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Catholic social services responding to those impacted by bushfires

The bushfires we have seen over the past few weeks and months have been devastating. Catholic social service agencies are responding to both the short and longer term planning needs of communities across the country with many others. As a sector we also need to consider how we address the conditions that have given rise to such ferocious fires.

This is a very early fire season – with many months to go. Joelle Gergis and Geoff Cary point out in a recent article in The Conversation that while Australia has a long history of terrible bushfires there are “several factors [that] make eastern Australia’s recent crisis different to infamous bushfires in the past” —  for them these factors entail:

·         The enormous geographic spread of this season’s fires;

·         The absence of El Niño conditions typically associated with previous severe fires;

·         These fires were preceded by the hottest and driest conditions in recorded Australian history.

Here in Victoria there has been an initial strong outpouring of support, with many groups across the community donating to relief funds and organisations marshalling support as well as personal hospitality. There is concern, however, that longer term responses may be subsumed if other catastrophes happen during the next couple of months during the height of the ‘typical’ fire season.

From my brief conversations with a few Catholic Social Services Victoria (CSSV) members there has been an emphasis on looking to the gaps in the short term and seeing where assistance can be provided, with particular attention to the medium/long term response. Archbishop Comensoli recently stated “For those who lived through the great heartache of the Black Saturday fires, they will know too well that the effects of such trauma will be felt for many months, and even years to come”.

The St Vincent de Paul Society in Victoria have acted as “second responders” and have been providing material aide in affected areas in Victoria. They will continue to assist in the short term and look at ways to assist communities to get back on their feet in the medium/long term, at this stage without any support from government for their work. CatholicCare Greater Melbourne/Gippsland are preparing a response similar to their work during the 2009 fires, and are preparing a campaign to support trauma-informed community development and psycho-social support for the medium-term. 

In this time of crisis, and rebuilding through the aftermath, let’s think together what our organisations could be doing to address the needs of those made particularly vulnerable by the fires and their smoke — perhaps internally within your own programs and with your own staff, but also what could be possible in terms of partnerships or collaborations with others who work in these regions.

Please let me know your organisations efforts or ideas, to make sure CSSV include these in our advocacy and representations to government. I hope that together we can inspire others by the actions made possible by a Catholic services sector working together to respond to need. CSSV is here to support and facilitate ideas, partnerships and collaborations between member organisations, dioceses and others in the services’ sector over the medium to long term in Victoria. Click here for an overview of the Catholic response to the fires from 2009.

The devastation and loss from these recent fires are timely reminders to continue to take up the ongoing challenge Pope Francis explicitly makes in Laudato Si’  — “to hear the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor”, to think through how our social services can respond not only to poverty and the effects of large-scale disasters that afflict the earth, but also how to address their root causes.

I look forward to meeting with many of you in the coming weeks, and to assist as we can with any future cooperation. I also look forward to seeing many of you at the national Catholic social services conference in Melbourne from 26-28 February. 

Joshua Lourensz
Executive Director
Catholic Social Services Victoria
Office: (03) 9287 5566     

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