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The numbers are staggering, the pictures downright terrifying. More than two dozen lives have been lost, hundreds of properties destroyed, half a billion animals have perished, and more than twelve million acres have been burned in the ongoing Australian bushfire crisis, and – amazingly – it is only one month into the southern hemisphere summer. Pictures of rescued wildlife, videos of ‘firies’ (firefighters) driving through intense firestorms that generate their own weather phenomena and the ongoing discussions over the climate crisis have propelled this year’s Australian fire season onto the screens of those around the world who look on from a distance, aghast. Amidst this gloom, the Indian-Australian community has not been spared. 

Australia is home to a large number of people of Indian origin, including a large transient student population, with figures around 600,000 within a country of population of just under 25 million. Like large cities in the USA with a substantial number of Indian migrants, Sydney and Melbourne feature a huge variety of Indian food, along with hundreds of Indian cultural and religious organizations serving their local communities. One such center, which housed a temple complex and community care center or Sri Om Devi Brindhavan, was housed in Clarence, New South Wales. It could be found in the idyllic blue mountains just two hours drive west of Sydney and was operated by the Sri Om Care organization.

Sri Om Devi Brindhavan before the fire.

On the 21st December 2019, the forecast was grim. Sweltering conditions including high heat (well above 40C/104F) and extremely dry winds combined to make an already unstable fire situation that much worse. All the worst predictions of that day, unfortunately, came to pass. The Mt. Gospers fire in the Blue Mountains area razed through half a million acres of bush. Towards the afternoon, a change of wind direction caught those in Clarence by surprise, and the town came under a flying ember attack. Fire quickly swept through the tiny town in a matter of minutes, completely destroying many houses. Only a few survived, but the community center/temple was not one of them.

Remains of the building after the fire. The intense heat buckled the sheet metal, and caused gas cylinders to explode. Little was left.

The center had been used for religious gatherings, annadhanam (service of free food), yoga and meditation retreats, recreational and educational activities for the elderly population, and local wildlife care. The inferno ripped through quickly and within half an hour, the damage was done. It is estimated that the total bill for that one center alone will reach half a million Australian dollars. Thankfully, no lives were lost that day in Clarence, although others fighting the same fire were not so lucky, as we would come to learn later.  

In spite of all the difficulties, one of the amazing things about tragedies is the resounding community spirit in the wake of disaster. Abraham Lincoln said, in reference to troubled times, “The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise with the occasion.” This seems more than apt. In this respect, the community is rising. The huge outpouring of support for those in Australia from around the world, be it from cricketers, movie stars, pop singers, and the general population, is heartwarming and uplifting. The energy of the community, to rebuild in the face of such tragedy, is invigorating. The issues we face are global, not local, and there are no borders for such disasters. It never happens to you – until it does. 

If you would like to donate to see the rebuilding of the community center mentioned in this article, a gofundme campaign has been started. 

Rama Vasudevan is scientist living and working in Tennessee, born in India and raised in Australia, who was heavily involved with Indian-Australian community activities before shifting to the US. He is a volunteer and one of the founding members of Sri Om Care.

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