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'Life as we have known it is over': Australian bushfires hit close to home for Whistlerites

There are a number of ways to give back, both locally and beyond

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If there's a common response to the Australian bushfires that have decimated huge swaths of land and destroyed entire communities, it's one of complete and utter helplessness.

How does one process such absolute devastation? The mind boggles at the sheer magnitude of the fires, which have been burning since September but intensified in recent weeks. By now, you have probably heard the bullet points: At least 25 people have been killed, including three volunteer firefighters, and 2,000 homes destroyed. More than 6.3 million hectares of bush, forest and parks have been burned, killing more than half a billion animals and pushing countless species to the brink of extinction.

In Whistler, that sense of powerlessness is even more acute. For years now, Aussies have manned the lift lines, staffed the restaurants and bars, and added an integral piece to the social fabric of "Whistralia," as it is affectionately known.

As the fires rage on, Pique caught up with several locals who have been directly or indirectly impacted, if only to put a human face to such an immense and incomprehensible tragedy.

'Life as we have known it is over'

By her own admission, Laura Brown isn't much of a newshound. So when the 32-year-old hotel staffer and event producer first learned of the fires spreading across her home country, she struggled to wrap her head around the scope of the destruction.

"I just couldn't believe that I didn't even understand what was happening in my own country," she said. "I just felt devastated by that and I needed to come and help."

Faced with a sickness in the family, Brown had already planned to return home. But when the fires began to spread even further, she pushed the travel dates up and made the decision to split her time between her family in Ballarat and Melbourne, where Pique reached her at a hotel, the smell of smoke permeating the building.

Since landing on Boxing Day, Brown has been approaching businesses to collect much-needed supplies and vouchers that she then distributes at overcrowded evacuation centres. She has been moved by the resiliency and sense of community she's seen among Australians in some of their lowest moments.

"Aussies have this 'Aussie battler' mentality, so we've always been able to be there for each other, but right now it's more the community really sticking together," she explained. "Nobody has this mentality that 'I've lost this and you've lost that,' it's just about how we can get together and be there for each other."

At one of the evacuation centres, Brown saw a little girl crying, too young to understand the situation unfolding around her. She watched as a "complete stranger" approached the girl's mom, asking if he could comfort her daughter with a piece of candy.

"This guy just picked up this little girl with the lollipop and sat her on his lap. It was just the most beautiful moment I'd ever seen," Brown recalled. "They are memories that will never leave my head."

A Whistler local of many years, Ellie Graf is originally from New South Wales, an area that has been hit hard by the fires. Reached over Facebook in a Bermagui hospital after an operation unrelated to the fires, Graf wavered between heartbreak and anger. Her family, consisting of her parents, sister, 97-year-old grandmother, two aunts, her partner and two children, aged one and eight, initially stayed behind before being evacuated on New Year's Eve.

"Throughout that morning, communities up and down the coast burned to the ground. Most communities were evacuated to the beach and to surf clubs. All power and telecommunications were lost and remain lost," she wrote.

Like many Australians, Graf remains frustrated at the government's reaction to the national emergency. "The government response has been slow. They were warned about this months ago and instead of making a plan, they cut funding to the [Rural Fire Service] and took off on various international holidays," she said. "They are pulling out all the stops now to save face, but the people are angry."

In the face of such considerable loss, Graf doesn't know what the future holds for her and her family, unsure when they can return home.

"Our family has decided it is no longer safe to live the same way we have been living and we have decided to do something different in the future. That concept is evolving but life as we have known it is over," she said.

'It doesn't feel real'

Like countless Aussies before her, Caprice Desira saved up her money after high school to embark on the adventure of her young life, arriving in Whistler only two months ago. Since the wildfires broke out, she can't help but feel bad spending most of her days hitting the mountain and generally enjoying life, like any other 19-year-old would, while Australia burns half a world away.

"It doesn't feel real," she said. "I feel bad because, during the day, sometimes I'll forget about it while I'm having a good time. Then I'll come back home and it will all hit me, and I feel terrible because I've forgotten about it while people are losing their lives and houses and suffering." Desira still remembers learning in elementary school about the deadly Black Saturday bushfires that hit the state of Victoria in 2009 and claimed the lives of 173. Back then, the impact felt abstract, far away.

"Before it was like we were sitting in classrooms, and we were told about all these horrific things that happened. It doesn't happen to you, you know what I mean?" she said. "You think, 'Oh no, that's terrible' and you might cry, but it'll never happen again. Then, 10 years later, it does."

It's the same helplessness that struck 26-year-old Whistlerite Jess Evans, who is originally from Melbourne. Her family has, for years, vacationed to the small southeastern coastal town of Mallacoota, just like her parents did this Christmas. By New Year's Eve, they had evacuated.

"We've definitely had bushfire warnings there before but never really had to act," Evans said.

"I definitely feel guilty and sometimes feel like I should be there. I felt worst when my parents were in that limbo. Do we go? Do we stay? I was thinking, what if something happens? I'm not even home to coordinate things for them or anything. That was the worst part of it."

Of course, it's not just Australian ex-pats frustrated by their inability to lend a helping hand. Thirty-three-year-old Pemberton wildfire fighter Kyler Gaulin has worked under Australian commanders on two separate occasions when the country sent over crews to help battle blazes in B.C. in 2015 and 2017. Watching the surreal images of the destruction, Gaulin is desperate to help. He even went so far as sending Prime Minister Justin Trudeau a plea to add to the 70 or so Canadian firefighters who have been sent over to battle the blazes.

