After fires, prayer and reflection needed

February 2020

This summer has been dominated by bushfires across the south-east of Australia, with over thirty people losing their lives. Many communities in our own diocese have been directly affected, with homes and properties destroyed, evacuations, and ongoing threats of fire, particularly in areas around Corryong, Walwa, Bright and Harrietville. Even those of us living at a safe distance from the fires were impacted by the acrid smoke hanging across the countryside and reminding us of our connection with these communities.

We can be very grateful for the heroic efforts of firefighters and other emergency personnel, and for the impressive coordination of evacuations and warning messages. The rest of the community has also responded promptly to the crisis, generously contributing to meet the immediate needs of those affected and supporting efforts such as the national Catholic appeal for the St Vincent de Paul Society on Australia Day.

Longer-term responses will also be needed, including inquiries into both the causes of the fires and our emergency management systems. We have benefited enormously from implementing many of the recommendations of the Royal Commission that followed the Black Saturday fires, with little evidence this summer of major problems that were identified in 2009 such as with the electricity infrastructure, the command structure for the fire services, and emergency coordination and communication.

One of the questions that the forthcoming inquiries will need to address is the underlying causes of the fires, including the role of forest management and climate change. While none of these issues alone is enough to have caused the fires, there are strong indications that they have made such fires more frequent, more intense, and harder to control. For example, alongside our own experience of the unusually hot weather this summer, the Bureau of Meteorology reports that, in December last year, Australia had its seven hottest days on record, with national average maximum temperatures as high as 41.9 degrees.
I agree with those who argue that this is not a time for political point-scoring. (Indeed, I find it difficult to think of any time when political point-scoring is helpful!) However, that does not mean that this is not a time for politics, which is the way that we organise ourselves to act as a community in relation to issues that we can only deal with together, rather than as individuals or as private associations. So, while this is not a time for political point-scoring, it is definitely a time for political reflection, action and leadership.

Of course, such political action is not the responsibility only of those who hold public office. As Pope Francis reminds us in his message for this year’s World Day of Peace, “we are in need of an ecological conversion,” and action like this is “a social undertaking, an ongoing work in which each individual makes his or her contribution responsibly, at every level of the local, national and global community.” We are all called to active participation in the political process through informing ourselves and engaging in conversation about these issues.

As Christians, a fundamental part of our response will be heeding Pope Francis’ advice on the World Day of Peace to “change the way we think and see things, and to become more open to encountering others and accepting the gift of creation, which reflects the beauty and wisdom of its Creator.”

Let us continue to respond generously to those in need, to pray for those affected by the fires, for firefighters and emergency personnel, and for our political leaders.

- Bishop Shane MacKinlay

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