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Devastated Down Under: Newfoundland woman living in Australia worries about wildfires

- Reuters
ST. JOHN'S, N.L. —

As residents on the Avalon Peninsula were digging out from 40 centimetres of snow that was dumped overnight Sunday, a Newfoundlander on the other side of the world was worrying about heat and the devastation it has brought.

Jaime Penney, originally from St. John's, lives in Shellharbour, New South Wales, Australia, where more than 100 wildfires, many of them burning out of control, have ravaged much of the continent.

"I certainly don't miss the cold and snow, but right now I'd gladly take it," said Penney, who has lived in Australia since 2001.

The fires have destroyed millions of acres of land across Australia, burned more than 1,000 homes, displaced thousands of people and claimed the lives of more than 20 people, while an estimated half a billion animals have perished. About 3,000 firefighters have been battling the fires, which have created so much smoke, it can be seen from space and has been measured at 11 times the hazardous level, according to media reports.

As Australia's summer months are just beginning, the region has seen little rain to help the firefighting efforts. The fires are expected to burn for months.


Jaimie Penney, shown during a September 2019 visit to Newfoundland, has lived in Australia since 2001.
Jaimie Penney, shown during a September 2019 visit to Newfoundland, has lived in Australia since 2001.

While Penney and her family remain a safe distance from the fires, one did come close — about 35 kilometres at one point. Smoke and poor air quality has been the biggest concern in her area.

"Since early December, my city has been often blanketed in thick smoke which has made it hard to breath at times," said Penney, an emergency nurse. "We've seen an increase in respiratory patients presenting to the emergency department, since the smoke has been so thick at times."

Penney said she has refused to take her children to the beach, with the conditions so bad. On New Year's Eve, temperatures reached 40 C, with 100 km/h wind that forced smoke and ash up the coast. she said.


The afternoon sun looks like it's setting as it shines through the smoke and ash visible from Jaimie Penney's home.
The afternoon sun looks like it's setting as it shines through the smoke and ash visible from Jaimie Penney's home.

"It was very nerve-racking due to the size of the fire front and the winds," she said. "We got burnt leaves and some were still smouldering. Our clothes on the line were covered in ash. It would have taken one single leaf still burning to set fire to the ground.

"It's terrifying to have an enormous fire come so close to home, especially knowing that once it gets close, it's too late to leave."

Penney said her family in Newfoundland have been very concerned. Her parents are scheduled to visit later this month, so she's been keeping them updated on the situation. In the meantime, she and her family have an evacuation plan in case they have to leave quickly.



Scary scenes

Like most residents in the St. John's metro area, Danny Fellingham spent most of Monday digging out from the snowstorm, but his thoughts were on his family in Australia.

"It's scary, watching what's been going on," said Fellingham, who moved to Canada, settling first in Ontario, before moving to this province three years ago. "So many people have been affected. I see the pictures on social media and see the videos and it's tough to look at them."

Fellingham's parents and sister, along with her young family, live in Brisbane, along the Sunshine Coast of Southeast Queensland, which, he said, doesn't seem to be in danger at the moment. But he makes sure he checks on his family regularly.

"They've been lucky to be safe. They can see and smell the smoke, but the fires haven't reached them and aren't expected to," he said. "But you just never know. It always leaves you a little uneasy because it could suddenly take a turn if the weather doesn't help. So, I make sure I keep in contact.

"My sister texted me yesterday and said it was so hot there and asked could they borrow some snow. I took a picture of my car buried in snow and sent it to her and told her, 'Take all you want.'"

"I see the pictures on social media and see the videos and it's tough to look at them." — Danny Fellingham

Fellingham — who owns Tee Box Indoor Golf Inc., a simulator golf bar business on Stavanger Drive — said he has friends in many other parts of Australia who have been affected by the blazes and are posting on social media.

"Many people in Australia live off the land, and the animals, too. You see it and you hope these things get taken care of quickly, but it gets bigger and bigger. It kept spreading and getting worse," he said.

"A lot of these areas have been fenced off for the protection of animals, and when people had to leave, the animals were fenced in and were stuck. It's such a shame. It was the perfect storm — the time of year, with the hot weather."

Fellingham said he's been touched by the many people who have contacted him and his friends, asking about him, his family and his home.

"I really don't know a lot of people here yet, so that's been really nice," he said. "It's really appreciated."


Danny Fellingham, who is originally from Australia but now lives in the St. John’s area, worries about family back home. - SaltWire File Photo
Danny Fellingham, who is originally from Australia but now lives in the St. John’s area, worries about family back home. - SaltWire File Photo

French-fries fundraiser

At least one local business is stepping up to help with the devastation in Australia.

Saucy Mouth Food Truck, located inside Landwash Brewery in Mount Pearl, plans to raise funds this weekend to donate to WIRES, an Australian wildlife rescue organization.

While donations are being accepted all weekend, on Friday, the mostly plant-based food truck will hold a Fire FryDay fundraiser, where a dollar from every sale of street fries will go toward the cause. Saucy Mouth staff will donate their gratuities from Friday night to the cause.

Manager of operations Cassidy Molloy said they are calling on other businesses to step up as well.

"Seeing millions of animals lose their lives and habitats has been devastating," said Molloy, adding that she's a vegetarian.

"With similar catastrophic events increasing in likelihood all (over) the world with the continuing effects of global warming, we wanted to show people that every small act counts.

Twitter: @TelyRosie


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