Tuesday, February 10, 2009
LDS Church Members Among The Numerous Victims Of The Wildfires Near Melbourne, Australia; Priesthood Leaders Organizing Recovery Assistance
LDS Church News reports that three homes of Church members were among the over 800 homes destroyed by the deadliest series of wildfires in Australia's history, according to a Church Welfare report.
No members or missionaries were injured in the fires, which as of this post have claimed the lives of 181 people, left 5,000 people homeless, and burned 1,100 square miles (2,850 square kilometers) of land — the majority of which is located in Australia's southeastern state of Victoria. However, numerous member families were evacuated by the fires, which did not damage any Church property.
Blazes had been burning for weeks in the area, but turned deadly February 7th when scorching temperatures and high winds created a fire storm that swept across the region. Temperatures reached the 100s, with a maximum of 118F in Melbourne and 104F in Canberra on February 6th. Experts predict the death toll will rise to near 300 as authorities are able to search devastated areas.
Elder John Larsen, the Church's Pacific Area welfare specialist, explained that shifting winds blowing at or near 60 mph fanned the flames into furnace-like conditions and made it nearly impossible to know which direction to run from the flames. Numerous individuals actually lost their lives while fleeing the fires; their incinerated vehicles and bodies were found by recovery teams after the fact. Elder Larsen said the fire situation began to improve February 9th when extreme temperatures and winds tempered, in answer to prayers by many.
Local priesthood leaders have contacted government agencies and the Red Cross to determine what type of humanitarian aid from the Church would be of greatest worth. Church members have also been giving blood, and all members are being asked to pray for those affected by the disaster, and to ask the Lord to temper the elements to limit further destruction. Priesthood leaders are also organizing cleanup crews to be deployed once the burned areas are re-opened by authorities. Police have treated the areas as crime scenes because they suspect arson; one late report from Australia indicates police believe they are closing in on one suspect, a motorcyclist who was behaving suspiciously in the area of one of the fires. There have also been isolated reports of looting.
Australians have dug deep into their pockets to create a wildfire relief fund, which has now exceeded A$45 Million as of this post. Click HERE if you want to donate.
Here's a YouTube video of an Associated Press report which shows the sheer magnitude of the disaster:
And the threat is by no means over with. Firefighters, some from as far away as New Zealand, are working furiously to prevent two separate blazes from joining together. Currently, temperatures have dropped into the upper 60s/low 70s, but are expected to jump back into the 80s next week.
The fires were the product of a perfect confluence of favorable events; prolonged drought, high temperatures, strong winds, flammable grasses, and eucalyptus trees which burn like a torch when set alight. A Scottish woman describes her experience HERE.