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South Africans in Australia battle flames, pollution, and despair

  • AustraliaFiresVolunteerNoelKessel
Surrounded by walls of flames and with his vehicle alight, volunteer firefighter Noel Kessel said the Shema as he was almost killed in one of Australia’s massive bushfires in Buxton, New South Wales three weeks ago. By some miracle, South African-born Kessel and his fellow firemen were rescued by another fire crew nearby, who waterbombed the encroaching blaze.
by TALI FEINBERG | Jan 16, 2020

Kessel, who left South Africa as a child in the 1970s, has been volunteering as a firefighter since he was 16 years old. With unprecedented bushfires enveloping Australia since September, he has been all over the country to combat the inferno. From the frontlines, he says, “These fires are totally defying the rulebook on fire behaviour. They are far more erratic, aggressive, and more dangerous than anyone has seen before.”

He has seen walls of fire up to 80m high, and a fire tornado flipping a truck. In spite of his harrowing experience three weeks ago, he is already back on the frontlines.

The fires that have been blazing around Australia have killed at least 24 and gutted an area larger than Denmark [25.5 million acres], according to the New York Times. More than 2 000 homes have been destroyed, the newspaper reports. NBC News reports that Chris Dickman, a scientist and professor of ecology at the University of Sydney, estimates that one billion animals have been killed.

Vic Alhadeff, the chief executive of the New South Wales Jewish Board of Deputies, says that the Jewish community has been affected and involved on every level. A number of families have lost their homes, and Jewish community members have become volunteer firefighters. His organisation joined forces with the organisation Stand Up: Jewish Commitment to a Better World, and raised $570 000 (R5.6 million) in four weeks, which will support efforts on the ground and the families of young firefighters who have been killed.

“Collectively, the Jewish community has raised more than $5 million (R49.6 million) for bushfire relief,” he says. He describes Jewish vets taking in animals that have been evacuated, Jewish charities cooking food for firefighters, and people pitching up and pitching in wherever they can. For example, Joshua Todes went to the frontlines the day after finishing his matric at Moriah College in Sydney.

“To me, firefighting is infinitely more important than any holiday or post-school celebration,” Todes says. “It’s our responsibility as Jews to answer the call of others in their time of need. I always carry a small Siddur from my parents with me when I am fighting fires. In the darkest moments, I will say the Shema. My Jewish identity is a massive motivation, if not the core motivation.”

Todes says that volunteer firefighters work in shifts of at least 12 hours, and it’s not uncommon to stay awake for more than 24 hours. His most frightening moment was on 19 December, when he saw a fire move aggressively through the town of Buxton. “I heard at least five crews call, ‘Emergency!’ while being overrun by the fire. Many people lost their homes that day. Firefighters were injured, and only two hours after my shift, two firefighters died while working along the same street we had been protecting the whole day. While this was a serious day, it certainly didn’t deter me from going back out.”

Former South African Verne Dove is just one of many people who have lost their homes. A tin roof is all that is left of her historic house on her farm in Nana Glen, New South Wales, after the country’s catastrophic bushfires swept through their property in November.

Dove moved to Australia from Johannesburg in 1997, and the farm is where she and her husband, Troy Saville, invested much of their lives and livelihoods. It was a place where they grew fruit trees for their future grandchildren to enjoy – but now that’s all gone.

The property is near Coffs Harbour, New South Wales, in the centre of the bushfires. Dove recalls, “We had about a week’s warning that Tuesday [12 November 2019] would be bad, so we did several loads to evacuate our things.”

The family were renting out the house to another family, and currently reside at their other home and business in Coffs Harbour, called Butterfly House. “We were told to evacuate both our properties on the Monday. I left with our three kids in our caravan. My husband stayed to defend our business [from the fires].

“We heard late on Tuesday night that the fires were huge in Nana Glen, and had hit our property. There was a fire opposite Butterfly House too – six fire trucks turned up to put it out. It was a scary day in which we could have lost both our houses and our business.

“Our Nana Glen house was fully paid up in May last year. We have had tenants in it for the past two and a half years, so we have lost our house and the income from it. Because it wasn't our primary residence, we don’t qualify for any government assistance. We got our first bit of help this week from Rabbi Rodal, which we are using to start cleaning up.”

Rabbi Yossi Rodal heads up Chabad RARA (Rural and Regional Australia), which brings yiddishkeit to the 5 000 to 6 000 Jews living in these remote areas. He says about “250 to 300 Jewish families” have been directly affected by the fires.

In Sydney, the smoke hangs so heavily over the city that when Edana Chilchik steps outside, she puts on a special mask so that she doesn’t inhale the toxic air. “Our air quality is worse than China right now, and the smell and taste of smoke is nauseating,” she says.

“Even a simple thing like taking dogs out for a walk [is difficult] – there are health warnings every day for us and our animals not to stay outside for long periods of time,” she says. “We see ghost towns on the south coast with no people at all. There is a real sense of devastation. We had a communal prayer for rain, but the heat waves keep coming. There is no end in sight.”

Hilary Coleman, who also lives in Sydney, says, “It has been an utterly horrendous, surreal experience here for the past few weeks. There is so much anger, so much blame. We still have some horrific times ahead. Firestorm conditions are picking up again. We need to make it through these next few months.”

Chabad of RARA has raised funds for victims of the fires, and are traversing the country to help anyone in need. It has also implemented a mitzvah (good deed) campaign to help Jews make a spiritual impact on the ongoing fire crisis.

“Bushfires are by nature volatile and unpredictable. They don’t always follow a rational pattern, and at times, defy the laws of nature. And so our response needs to be the same: beyond the rational, natural order of things. We can give of ourselves in the super-natural realm: by increasing prayer, good deeds and Torah learning,” says Rodal.

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