Australia’s ‘season of disasters’
First published: 12 February 2009 (GMT+10)
Re-featured on homepage: 9 February 2011 (GMT+10)
In recent weeks, Australia has been in the international news headlines because of devastating floods (hot on the heels of years of crippling drought),1,2,3 one of the largest cyclone in recorded history to cross the Australian coast,4 and now raging bushfires.5 The BBC quipped, “There seems to be no end to Australia’s summer of disasters.”6 Where is a loving God in all this?
We present again the acclaimed ‘bushfire’ article of February 2009 by Gary Bates, which addresses that question (see below).
- Australian floods likely to last weeks, warns Queensland premier, The Guardian, http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2011/jan/03/australia-floods-queensland-rockhampton, 3 January 2011.
- Australia floods: 72 missing and at least eight dead, BBC News, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-pacific-12149921, 13 January 2011.
- Australia floods: ‘Inland sea’ moves across Victoria, BBC News, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-pacific-12260724, 23 January 2011.
- Cyclone Yasi, stronger than Katrina, hits Australia, Bloomberg Businessweek, http://www.businessweek.com/news/2011-02-02/cyclone-yasi-stronger-than-katrina-hits-australia.html, 2 February 2011.
- Bushfires rage in Western Australia, CNN, http://edition.cnn.com/2011/WORLD/asiapcf/02/07/australia.bushfires/index.html, 7 February 2011.
- Bushfires in Australia engulf homes near Perth, BBC News, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-pacific-12379115, 7 February 2011.
Australia’s worst-ever bushfire disaster
The ‘lucky country’ stands in a state of shock
I love a sunburnt country,
A land of sweeping plains,
Of ragged mountain ranges,
Of drought and flooding rains.
I love her far horizons,
I love her jewel-sea,
Her beauty and her terror
The wide brown land for me!
From My Country, an iconic poem by Dorothea Mackellar (1885–1968).
The recent devastation caused by massive firestorms in South-Eastern Australia has become international news. And deservedly so. It has become the worst natural disaster in Australia’s recorded history, surpassing the “Ash Wednesday” bushfires of 1983 that claimed 75 lives.1
The contrasting landscapes and the raw, rugged and unspoilt outback define the character of Australia and many citizens feel tied to their unique land in a way that is difficult for others to understand. The fifth largest landmass in the world might be home to only 20 million people, but large numbers of them live with the very real threat of bushfire. For this reason, most Australians are reasonably fire conscious, and when travelling in the “bush” they understand the destruction that can follow any careless action, with a firelighter/match, for example. Nonetheless, each summer, bushfires occur, with some being worse than others. For Aussies it is a part of the way of life in this “sunburnt country”.
However, nothing prepared the Australian community for what took place. It seemed like only hours between the initial news reports that serious bushfires had taken hold (mainly in the states of Victoria and New South Wales), and a sudden soaring death toll. The large loss of life is something that is quite unusual as many Australians who live in rural areas, or are surrounded by woodlands etc. often have firebreaks2 around their properties, and have other precautions in place should fire occur in the scrub around them. But the “rulebook” will need to be rewritten after these events. The prevailing circumstances were ideal for a “perfect (fire)storm”.
Ideal conditions for a disaster
In recent weeks, much of southern Australia has been in the grip of a searing heatwave. The state capitals of Melbourne and Adelaide had been enduring record unbroken maximum temperatures in excess of 40°C (104°F). Coupled with years of drought in Australia (also the worst on record), the initial fires were whipped into a firestorm by hot northerly gale-force winds in excess of 100 kph (63 mph). The fires engulfed forests, parks, paddocks and everything in their path. This included, very sadly, many homes. Eyewitnesses said they only had minutes to act between the time that embers first landed on their houses to when they were completely ablaze, often trapping victims with no chance of escape. Even more tragically, many who did manage to leave their homes by car, sadly, perished in vehicle accidents due to the intense palls of black choking smoke reducing visibility to less than a metre. With vehicles stranded on roads flanked by burning bushland, with fallen branches and trees, still ablaze, increasingly blocking the only road access out, they had no hope. The heat was so intense that many metal parts of these vehicles have simply melted. Complete townships have been razed to the ground. As I write, the death toll is set to exceed 200, with more than 750 homes lost. Hundreds more have suffered horrendously painful burns. The toll is expected to continue to rise as the fires pass through and rescuers face the grisly task of entering destroyed communities. For those who have managed to survive, their only possessions are the very clothes they are wearing.
Conversely, at the same time, Australia’s tropical north has been devastated by seemingly endless rain leaving two-thirds of the state of Queensland declared as flood zones. Hundreds of homes have also been ruined.
“O, Lord, what is going on?”
Similarly, as with the tragedy of September 11, 2001, God is in the news. People are asking the big questions once again—Why would a loving God allow death and suffering?
