Chaplain at the Gate in Eden
09 January, 2020.
On the road to Tura Beach on the far south coast of NSW, Rev. Ian Diamond’s phone cuts out. I’m wondering if it’s a metaphor for how the owner is feeling. The two have covered a lot of kilometres since leaving Canberra last Friday ahead of another weekend of bushfires and emergency evacuations. For Ian, the new normal looked a lot like organised chaos as his boots first hit the ground of the evacuation centre in Eden where the weekend was shaping up to be the catastrophic fire event the Rural Fire Services had predicted.
Ian is a member of the Disaster Recovery Chaplaincy Network, coordinated by the Uniting Church. The Network has grown to 330 ecumenical and multi-faith Chaplains that provide services at evacuation, recovery and disaster welfare assistance points, a part of the Department of Communities and Justice Office of Emergency Management disaster welfare plan. For 27 years Ian was a Police Chaplain with the NSW Police.
He isn’t easily shaken but knew the weekend would be a test. “I arrived in Merimbula on Friday with Rev. Karyl Davison. We had some supplies from John Williams in Canberra for Bega and Eden, in particular, a generator for the community’s use,” Ian said.
“In Merimbula on Friday night, evacuees were gathering at the Sapphire Club. There were about 1000 worried, but safe, people. There was an atmosphere of excitement among the sea of pillows and mattresses; it was one giant sleepover for the kids, with families and older people all bedded down on the club floor. The old adage ‘safety in numbers’ rang true.”
On Saturday morning Ian checked on the Evacuation Centre in Eden, hearing that extreme fire danger was circling the town. The centre was closed and authorities urged the community to head to Merimbula’s centres, 30 minutes away. Not everyone could leave and as weather conditions worsened, so too did the atmosphere in Eden.
“The evacuation centre was reopened in the afternoon and by 4 pm wind and smoke turned the sky red and then black,” he said. “It was clear the situation was becoming more dangerous – inside the centre, the fear and stress kept rising,” he added. Worried it was no longer safe, authorities planned for those without transport to be sent to Bega on chartered buses while others made their way to Merimbula.
Only a thirteen-minute drive south from Eden, Kiah is a locality of 100 – 200 people, depending on who you talk, and the day. Community members of Kiah spent last week doing additional fire preparations to property. Stephen Faggotter, a member of the Eden Uniting Church, was one of the few of the Kiah community, on Saturday night, who stayed to defend his property when the area evacuated to safety.
“You could hear the fire before you could see it except for the dark red glow out of the blackness. We parked in the middle of a paddock. The fire front advanced through the neighbourhood and surrounded us. The next five hours were spent fighting the fire and saving two residences.” Stephen said. “I had a firefighting pump, minimal water in a water tank on a trailer, but when I ran out of water, I had to resort to a bucket and bathwater, then finally, a wet mop. At 4 am, after I was reasonably assured the houses were safe, I collapsed into the vehicle in the paddock and managed to get some sleep”
Stephen admits the fire came too close. “I was hit by a spray of embers. I was well aware the situation I’d put myself in was not advised even though I had protective clothing. I was lucky, when I turned my back for protection, the fire miraculously moved on,” he said.
Evacuees from Eden and surrounds filled Merimbula evacuation centres on Saturday night. Tura Beach Country Club also opened its doors to around 300 people and allowed those with pets to enter this safe-haven.
Ian Diamond arrived at 10:30 pm and remembers the peace inside the busy evacuation centre. “It was an eerie atmosphere outside. Inside, the fear was real, but you wouldn’t have known it. There were about 60 – 80 animals including a goldfish in a bowl. The animals were all very quiet. They seemed to be keeping the people calm and as the people patted the pets, the animals stayed calm. There is something to be said about the benefits for both,” he laughed.
In Merimbula and Eden, and in other locations across the state this season, churches have become an informal place for community to meet and find resources to share.
After the devastation of Kiah, Ian met Stephen Faggotter in Eden. Stephen became a proud user of the generator supplied by Canberra Region Presbytery. “Since the fire we’ve had no power or safe water and the generator has been an absolute Godsend. I want to thank everyone who has prayed and thank the wider Church for their concern and active support to so many who have been affected by this ordeal. It has certainly been good to talk to Ian and to receive pastoral care from those who understand what it’s like or can empathise with others. I can’t thank them enough.”
Thank you to Stephen Faggotter for the images and to Ian Diamond for sharing this story with us.