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Christmas gifts up in flames

Christmas gifts up in flames

“(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 was heartbreaking…” - Sarah

Almost a year ago, in the midst of a dry summer, more than 50 houses and 50 hectares of land were destroyed outside Coonabarabran, when a fire raged through the nearby Warrumbungle National Park. North NSW Salvation Army Rural chaplains Majors Peter and Jean Ridley arrived during the disaster to a scene of devastation and have since visited the area regularly to provide ongoing support.

The Ridleys arrived when residents who had been evacuated from their rural properties were still unable to return home to assess the damage. Many had lost everything – leaving their properties with just the clothes they were wearing.

One of their most heartbreaking roles was to travel to homes and farms to view what was left of their homes and stock, which the Ridley’s say was heartbreaking.

For the children of one local family, the excitement of going away on a school camp just after Christmas soon turned into heartbreak.

They left a home full of Christmas gifts, but by the time they returned in January, they had lost all their gifts, most of their animals and their home!

Sarah explains that just prior to the fires, she was so busy sewing curtains to surprise her daughter Grace with an extra-special room make-over that she hadn’t watched news and had no idea a deadly fire was bearing rapidly down on the family’s rented farmhouse. Her husband was busy painting and not answering the phone.

Eventually they answered and a frantic friend on the other end of the telephone urged the couple and their youngest child to get out of their home immediately.

Sarah says: “By the time we grabbed a set of clothes each and the dogs, the fire was right over the ridge. I’d never seen anything like it. I’ve seen bushfires, but not like that.”

When they were finally able to return, they found the house and all their possessions gone. Steve found the family’s horses alive but, had to go back and kill off the family’s injured stock.

The family remain highly traumatised and struggling to make sense of the disaster long after the ordeal, but one highlight after the fires, Sarah says, was the big bag of presents brought to the family by Peter and Jean to try and cheer the children and replace some of the gifts the children had lost.

“We were able to get a (bag) of gifts in from the K-Mart wishing tree… and one of the boys almost disappeared up to his waist looking into the (huge) bag,” Jean says. “The kids sat on the floor and opened all their presents and thought it was wonderful.”

Sarah says such kindnesses – big and small- helped her and the family enormously.

“(Peter and Jean came) at a great time. 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 was a boost that they needed.”

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