As with most disasters, no one is prepared for loss. The Bible is candidly open though in showing how the patriarchs mourned and wept, and even the Lord Jesus Christ wept over the death of his friend Lazarus (John 11:35). This is because death is not normal. It was not the plan that God had ordained for His original perfect creation. Death entered the world as a consequence of sin and no one is immune. When proclaiming the consequences of man’s actions in Genesis 3, God tells us that sin will not only affect human beings, but the plants, the animals and the very ground upon which we stand will be cursed. And Romans 8:22 reminds us that the whole creation is groaning (for instance, why do tsunamis occur that kill hundreds of thousands?). The patriarch Job, surely one of the most afflicted of all men, often complained, got angry and also asked why. But Job, like many of the patriarchs before him, understood history (as recorded in Scripture). He knew the grand plan His Creator had for him. As such, he had faith that God would and could carry out His plan of redemption when he cried:
“For I know that my Redeemer lives, and at the last he will stand upon the earth. And after my skin has been thus destroyed, yet in my flesh I shall see God, whom I shall see for myself, and my eyes shall behold, and not another. My heart faints within me!” (Job 19:25–27).
The Bible helps us understand our place in the cosmos. It provides meaning and purpose for life. If we take the Bible at face value, then we understand that death and struggle is a legacy and a constant reminder of our fallen state and the cursed Earth. Like Abraham (Genesis 23:2) and Job, we grieve with loss, but also believe that this earthly life is not the sum of all things. Personally, in the last two years, I have buried my sister and father who both succumbed to cancer. It was tragic and I cried and grieved. But because they both professed faith in Jesus Christ as their saviour, like Job, I know that I will see them again with my own eyes. I can trust the Almighty Creator of the universe to keep His promises.
But my heart also grieves and is saddened, not only for the victims of these Australian bushfires, but for those who have suffered and died in terrible northern hemisphere winters and for people currently losing their jobs and homes all around the world due to the global economic crisis. Why? Because without God, indeed, what hope, what comfort do they have?
The simple plain truth is that all of us will eventually face death sooner or later. During Jesus’ time of ministry on Earth, He was asked a similar question of “Why?” In Luke 13:1–4 we read:
“There were some present at that very time who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. And he answered them, ‘Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.’”
Jesus’ answer focussed on the very urgent need for salvation. Their death did not reflect how “bad’ they were. Those who died were neither worse nor better than any other sinner. The point was none of us know our appointed time and Jesus was reminding us that we all, therefore, need to be saved. Of course the people in Siloam were not expecting a building to fall on them. In the same way, the victims of 9/11 were not expecting an airplane to come through their window on that fateful morning.
“Behold, now is the favorable time; behold, now is the day of salvation” (2 Corinthians 6:2).
Evolution: no purpose, no hope.
Unfortunately, because most people have been taught or exposed to the theory of evolution during their formative education years, they have mistakenly accepted that death and suffering are a normal part of our existence in the great evolutionary struggle for survival. No wonder they are confused about God, and whether He really loves us.
We are all trapped on this mudball spinning in space, and there is nothing we can do to save ourselves. But, the reality is God has done something about all the death and suffering once and for all. He sent Jesus.
“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16).
And we are reminded about the blessings that redeemed humanity will have in the new heavens and Earth.
“And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away” (Revelation 21:4).
And there will be a restoration.
“In the midst [of the new Jerusalem] … was there the tree of life … And there shall be no more curse” [ just like the Garden of Eden] (Revelation 22:2,3).
Christians: let God be shown through you
As Christians we know we have the answer. It is within our ability to help people—nay to love them. It was commanded by Jesus—“Love your neighbour as yourself” (Matthew 22:39). In the midst of terrible suffering it is a time for all Christians to stand up and be counted. The world is certainly a hurting place at present. It is not a time to be withdrawing. People are asking about God more than ever. Wherever you are in this hurting world, please do what you can. Please help or provide comfort to those who are suffering loss. If that is difficult for you then please pray or at least support one of the many good Christian organizations out there who are proclaiming the message and providing hope.
The message of hope that Christians can proclaim right now stands in stark contrast to what some broadcast media have given airtime to in the context of the bushfire tragedy, namely, the voice of the ‘global warming’ bandwagon. Do they have a case? Might there be a link between Australia’s current droughts, floods and bushfires and modern-day carbon emissions? For what it’s worth, let me return to the iconic poem by Dorothea Mackellar. I began this article with a well-known extract from that poem, but I end now by reproducing it in full, simply pointing out that Dorothea Mackellar wrote it in 1904, i.e. over a century ago. (I’ve emphasized—i.e. in bold font— just a little of the text, otherwise leaving the reader to draw the conclusion.)
The love of field and coppice, of green and shaded lanes,
I love a sunburnt country, a land of sweeping plains,
The stark white ring-barked forests, all tragic to the moon,
Core of my heart, my country! Her pitiless blue sky,
Core of my heart, my country! Land of the rainbow gold,
An opal-hearted country, a wilful, lavish land-
- The 1983 ‘Ash Wednesday’ fires affected large areas of South Australia (28 deaths) and Victoria (47 deaths). As at the time of writing, 11th February 2009, the toll from the current bushfires stands at 181, and has been estimated by authorities to exceed 200 deaths, all in Victoria. While bushfires have been burning concurrently in other states (notably New South Wales), the destruction thankfully did not extend to loss of life. Return to text.
- Firebreaks are clearings of land around properties designed as barriers to prevent the fire crossing over them. Return to text.