In Victoria, five people have died in the bushfire crisis, nearly 300 homes have been lost, and many thousands of people have been forced from their homes and communities, as blazes continue to threaten lives and properties.
One of the people supporting evacuees from the Gippsland region is Pastor Mark Kleemann, Senior Chaplain at the Royal Australian Air Force Base East Sale, 220 kilometres south-east of Melbourne.
The base has a capacity of approximately 700 personnel. As well as caring for the military personnel stationed there with his small team of chaplains, Mark has been available to assist people displaced by the fires since the start of the year.
In his 10th year as a chaplain with the Air Force, he returned to Victoria from Christmas leave with his family in South Australia’s Barossa Valley to find his Sale home had been robbed and ransacked. But, he said, the ‘mishap’ was ‘minuscule compared with ‘what everyone has gone through when they’ve lost communities, homes, maybe neighbours’. And, so, by the following day, he was on base, caring for those arriving at the evacuation reception centre, along with representatives of a variety of services, including the Red Cross, Department of Health and Human Services and medical personnel.
‘We’ll just move around and sit with people and find out what their story is, whether they’ve come in with their family, whether they have family left behind, and what’s happening for them’, Mark said.
‘We basically sit with them, pastorally talk with them, and console them when they weep, if they do.
‘Some come in shock because of the very quickness of the fire fronts and the ferocity with which the fire has come upon their communities.
‘It’s just about meeting people in their stories, administering the support according to what’s appropriate for each one.’
The only Lutheran chaplain in the Air Force, Mark believes military chaplains have a vital role to play in such emergencies – as well as in serving members of the armed forces at all times.
‘We have chaplains in the military, not just for situations like the fires that we’ve got burning around our nation at the moment, but for other very good reasons, too – that is, to support members and look after families, advise the chain of command and keep them informed about how people are doing’, he said.
‘So our role is very much to meet people in their story, stay with them in their story and support them, and to help them walk a little stronger for having seen us than when they came in to see us.
‘Of course, we are always checking in on our members, our chain of command and how they are doing, especially with the fatigue which comes upon them because of their focus in a situation like this. It’s a very focused response; it’s an ongoing response and, of course, part of our role is to go around and check in on how they’re going and to be with them because they can’t help but be affected when they see the impact [of the fires].
‘The real heroes – aside from our firefighters and our first responders on the ground – are those who survive in pretty horrendous conditions, as we see reported on the news around our country.’
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