Touchstone Story: Black Saturday – Bushfires in Australia

When a series of wildfires raced across Australia’s southern state of Victoria in 2009—destroying homes and even entire rural towns—Lions from near and far swiftly responded with emergency aid.

Bushfires are always a concern during the late summer, but a prolonged drought and oppressive heat had made the countryside unusually vulnerable that year. More than 400 fires struck the area northeast of Melbourne on February 7. The natural disaster, which came to be known as Black Saturday, was the deadliest wildfire in the country’s history. Driven by 60-mile-per-hour winds, flames reached 300 feet into the sky, moving so fast that they caught some people fleeing in their cars. The fires claimed 173 lives and destroyed thousands of homes. The picturesque town of Marysville was razed in 26 minutes, as were two smaller villages.

“Hell in all its fury has visited the good people of Victoria,” Prime Minister Kevin Rudd told reporters, after touring the smoldering region.

As emergency aid began to arrive, Lions from across Australia and around the world took the lead. Australian Lions established a fire disaster relief drop-off center that served as a distribution warehouse from which members made deliveries to the hardest-hit areas.

“Mate, there wasn’t a dry eye in the car,” District Governor David Jones of the Melbourne Lions Club told LION Magazine after he toured the scorched Marysville area with International Vice President Sid L. Scruggs III, who went on to serve as international president from 2011 to 2012.

While Lions Clubs International Foundation immediately provided US$185,959 in grants, Australian Lions clubs went to work raising a much larger total. Australians take pride in their tradition of neighbors helping each other, and the fire sparked a diverse batch of aid efforts.

In the tiny town of Yinnar, Lions collected hay and distributed it to local farmers whose grazing lands had burned, so they could feed their animals. Another club raised money by sponsoring a benefit country music concert.

In Sydney, members of the Hornsby Leo Club staged a fashion show to raise relief funds. Members of the Ballina and East Ballina Lions clubs near Melbourne solicited donations at shopping malls, collecting nearly US$12,000 in their white plastic buckets. And Lions in the town of Trentham made six life-size fiberglass statues of the Australian creatures known as wombats available for sale in benefit fundraisers.

For fire victims, the help was a blessing. “Last week the Lions supplied us with furniture. Today the Lions have brought up a fantastic truckload of goods. When you go from absolutely nothing to within a couple of weeks we’re comfortable, we’re quite overwhelmed by all of that,” said Christine Adam.

It was devastating to lose everything, said Leanne Camilleri, a mother of five from Clonbinane. But in the aftermath of the fire “people started ringing us and said, ‘Well, look, the Lions can help you out,’” she said. “I can’t get over the generosity of people. … I can’t thank them enough.”

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