Australians open wallets, hearts for fire-ravaged communities

Tens of millions of dollars raised for fire service, animals and communities through donations, creative fundraisers.

Australia fires
Australians have opened their wallets and hearts amid the country's devastating bush fires [File: Alkis Konstantinidis/Reuters]

Melbourne, Australia – This year, as fires have raged across Australia, consuming homes, farms and towns, people have rallied to help, raising tens of millions of dollars for affected families, volunteer firefighting units and wildlife devastated by the blazes.

An estimated 17 million hectares (42 million acres) have been burned, more than 6,000 buildings destroyed, and families in every state have been left devastated and homeless.

Amid the tragedy, Australians have stepped in.

In New South Wales, the Rural Fire Service has received donations that have now surpassed 50 million Australian dollars ($34.1m) said RFS spokesman James Morris.

The funds have come from everything from fire-helmets and donation buckets placed in local shops to celebrity GoFundMe campaigns, he said.

“In that good old Australian community spirit, people just want to get out and do their bit,” Morris told Al Jazeera. “But they can’t always physically assist or donate physical items. So their way of showing their support is through financial donations.”

‘Thank you for being our heroes’

Barbeques, fun runs, boot camps and benefit concerts, large and small have taken place across the country.

The Muslim community hosted barbeques for firefighters and displaced locals in fire-affected towns including Lakes Entrance, east of Melbourne, where one local tweeted that between four and five trucks of supplies had arrived and “the first round of snags are already cooked”.

The Lakes Entrance volunteer fire brigade have received some creative letters of thanks as well as supplies of baked goods.

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Volunteer firefighters in Lake Entrance, Victoria have received muffins and handwritten letters from young children [Lakes Entrance VFA]

“You are so brave to fight fires. We are thanking you every day,” said one note signed by Grace.

“Thank you for being our heroes. You are the best,” said another.

Children have also been donating pocket money to their local fire brigades and one primary school student from Western Australia raised $500 and delivered half to the Lakes Entrance crew and half to the Save the Koala fund.

James Pendlebury, a call centre team manager in Melbourne, has been finding creative ways to raise funds in his office.

The team are fundraising in two-week cycles between victim relief, wildlife assistance and volunteer firefighter support. Among the initiatives so far have been raffles, bake-offs and an office artisans market.

“We wanted to give everyone a chance to be involved, including people who couldn’t afford to give money,” Pendlebury said.

The artisan’s market allowed people to show off their handiwork, with diverse items for sale including tote bags, homemade preserves and sauces, red wine vinegar and crocheted coasters.

“We’ve got a lot of talented people at work and a lot of different ideas can come out of people’s need to help,” Pendlebury said. “It’s just a very simple way of getting people encouraged … there’s a sense of accomplishment.”

They have so far raised 5,100 Australian dollars ($3,480).

“People get entrenched in the horror,” he said, “Knitting a beanie, making pouches for wildlife or something else which they feel is constructive helps people’s self-worth.”

Help for animals

John Grant of the wildlife group WIRES said they had been “overwhelmed by the generosity and concern for our wildlife from around the globe.”

He spoke of one fundraiser by Blue Mountains resident Joshua Elston, who has cerebral palsy, and his carer Hannah Shore.

“Joshua wanted to do something for the animals impacted by bushfires so he made cakes for a cake stall in Springwood,” Grant said. “It went up on the community Facebook page and the community rallied with even more cakes and slices.”

Last weekend, the cake stall raised 2,116 Australian dollars ($1,445).

Jacob Angelino, a volunteer firefighter in Victoria, said they have been delivering donated goods to areas affected by the fires for several weeks.

Australia fires
Joshua Elston, who helped raise thousands for wildlife group WIRES by organising a cake sale [WIRES/Al Jazeera]

“A lot of people are just buying things to try and help people get back up on their feet,” he told Al Jazeera.

“The other week, we picked up a huge delivery. Locals had put together trolleys full of supplies and they loaded the truck with heaps of slabs of water, long-life food, that sort of stuff for those people who were stuck in relief centres.”

Thousands of Australians have also opened their homes to evacuees and their pets.

After offering the paddocks behind her home to evacuees with animals via Twitter on New Year’s Eve, PhD student Erin Riley not only received requests, but also found more offers of accommodation flooding in.

Within days she created FindABed to match the now 6,500 offers of accommodation with those in need.

Celebrity fundraisers

Benefit concerts are also being used to raise funds as local bands play pub gigs and international stars including Alice Cooper, Olivia Newton-John, Queen and popular children’s group the Wiggles organise concerts in the coming weeks with all proceeds donated to fire relief causes.

US punk band Blink 182 released a line of merchandise specifically to raise funds for Australia’s wildlife, while actress Rebel Wilson auctioned a private lunch at her house for two fans and Shane Warne, a former international cricketer for Australia, raised more than one million Australian dollars by auctioning off his baggy green cap.

Australia fires
Some offices have held markets to raise funds for fire relief [James Pendlebury/Al Jazeera]

Many celebrities, including Chris Hemsworth, Elton John and Pink have publicly donated large sums to bushfire relief, while Australian comedian Celeste Barber’s Facebook fundraiser has raised more than 50 million Australian dollars ($34.14m).

Businessmen across the globe have also raised or pledged millions, while dozens of Australian companies have donated goods or percentages of their takings.

Stories of less conventional means have also spread via social media as some models offered nude photographs to those who donate, and a message to clients from an alleged local drug-dealer spread on social media after he promised to give 10 percent of the weekend’s earning to fire relief.

A lot of my family have been affected,” the circulated message read. “Not a joke. Actually being legit. Thank you all.”

For now, long-awaited rain is easing the situation in much of the country but the risk of new outbreaks will remain high throughout the summer.

The generosity of fellow Australians will go a long way to helping the long rebuilding process that lies ahead for so many families and communities, as well as the country’s unique wildlife.

Source: Al Jazeera