‘The sky went black as night’ - Fears for Lancashire woman trapped by Australian bush fires

Friends of a former Lancashire resident who lives in Australia amid the raging bush fires say they are hoping and praying she is alive and well after losing contact with her.

Wednesday, 8th January 2020, 11:45 am
Bennie Bird and smoke from a wildfire in Australia

John Blackley from Bilsborrow says he and his wife last heard from Bennie Bird just after New Year’s Day when she was making preparations to leave her home in Batemans Bay, New South Wales.

Bennie, who used to be a member of St Hilda’s Church in Bilsborrow, had moved back to Batemans Bay, about four hours drive south of Sydney in her native Australia, two years ago after her late husband Col John Dickie Bird died in 2016.

John, who goes to the same church the couple used to attend in Bilsborrow, St Hilda, told the Post Bennie had written of limited food and water supplies when she last contacted him on Thursday, January 2.

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“There are limited supplies of food and water so that has been difficult,” said John, an assistant church warden at St Hilda. She spoke about the sky as going as black as night with the smoke on New Year’s Eve.

“She said they were gathering in a hall and the sky went as black as night, the room of about 75 people went quiet and the animals and birds stopped singing at around 11.20am.

“She talked about being bogged down for several days in the black well.

“The town and around was blacked out as power went out and homes burnt one after another.

“Several villages around have been burnt out but one had a zoo and the zoo was saved. It’s just a tragic situation.

“We are just hoping and praying she is safe. She might have moved on because there have already been burnt properties there.

“She can drive and others who don’t have a car or people who can’t drive are assigned to go with her. Bennie was one of the drivers. She’s in her late 80s.

“They’ve been on standby for weeks. Conditions have improved slightly with a bit of rain. We just had an email describing things on January 2 because there was only intermittent internet availability.”

Reading from an email from Bennie John said it read: “I do hope that our homes will be safe but it’s in the hands of God.”

John added: “She finished by sending her best wishes for 2020 saying: ‘Know that we are doing what Australians have always done - looking after our mates’.”

‘Armageddon’ as fires rage

According to The Conversation, an online news outlet written by academics and researchers, Thousands of people trapped in the danger zone since New Year’s Eve, from the south coast of New South Wales from Bateman’s Bay to Wonboyn, are leaving by car or boat ahead of the worsening conditions.

In one account of the fires in news.com.au Zoe Simmons describes the scene on New Year’s Eve at Batemans Bay Hanging Rock evacuation centre as an “Armageddon“. Reports from ABC News describe how residents of Batemans Bay had to seek refuge on the beach as the fire neared the coastal town.

On New Year’s Eve at another town just 15 minutes south of Batemens Bay in Malua Bay, people lost their homes, according to The Canberra Times.

Just days later on January 4, 9News coverage of the fires reports how residents of Batemans Bay were told it was too late to leave and to seek shelter.

Queen’s message of condolence

The Queen has sent a message of condolence to those affected by the devastating wildfires in Australia, while also thanking the emergency services who are helping to fight them.

At least 20 people have died and more than 1,400 homes have been destroyed in the devastating blazes which have ravaged the country in recent months.

In a message of condolence addressed to the Governor General of Australia, Governor of New South Wales, Governor of Queensland, the Governor of Victoria and to all Australians, the Queen said: “I have been deeply saddened to hear of the continued bushfires and their devastating impact across many parts of Australia.”

“My thanks go out to the emergency services, and those who put their own lives in danger to help communities in need.

“Prince Philip and I send our thoughts and prayers to all Australians at this difficult time.”

At least eight people have died this week in New South Wales and neighbouring Victoria, Australia’s two most populous states, where more than 200 fires are currently burning.

Collectively, an area almost the size of Croatia, covering more than 20,000 square miles, has been burnt by the fires around the country.

Australian prime minister Scott Morrison, who has been criticised for his response to the fires, on Saturday called up 3,000 defence force reservists as the threat of wildfires escalated.

Fires in Batemans Bay area

On January 7 a fire sprawling accross more than 303,000ha was burning between Batemans Bay and Nowra and east of Braidwood, according to an update issued by the New South Wales Rural Fire Service. The large fire is burning between the west of Kangaroo Valley in the north, Braidwood in the west, and Batemans Bay in the south.

The NSW Rural Fire Service also says a fire on The Clyde Mountain has grown along the fires southern flank around Batemans Bay. The fire is more than 82,000ha in size and is out of control. It is burning on the southern side of the Kings Highway, in the Buckenbowra, Runnyford and North Batemans Bay areas.