"It's a warzone over there, man," he said. "I don't know if they're not getting the funding or what's going on, but it's 100-per-cent frustrating. I just wish there was more I could do. Even if they flew me over there, I would volunteer."

Going into his 11th year as a firefighter, Gaulin has seen firsthand how the average fire season in B.C. has gotten "longer and hotter," which he attributes both to the effects of climate change and widespread clear-cut logging.

In Australia, debates have been waged over the root cause of the fires, with some arguing that, as a sunburnt country that has experienced hotter, dryer weather before, climate change cannot be the main culprit. While it's true Australia is no stranger to bushfires, which can have myriad positive effects on a forest ecosystem, it's the magnitude of these current fires—more than three times the sizes of last year's California wildfires and more than 10 times the Fort McMurray, Alta. fire of 2016—that is most alarming.

"Human-induced climate change is a threat multiplier. It takes existing risks [and] amplifies them beyond imagining, affecting every living thing on this planet: including us," wrote Katharine Hayhoe, director of the Climate Science Center at Texas Tech, on Twitter this week in an attempt to dispel some of the misinformation.

Graf, who said she has fought a growing climate anxiety over the past year, had a message for Whistlerites who have seen the effects of wildfire in their own backyard.

"Because I am in hospital, so many nurses here have said to me, 'I bet you can't wait to get back to Canada!' Sadly, I had to tell them that both my countries of citizenship are now blanketed in smoke in the summer time. I feel like I can't escape," she wrote.

"For those in Whistler thinking this won't catch up with them, I thought that too only six weeks ago. Now I am living out those dire predictions and it's like we are at war. The scale of this disaster is beyond imagining."

How you can help

Whistlerites have responded in force to the Aussie wildfires. Below is a list of local fundraisers planned, as well as Australian organizations in dire need of support. If there are others we missed, feel free to email bbarrett@piquenewsmagazine.com and they will be added to the online version of this article.

• Garfinkel's is holding a "Bangers for Bush Fires" fundraiser on Jan. 9, from 9 p.m. to 2 a.m., with all door proceeds and $1 from every Burt Reynolds shot being donated. There will also be a raffle.

• TNT Tattoo + Barber is donating proceeds from every tattoo and tips from every haircut on Jan. 10 to Australian firefighting services.

• The GLC is holding a "Whistler Helps Australia" fundraiser on Jan. 12, from 3 to 6 p.m. that will feature music by The Soul Mechanics and a silent auction. The GLC has also set up a GoFundMe campaign, with monies raised going to victims of the fire and an animal charity (which one has yet to be confirmed.) The campaign can be found at gofundme.com/f/whistler-helps-australia.

• Moe Joe's is hosting a "Help Australia" fundraiser on Jan. 14, starting at 9:30 p.m., with funds going toward the Rural Fire Service.

• The Westin is hosting Sunday Cinema on Jan. 19, with a family session at 4 p.m. and an adults' session at 7:30 p.m., featuring prizes and entertainment.

• The Cinnamon Bear Bar is hosting a fundraiser on Jan. 20 for the New South Wales Fire Rescue Service. The event will include entertainment, an Aussie sausage sizzle, and prizes.

• Tapley's is hosting "Triple J's Hottest 100 Fundraiser Party" on Jan. 24.

• Laura Brown is organizing an Australia Day fundraiser on Jan. 26 at either the GLC or Dusty's that will include raffle prizes and a silent auction.

• Whistler-based pro mountain biker Yoann Barelli has set up a GoFundMe, with funds raised being split between a variety of organizations in Australia. Learn more at.gofundme.com/f/australia-wildfire-fundraiser.

• A GoFundMe campaign has been set up by former Whistler resident Raigan Michelle, whose father's coastal New South Wales property was destroyed. The funds raised will go to helping affected families in the community of Coolagolite. Learn more at gofundme.com/f/coolagolite-fire-recovery.

• Cabin Fever Gifts is collecting donations to the New South Wales Rural Fire Service.

• Purebread is selling ANZAC biscuits, with all proceeds being donated.

• Kong Law is offering up to $300 off legal services to anyone who can show proof that they have donated to an established Australian charity or fire rescue service.

To donate directly to Australian organizations on the ground

• Australia's Red Cross disaster relief and recovery fund: redcross.org.au/campaigns/disaster-relief-and-recovery-donate#donate.The Victorian Bushfire Appeal, which sends money to those directly affected by the fires:.communityenterprisefoundation.com.au/make-a-donation/bushfire-disaster-appeal.

• The St. Vincent de Paul Society, which provides food, clothing and emotional support to people rebuilding on the ground: donate.vinnies.org.au/appeals-nsw/vinnies-nsw-bushfire-appeal-nsw.

• The Foundation for Rural and Regional Renewal, which provides long-term support to affected communities: frrr.org.au.

• The Wildlife Information, Rescue and Education Service is Australia's largest wildlifre resue organization: wires.org.au/blog/emergency-donations-to-help-wildlife.

• The Koala Hospital Port Macquarie: koalahospital.org.au/shop/donation.

• The Australian Zoo Wildlife Hospital, which has been taking in animals displaced by the fires: azwh.blackbaud-sites.com.

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