An Enduring Community Spirit
Throughout this summer the Blue Mountains region has been on high alert. The reality of bushfire danger in the naturally beautiful area west of Sydney has strengthened local response over the course of generations.
Before the Christmas break, we spoke to Rev. Ellie Elia from Glenbrook Uniting Church, to learn her insights as a Blue Mountains local. Ellie’s congregation participated in the Advent Day of Prayer on 1 December 2019, to raise awareness of the Moderator’s Bushfire Appeal, demonstrating the local community’s heightened awareness of the danger and risk associated with bushfires.
Ellie lives in Katoomba and reminds us that fires have always been a part of the local landscape. She says locals remain calm and take each incident as it comes – going about their daily lives as regularly as possible, throughout the year. It is the reality of living in a National Park, she says. Residents are accustomed to making quick decisions and deciding next steps as individuals, families and community, during the fire season.
“Neighbours call upon neighbours. The community spirit is really strong,” said Ellie, reminding us of the silver lining – that bushfires in the Blue Mountains bring out a beautiful sense of unity amongst locals.
Ellie says neighbours regularly collect their friends and pets to protect them, cafes feed firefighters for free while others volunteer their time to protect community and homes.
In the mountains, locals have experienced the reality of fire tragedies for decades. On 28 October 1968, fires in the lower Blue Mountains plunged the area into a five-day state of emergency and led to the loss of three NSW Rural Fire Service (RFS) volunteers. Houses were lost with extensive destruction to local bushland and wildlife. Volunteer firefighters also lost their own homes while on the frontline defending the community (Read the 2018 flashback in the Sydney Morning Herald .)
Current widespread devastation seems to mirror the 1968 fires; a memory that has strengthened locals to work together in difficult and dangerous times.
Similarly, in 2013, fires spread over Winmalee and Yellow Rock completely destroying around 200 homes and damaging around 200 more. Springwood Uniting Church, closest to the fires, focused their recovery on finding joy again through connection with families and children.
In the current fire season, Ellie says that children in her congregation are drawing the line between fires and climate change, an ongoing topic of discussion. She says younger generations are at the centre of hope, inspiration and courage, in the crises of the future.
The current fire season has highlighted the importance of fostering awareness of the church’s work in response to a crisis. (To learn more about the interconnected role of churches in times of disaster recovery, visit the NSW Disaster Recovery Chaplaincy Network website.)
“This is a strong community,” says Ellie. [It’s an] “interesting juxtaposition between devastation and seeing the best in the community”. Despite the constant smoke in this difficult time, and the ongoing reality of potential evacuation, the Blue Mountains is a beautiful community, where you can count on your neighbour to have your back.
When the fires die down in the coming weeks, as local MP Susan Templeman reminds us, we need to ‘revive tourism’ and ‘provide immediate relief’ to local businesses.
A Message from Blue Mountains Mayor, Mark Greenhill:
“As we confront tougher conditions, please think of our crews. They are out there on the front line. Their families know this. We cannot express our gratitude deeply enough. I feel strongly when I think of them. We all want them home safe at the end of each day. We are an amazing community. Our closeness to each other is inspiring.”
Follow Mayor Greenhill’s Facebook page for more updates specific to the Blue Mountains region.
Visit this page for a list of ways to donate to affected communities and wildlife.