February-March 2020 | Features

Australia will rise as a phoenix from the flames

Australia will rise as a phoenix from the flames

East Gippsland in Victoria was a focal point for the devastating Australian bush fires which have ravaged the tinder dry land since September. Rotarian Janne Speirs, who lives in East Gippsland and is Chair of the Emergency Management Committee for Rotary District 9820, tells her story.

Rotary 9820 is one of five districts in Victoria, stretching from the outer eastern suburbs of Melbourne, the Mornington Peninsula and Phillip Island through Gippsland to the New South Wales border.

Our neighbouring District 9790 is also dealing with a current fire crisis!

Our District has a varied and beautiful landscape, from coastal flats and ‘Victoria’s Riviera’, including towns like Mallacoota and Lakes Entrance, for whom this is normally the busiest time of year with thousands of tourists, to the world renowned Fairy Penguins of Phillip Island.

There’s Wilsons Promontory National Park, Mornington Peninsula, wineries, dairying and pine plantations. Ours is a truly beautiful state.

There is no short-term fix to our situation. We have a mammoth task”

Travel further east, and you enter a different world with small isolated farming communities in amongst magnificent bush in the mountains of the Great Dividing Range. Here are the Buchan Caves, High Country and Snowy River, of Banjo Paterson’s ‘Man from Snowy River’ fame, and its mouth at Marlo.

Fact File: Bushfires


    • Fires have been burning across Australia for over four months and they have destroyed more than 63,000 square kilometres of bush, forest and parks. Every Australian state and territory has been affected along with a number of major cities.
    • It is also estimated that almost 2,000 homes have been destroyed, according to the BBC.
    • As well as damage to the land and environment, the death toll currently stands at 28 people. According to the University of Sydney, an estimated 480 million animals, birds and reptiles who have perished in the blazes, which will leave a lasting impact on the country’s biodiversity.
    • Record temperatures of over 40C and long periods of drought have exacerbated the spread the fire across the country.

It is in East Gippsland that lightning strikes started fires in November. Much of the area had already been in drought for approximately three years, so it was tinderbox dry.

The very isolation that makes many of these communities so attractive became a threat. Evacuations became essential, not just for residents, but for holiday makers too, some driving out while, and others being evacuated by Army helicopters and naval vessels.

Following the disastrous events of December 30th/31st, when temperatures hit 40C, and 30,000 residents and tourists were urged to flee East Gippsland, available members of the local Rotary cluster met on New Year’s Day to form a committee in accordance with our District Emergency Management plan.


Child’s bicycle destroyed by bushfire, Dunalley.

For those who stayed to defend their properties, they have endured almost two months of disturbed sleep, emergency and evacuation warnings.

They have been faced with the terrifying spectre of fire fronts descending on them, then moving back, only to reform a few days later on another temperature or wind change.

So far, some 2,000 homes have been lost, plus sheds, fencing, equipment, livestock and wildlife. 28 people have been confirmed dead nationally, in Australia.

Displaced families are either ‘couch surfing’ or in temporary accommodation but often with no real timeframe on a return home.

There is no short-term fix to our situation. East Gippsland is a vast area and as Rotarians we have a mammoth task in front of us.

We are a ‘recovery organisation’, but even then, cannot do everything. Rather we are focused on helping local families and communities on a priority basis.

Clearing roadside fencing lines are part of our ‘to do’ list. We have already received a number of other requests for assistance, some of which are already completed.


2,000 homes have been lost, plus sheds, fencing, equipment, livestock and wildlife. 28 people have been confirmed dead nationally, in Australia.

We have been overwhelmed at the financial generosity shown to us in the past two weeks and, in the words of our Committee Chair, who said: “The question regarding dispersal of funds raised has been asked several times.

“Firstly, I can guarantee that 100% of money raised will be used to re-build communities and help those in desperate need of assistance, along with assisting in the purchase of rural fencing materials to assist our already drought struggling farmers.

“We have concerns for the well-being of many in our farming community. BlazeAid, a fencing volunteer group, are coming to do fencing once the lead agencies give the all-clear, however they do not fund the fencing materials.

One container load of ‘star pickets’ to assist the process will cost us $31,000 and that’s at cost price!”

Hay, and other high energy stockfeed, is also being sourced by the Rotary committee to help farmers in the region.

Access is still prohibited to many areas due to continuing fire activity, so we will work where we can until these open up.

As with any Rotary involvement, we will listen to the needs of those we are wishing to help so we can assist in the way that they most need within our capability and scope. We are in for the long haul!

In the words of the 19-year-old poet Dorothea Mackellar, written in 1904:

I love a sunburnt country,

A land of sweeping plains,

Of ragged mountain ranges,

Of droughts and flooding rains.

I love her far horizons,

I love her jewel-sea,

Her beauty and her terror –

The wide brown land for me!

Geographically the same size as the USA and China, but with less than a 30 million population, Australia is still the ‘wide brown land’!

It will take time, money and huge commitment, but we will emerge from this national disaster as we have so many others and in Rotary District 9820, we will be there for as long as it takes!

The Rotary in Great Britain and Ireland Disaster Recovery Trust has launched an appeal to raise funds following the devastating bushfires in Australia.

The Trust collates donations and makes grants to Rotary projects working to rebuild communities affected by natural disaster in the medium to long-term. As such, the Trust’s Bushfire Appeal is a non-emergency appeal.

For those wishing to donate to immediately support the ongoing efforts, a separate online appeal has been created by Rotary in Australia.

If you would like to support the Disaster Recovery Trust, you can:

      • Donate to the Australian Bushfire Appeal via our Virgin Money Giving Online page:  and type in: Rotary Australian Bushfires nonemergency appeal in the search box.
      • Send a cheque to – Rotary International In Great Britain And Ireland Donations Trust, Kinwarton Road, Alcester, B49 6PB. Please note that despite the Trust undergoing a recent name change, cheques should still be made payable to the former name.
      • Contact the Rotary in Great Britain and Ireland finance department for bank transfer information: finance@rotarygbi.org

The Rotary in Great Britain and Ireland Disaster Recovery Trust (formerly known as the Donations Trust) is a registered charity, established in 2007.

Since then the charity has continued its work with the purpose of responding to major disasters at home and abroad in the reconstruction phase following a disaster.

Typical projects include constructing and equipping schools and community centres, rebuilding infrastructure and providing rescue vehicles. The Trust is not a first or emergency responder.

During the last 12 months, the Trust launched an appeal following Hurricane Dorian in the Bahamas, which collected over £44,000, as well as re-opening a long-standing UK and Ireland flood appeal, following the Christmas floods in South Yorkshire

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