Cluster.