Christmas gifts up in flames
6 December 2013
“[A friend’s wife] had called and let us know that the house was gone and to prepare ourselves because it wasn’t going to be good. [It] it was heartbreaking…” - Sarah
In January 2013, in the middle of a dry summer, more than 50 houses and 50 hectares of land were destroyed outside Coonabarabran when a bushfire raged through nearby Warrumbungle National Park.
The Salvation Army’s North NSW rural chaplains, Majors Peter and Jean Ridley, arrived during the disaster to be greeted by a scene of devastation. Since then, they have been regular visitors to the area to provide ongoing support.
When the Ridleys arrived for the first time in Coonabarabran, many residents were still unable to return to their rural properties to assess the damage. Many had lost everything, having been forced to flee their properties with just the clothes they were wearing.
One of the Ridleys’ hardest jobs was to travel to homes and farms to view what was left of buildings and livestock.
For the children of one local family, the excitement of going away on a school camp just after Christmas had turned into heartbreak. They had left a home full of Christmas gifts, but by the time they returned in January, they had lost all their presents, most of their animals and their home.
Mum Sarah explains that prior to the fires she was so busy making curtains to surprise her daughter Grace with a special room make-over that she hadn’t watched the news. She had no idea that a devastating fire was rapidly bearing down on the family’s rented farmhouse. Her husband was busy painting and between them, they weren’t answering the phone.
Eventually they took a call, with a frantic friend on the other end of the line urging the couple and their youngest child to get out of their home immediately.
“By the time we grabbed a set of clothes each and the dogs, the fire was right over the ridge,” says Sarah. “I’d never seen anything like it. I’ve seen bushfires, but not like that.”
When they were finally able to return home, they found the house and all their possessions gone. Steve found the family’s horses alive, but faced the heartbreaking task of putting down the family’s injured livestock.
The family remains traumatised by the ordeal, struggling to make sense of the disaster. But among the overwhelming sadness Sarah points to one bright moment; a big bag of presents given to the family by the Ridleys.
“We were able to get a bag of gifts in from the Kmart wishing tree… and one of the boys almost disappeared up to his waist looking into the bag,” Jean says. “The kids sat on the floor and opened all their presents and thought it was wonderful.”
Sarah says such kindnesses have helped the family enormously.
“Peter and Jean came at a great time,” she says. “It was what the kids needed. I think what hurt was Christmas had been and gone and they had nothing to show for it … that [the bag of gifts] was a boost that they needed.”
By Naomi Singlehurst