Chris McCaul from Batemans Bay Uniting Church shares her experience of the bushfires and how her church helped their community:
(previously published in the Canberra Region Presbytery Newsletter)
We were woken at 6am on Tuesday 31 December 2019, by RFS message to evacuate as the fires were approaching.
After packing and filling the gutters with water we left for the evacuation centre at Hanging Rock. We parked on the soccer fields and watched as the helicopter kept coming to fill up with water from the beach, at an alarming rate. He stopped to drop two bucket loads on a spot fire on the opposite side of the footy oval. Then quickly went back to his work, presumably Catalina, as he wasn’t gone very long before returning to fill up again. Disappearing into thick smoke every couple of minutes.
After a couple of hours, I went to register our family and they were announcing to the multitude assembled, that they were just waiting on keys for the basketball courts for the overflow of people. I informed the lady taking my details that I had keys for the Uniting Church if that building could be of use and she redirected me to one of the organisers.
They were only too happy to have another building to shelter people in. At 11am I opened up the church and woke poor Andy up who had been working at the Evacuation Centre all night and had only put his head down for a nap at 9.30am!! Sorry Andy. Rang Terence (our Chairperson) to inform him the church was being used.
People started to arrive with their pets, mostly dogs. Soon we had close to 100 people and about 40 dogs and I understand a birdcage as well (though I didn’t see it). A few church folk; Elizabeth, Errol, Pam, Dieter, Andy, Verona. Every pew was full as was the foyer, sanctuary and kids corner. We only had biscuits to offer and whilst the power was on a cuppa.
At roughly 12-1pm it went awfully dark. The sky was black and orange. Many folk were crying. Some had lost their home that morning and only had what they were wearing. A few candles were lit on the kitchen servery. Though with the fire outside I dreaded having candles lit. The smoke was very thick and filtered into the building.
After the sky started to clear a bit, approx 2pm, I rang the Evacuation Centre for some food as most people hadn’t eaten all day. Some folk left to find food themselves. We had 2 lovely Irish families (one from Sydney & one from Melbourne) who were holidaying together. The men walked over to the centre and brought back cheese rolls and banana rolls and apples. Around 5pm most people had returned to their homes. We had about 25 left and again the Irish gentlemen went for food. The beautiful Greek Community had donated their New Year’s Eve celebration dinner to the Evacuation Centre so we dined on lamb kebabs, salad and crusty bread. The Irish families had found motel accommodation so I was left with 6 people to sleep the night. We pushed pews together to make a more comfortable bed. The newly arrived Disaster Manager, Aimee, from Sydney called on us to introduce herself and see how we were going. As there was no power we bedded down early. Around 10pm, 3 others arrived , one was a Japanese backpacker.
By 7am, as there was no food or power, they had all left, either for their home or the evacuation centre. Aimee arrived as I was packing up the remaining food to take back to the main centre. As the weekend was predicted to be as bad she asked if the church could be used again, which I assured her it could be.
Friday lunch time Aimee rang to inform me she planned to use the church for people with sensory needs. I arrived back at the centre at 3.30 to set up with my helpers, Bev & Fay. People started arriving at 5pm. 14 slept overnight Friday. During Saturday we had up to 40 people and 34 of them slept overnight. Thankfully it was not as bad as predicted in Batemans Bay. Andy and I went to collect meals. Lunch was meat patty between bread with salad and tea was chicken wings and kebabs, salad. Breakfast was bread and spreads from the fridge and some people had bought cereal with them. Power went off early Saturday morning. We had been able to have lights on Friday night, for all the night trips to the toilets. Saturday night the Evac Centre had loaned us some lanterns however the batteries did not last the night. At least this time I remembered to pack a torch.
One squash court housed Josh, who was autistic, his 2 sisters, mum, nan & pop. 6 cats, 2 dogs and 2 lizards. They had airbeds. In the meeting room was Suzy an 11yo girl in a water chair bed, her mum and nan. Her uncle and aunt were with us during the day. They had 2 dogs and cats and a rabbit. A lot of equipment was needed which her uncle and mum brought down over 2 trips on the Friday evening. Mum said Suzy had not smiled so much in a 24 hour period before. It was like a holiday for her. Congregation members giving her lots of love and attention. The church pews were again used for us oldies. On the Saturday night when we were collecting the tea, I invited my friend with her 5 chooks to join us. Cedric the rooster crowed at 5.30am although most of us were already up, as there were a couple of noisy snorers. My friends also had a gas stove and billy and provided cuppas Saturday night and Sunday morning which were much appreciated. Cold showers were enjoyed/endured over the weekend.
For Sunday worship 30 people gathered around the tables in the foyer with the Christ candle and Rev Yvonne lead us in prayer. Experiences/stories were shared.
By the time Suzy’s family had removed all her equipment, I closed up about 2pm Sunday.
We were well attended to spiritually by Rev Yvonne and the chaplains, once they arrived. And the Evac Centre staff called on us a couple of times a day.
Since then Suzy’s family have donated $200 and we have purchased our own gas stove, billy and pan. Just need a small gas bottle. So, we will be better prepared next time!