The cooler weather has brought some reprieve for the East Gippsland community, but recovery from the recent bushfires will continue for many years to come. Fr Michael Willemsen, who serves in 11 churches as a Parish Priest in the East Gippsland region, has witnessed the devastating impact of the bushfires on those within his community.
Fr Michael also served in parish communities affected by the Black Saturday Bushfires, and so he has kindly shared with us his insights into the bushfires – giving an understanding into the sheer enormity of the destruction and loss these fires have brought.
Tell us a bit about yourself, Fr Michael?
I am the Parish Priest of Bairnsdale, Lakes Entrance and Orbost, which incorporates churches from Lindenow to Mallacoota and Omeo to Paynesville. February 9 marks four years since I began my appointment.
Can you tell us a bit about your parish community?
In the East Gippsland Mission, we are a communion of communities, with Bairnsdale being the largest and best resourced. From there we outreach to the high country of Swift’s Creek, Omeo and Benambra, as well as Swan Reach, Bruthen, Nowa Nowa and Buchan. The smaller communities come together for Mass once a month whilst still gathering in the absence of a priest on the other Sundays. Going to Mallacoota for Mass is a three hour drive, one way.
Have you ever experienced anything like what is happening in Gippsland?
On Black Saturday in 2009, I was Parish Priest of Iona/Maryknoll, which included towns like Tonimbuk and Garfield North that were impacted. I remember fire was already in the Bunyip State Forest the day before, which meant our area was well resourced with firefighters and equipment, ready. It was an unforgettable day. However, the weeks following weren’t anywhere near as intense for me as these last five weeks have been.
What are some of the impacts of the bushfires on families in your parish?
These fires have been so much bigger, yet the loss of human life has been much less, mercifully. And, being based at Bairnsdale, where the main relief centre was established, it’s been a very busy time.
I have Parish families whose homes and belongings have perished and some with livestock and fencing losses, too. Stock losses have been relatively low because farmers had destocked due to drought conditions on their land. From my first conversations with these families until now, a common theme has been one of counting blessings among the losses.
What challenges are the families and individuals in Gippsland facing at the moment?
The provision of relief goes on while the clearing of debris and renewal of fencing has started. Getting the school year underway has been an important step forward and some rain has brought out a fresh cover of grass in many areas that have been in drought for three years.
What help, support and compassion have you seen in Gippsland so far?
The bushfire crisis has brought the best out of people from near and far, expressed in so many different ways that have lifted spirits shattered by the destructive fires. Seeing the convoys of hay donated from across the state and beyond reminds us that people care and want to help. The support and presence of personnel from the ADF and other nations eases the burden of recovery and brings hope for a new beginning that much closer.
We know from experience that adrenaline can last for a while, but then the enormity of the long haul of recovery can get the better of even the strongest. I welcome the engagement of CatholicCare into the space of mental health and wellbeing. Along with other agencies active in this aspect of recovery, I believe this is our most important priority in the medium to long term.
Resilience is a common attribute in rural communities and has been very evident in the many, many stories emerging from these towns. However, it ought not be taken for granted that people are going to be okay, even when they say they will.
The strongest people I know are those who can admit their vulnerability. Our priority is to be there when those who have been holding it together for the sake of others are ready to let their guard down, and release the built-up tension and emotional toll this event has taken. This is and will continue to be a vital service. Because no one is immune in a disaster of this scale.
CatholicCare has begun working with families and individuals to offer free counselling, and we have started discussion with communities to see how they can best support them on their journey to recovery. By April this year, CatholicCare will have people on the ground in Bairnsdale, Lakes Entrance and Orbost to support affected communities, with scope to extend their reach to those in need.
Chaplaincy services will enable them to support the spiritual healing of those who are coming to terms with the loss and grief they have experienced. Counselling will enable families, children and individuals to explore the wide range of emotions and trauma resulting from the bushfires, and help them to strengthen their relationships and build resilience. Community development projects will help communities to feel whole again, and work through the challenges they face together.
CatholicCare has received astonishing support for the Bushfire Community Recovery Service and offers thanks to each and every person who has given generously to support the families and communities of East Gippsland.If you or someone you know would like to help extend our support to more East Gippsland communities who have been affected, donate online at https://ccambushfire.raisely.com/