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Out of the ashes

Local

Three years after the devastating Pinery bushfires, members of the small Catholic communities in the Lower Mid North have spoken of the ongoing recovery process and how the life-changing event has given them renewed perspective and faith.

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When the Diocesan Visitation Team spent a ‘long day’ travelling throughout the Northern Light parish on October 17 they were moved by the personal accounts of parishioners who lived through the horror of the fast-moving fire that swept through the region on November 25 2015.

Two people died in the fires, many more were injured – some critically – tens of thousands of livestock were lost, 91 homes were destroyed. along with farm equipment and outbuildings.

Fifth generation Hamley Bridge farmer Adrian McCabe lost 500 livestock, farm machinery, sheds and fencing that day and his brother Luke’s family home and personal effects were also destroyed. Despite the losses, Adrian considers himself one of the lucky ones.

“People were killed that day so it puts things in perspective,” he said.

The memories of that fateful day are still vivid and recollections bring moments of pause, with Adrian acknowledging the role his Catholic faith, the support of the local community, family and friends had played in the recovery process.

In the days following the fire, an exhausted Adrian said he was so thankful when fellow farmers arrived to humanely kill injured livestock on his property. He admitted this was one of the most upsetting things – to see his livestock suffering and knowing he had failed to look after the animals entrusted in his care.

He also had “terrific” support from some of his contractors in NSW (where he owns another property) who spent a week repairing fences, and said church groups from Clare were “fantastic” as they arrived armed with chainsaws and provisions such as clothes.

“People would drop in and see if you needed anything – you never had to ask, it was just always a ‘yes’ to help.”

However, it was in the months after the fire when the media attention waned and people were left to pick up the pieces that were some of the most difficult times. Incredible dust storms caused by soil erosion from the fires, the lingering smoke and ash confronted residents every day.

Three years on and the pragmatic farmer said it was fortunate that agriculture in the region was in a “really good situation”.

“The year after the fire we had the spring from heaven and it just kept on raining and raining and two good years followed.”

This year’s harvest won’t be so good. Although not declared to be in drought, the Lower Mid North has suffered frost damage to some of its crops but Adrian said high prices would offset the low yields.

Adrian said his Catholic faith had been a mainstay.

Miraculously, although the fire came to within three metres of its door, Our Lady of the Nativity Church at Hamley Bridge was saved. Attending the first Mass after the disaster was an important time for Adrian and his family to reflect on what had happened.

“Our local Church community were all strung out (after the fire) and everyone was affected. The house next to the church was burnt down… the church was filthy and there was so much dust.

“So we dusted off the pews and everyone sort of went to church and collapsed on the Sunday. It was a good chance to catch up and see how they were going, how their neighbours were going,” he said.

Parish priest Fr Mark Sexton was on sabbatical in the United Kingdom when the fire occurred and still feels a sense of guilt at not being with his people at such a traumatic time.

“It was absolutely terrible when I heard about the fires and I felt helpless and was thinking I should be there. I was in the South East in the 1983 Ash Wednesday fires so that’s why I was so terrified for them,” he said.

“The recovery is still going.”

The diversity and vastness of the Northern Light parish were experienced first-hand by the diocesan team as it travelled to each church – in Nuriootpa, Freeling, Kapunda, Tarlee, Hamley Bridge, Mallala, Balaklava and Port Wakefield.

After Mass at Nuriootpa the team met with members of the ‘men’s playgroup’ who meet once a fortnight to undertake maintenance work at the church and presbytery.

As founder Rob Stokes explained, for the past 22 years the work of the group has been “saving the Church money” but more importantly, has fostered good friendships and fellowship in the tight-knit parish community.

Members of the ‘men’s playgroup’ at Nuriootpa from left, Kevin Platt, Geoff Redden and Rob Stokes with Fr Philip Marshall (right) and Fr Mark Sexton (centre). Picture: Nat Rogers.

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