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Bush fires reaffirm Ireland's bond with Australia

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A helicopter battling one of the Australian bushfires in Bairnsdale, Victoria. Picture: AFP

A helicopter battling one of the Australian bushfires in Bairnsdale, Victoria. Picture: AFP

A helicopter battling one of the Australian bushfires in Bairnsdale, Victoria. Picture: AFP

The bush fires that have ravaged large parts of Australia over the last couple of months have left many families homeless, communities devastated, and resulted in numerous people losing their lives.

In addition, the death of thousands of indigenous wild life species has had an enormous impact on the country.

For people on the ground it's been horrific, however, for people living away from the continent the concern they have over the horror and hardship of what their friends and family are enduring is compounded by the fact they are not there to directly help those in need.

That's especially true of the many Australians who are living in countries thousands of miles away from their native land including the Australian Ambassador to Ireland, Richard Andrews, who, in a meeting with this newspaper, spoke of what it means on a personal level how Irish people have reacted to the horrific ordeal facing his fellow countrymen and women.

Expressing a liking for county Wexford, where he helped turn the sod on a new community building site in Our Lady's Island, two years ago, Mr Andrews said it's a lovely part of Ireland.

However, he said the reaction from people all over the country to what is happening in his native country has been fantastic.

A fundraising event will take place in Wexford Arts Centre on Friday, January 31, at 8 p.m.

The concert will feature some well known Wexford artists and the cost of admission for the 'Australian Bushfire Benefit' will be €10.

It's events like that being organised that have impressed the Australian Ambassador.

'I think the reaction from the Irish people has been absolutely amazing,' Mr Andrews commented to this newspaper.

'I suppose in a way I'm not really surprised by the reaction after getting to know the Irish people since I've been here,' he said.

'However, I think what the situation has done is reaffirm the strong bond and long established connection that exists between Ireland and Australia,' he added.

While official comments on the situation are being directed through the Australian capital, Canberra, Mr Andrews said that on a personal level he was heartened by the swell of support for his country that arisen here in Ireland during this difficult time.

'The Australian people are known for being resilient and I think a lot of that comes from our history and our association with Ireland,' he said.

'There are so many Irish who travelled to Australia having endured a lot of hardship here and then going through the arduous trip of getting over there by sea and starting a new life from scratch when they got there,' he added.

'I think that kind of resilience and fight that is in Australian people stems from that.'

The Australian fire service is used to dealing with around 300,000 acres of bush fire each year but the current fire has, to-date, affected 25.5m acres.

In recent days Kangaroo Island has been in the news due to the fact that at least half of its koala population is thought to have perished as a result of the fires.

Located just south of Adelaide you reach the island by taking a ferry from Cape Jervis on the mainland to the port town of Penneshaw, on the island.

The road to Cape Jervis is very similar in feel to an Irish rural coastal road and Penneshaw, on Kangaroo Island itself, is similar to Kilmore Quay.

The Flinders Chase National Park is one of the major tourism attractions on the island offering visitors a wide range of attractions from remarkable rock formations to the Sea Bay Conservation Park.

However, it's the island's disease-free koala population that makes it one of the most important pieces of land on the Australian continent.

The loss of life in other areas of the country along with the destruction of homes is what has led to people all over the world, including Ireland, rallying to the cause and organising fundraising events to support of the Australian people.

For people like the Australian Ambassador such efforts are much appreciated.

While the Embassy itself is not engaged in trying to raise funds, as that's the role of the Canberra government, Mr Andrews said he and his colleagues in the embassy are looking at ways they can support fundraising efforts that are being organised here.

'Obviously, we are very grateful for efforts made by people in the community and we want to be as supportive of those as much as possible,' he said.

Mr Andrews' appreciation for the support his country has received from the Irish was highlighted in a tweet he posted in which he said: 'We are grateful and heartened by the many messages of condolence, sympathy, solidarity and support we have received from the Government and people of Ireland as bushfires continue to burn in Australia.'

A number of factors have contributed to this being the worst bushfire incident in the history of the country - despite the fact that on previous occasions there was a higher number of fatalities.

In 1983, the death toll was 75 and in 1939, on a day that became known as 'Black Friday', 71 people died.

However, while wildfires are an elemental part of the Australian environment the sheer scale of the current fire is what makes it a unique event.

This time around soaring temperatures and months of severe drought have played a part and such is the enormity of the situation that every state and territory in Australia has experienced fires this summer.

However, the largest fires are burning along stretches of the eastern and southern coast where the majority of the population live - including areas very close to Sydney and Adelaide.

Mr Andrews said it's difficult for any one living away from home in a time of crisis and said family members of his own had to take shelter in a local golf club near their home as there were fears the fires would burn their property.

'It's in times of crisis that you find out who your friends are,' he told this newspaper.

'We've long known the Irish and Australians are friends but the current situation has certainly reaffirmed that fact for me,' he added.

At the moment the focus of attention is very much on fighting the fires but once they are finally brought under control the enormous task of rebuilding and recovering will begin.

Wexford People