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Australians Fear for Their Homes As Fires Devastate Millions of Acres

January 11, 2002
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As the threat recedes from wildfires that have ravaged Australia’s most populous state since Christmas, harrowing stories are emerging from Jews who had a close brush with disaster.

Chicago-born Sharon Harris, 51, and her husband David, 52, live with their two teen-age children some 45 miles from Sydney in Warrimoo, a small town of 2,000 people where 15 houses were destroyed in the fires.

“The fires reached within 500 yards of our home,” Sharon Harris said. “They were burning with enormous ferocity. We were not evacuated, but our cars are packed with our personal possessions and we are ready to leave at a moment’s notice.

“The windsock on our property is watched constantly,” she added. “We have to stay at home in case any embers land on our property which could set off another fire. The firefighters have back burned around us for protection, but we have fires all around us. We have lopped trees and removed anything combustible.”

The Harrises have lived in Warrimoo since 1976.

“We experienced bad fires in 1977 and 1994, but no where as severe as this one,” she said. “I know people who have lost their homes. The fire was fast approaching ours, but a wind change sent it back on itself.”

No lives have yet been lost in the fires, which have destroyed some 170 homes and more than 1.2 millions acres of forest and farm land in the state of New South Wales.

As many as 20,000 firemen, mostly volunteers from around Australia, have been fighting the fires.

At the peak of the crisis last week, thousands of residents were evacuated when the fires threatened Sydney’s suburbs.

Australia is particularly vulnerable to fires in the often sweltering weather of its southern hemisphere summer. But officials believe many of the wildfires were caused by arson.

The Insurance Council of Australia has estimated damages to be around $35 million.

David Solomons, 70, regularly makes the 75-mile trip from his home in Burradoo in the Southern Highlands of New South Wales to the Great Synagogue in the center of Sydney.

But last week he heeded the warnings of the local fire authorities and stayed at homing — missing Yahrzeit for his late mother at the synagogue.

His wife, Eleonore, told JTA: “It’s been frightening. We have lived here for 21 years and have seen droughts, bush fires and floods.

“Our main priority was to safeguard our property. We have 11 acres here, and gumtrees that are over 150 years old plus 700 trees that David has planted personally. We would hate to see it going up in smoke.”

David Solomons added: “It was frightening on Christmas Day. We could not see the sky and were worried roads would be blocked and we could be trapped. We were monitoring the radio all the time. It was like wartime.”

His son Jonathan lives close by in Mittagong with his wife and children.

“The fires are dangerously close,” Jonathan Solomons said. “If we have to leave, then we must. It’s only a home. As long as the family is safe.”

The Great Synagogue’s Rabbi Mendel Kastel offered special prayers for those fighting the fires.

Dr. David Wilson, who heads the tiny Southern Highlands Jewish community of 70, said, “None of our members have suffered any losses — so far.”

The story was much the same in the Blue Mountains, according to Hal Ginges, the spokesman for the small Jewish community there.

“There has been no damage reported by any of our members, but some of them are very close to the action,” he said.

The shaliach for the Betar youth group, Hila Cohen, was in charge of a summer camp where 75 Sydney Jewish children had been enjoying the bush when the fires began to rage.

Alarmed parents begged her to evacuate the camp.

“Because it was Christmas, we couldn’t find a bus company that could help, so the parents organized a fleet of cars to take the children back to Sydney,” Cohen told JTA.

“We were not in any immediate danger, with the nearest fires almost” 13 miles away, “but wind changes can send fire moving at high speed, so we took the safe option. We spent the last couple of days ‘camping’ in the heart of Sydney.”

Guy Pross, 25, head of the youth group Hag Shama and a native of Beersheba in Israel, has organized a fleet of cars that will drive through Sydney raising funds on behalf of Jewish Care, which in turn will donate the proceeds to the wildfire victims.

In Sydney, Kastel and officials from the Jewish National Fund are planning to hold special Shabbat services. They will invite fire officials and New South Wales politicians.

“Strangely, the timing is around Tu B’Shevat” — the Jewish New Year for trees, which falls this year on Jan. 28 — “and the JNF’s Green Sunday. We hope to raise as much as we can for new trees.”

“Final details are yet to be worked out,” said Aharon Mor, executive director of the local JNF chapter. “But the JNF will plant a substantial number of trees in those areas of New South Wales which have suffered so much devastation.”

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