Starting in September last year, bush fires have been causing widespread devastation in Australia, particularly in New South Wales. According to a CNN report on January 6th, 14.7 million acres have been burned across the country. At least 480 million animals have perished, as well as twenty-four people. In December, the smoke in Sydney was so bad that air quality measured eleven times the “hazardous” level.
According to ISKCON Australia Communications Director Bhakta Das, no devotees have been injured, as the fire is some distance from ISKCON’s farming communities.
“All our centers are, however, on alert, especially New Gokula farm where the fires were only twenty kilometres away,” he says. “Thick smoke has been the major difficulty at New Gokula, Govinda Valley, and the Sydney, Canberra and Melbourne Temple areas, as some devotees suffer from asthma and the smoke from the bush fires is very toxic.”
One devotee family has lost a holiday home to the fire, but the family members themselves are all safe.
Meanwhile the devotee community in Australia has been expressing a great outpouring of sympathy for the victims of the fires.
“In a practical way, we are helping by working with local Hindu organizations that have been providing bottled water to the firefighters,” Bhakta says. “ISKCON Melbourne has offered to fund the next major shipment.”
Govinda Valley, a Hare Krishna retreat center in NSW, has offered to house any victims of the bush fire that have lost their homes when there is availability.
In Victoria, ISKCON has contacted the Victorian Council of Churches Emergency Ministry – an interfaith organization which provides spiritual counseling to those in need during the tragic bush fire – and is volunteering the services of devotees who are Spiritual Care Providers (chaplains). This service will go on for several months.
As far as emergency meal distributions are concerned, at present the needs of the various fire effected areas have been met by local Lions Clubs and the Australian Army reserves.
“We have however offered our services to the appropriate relief organizations and local Councils at any time we are needed, to provide vegetarian or vegan meals to those in need,” says Bhakta. “In NSW we have a Hare Krishna Food for Life food van ready to go to any area where we may be required, but at the moment those authorities have appreciated our offers but have asked us to wait and act when instructed by them.”
Unfortunately, according to Bhakta Das the devastation may be far from over.
“Due to the extreme drought throughout many regions of Australia, so many areas are extremely dry and as such with exceptionally high temperatures and strong winds, even so very early into the summer months, there is anticipation that this is just the beginning of more tragic bush fires in the months to come,” he explains.
All ISKCON centers in Australia, and the farming communities in particular, will remain on high alert for fire risks.
Many devotees are organizing bhajan and kirtan nights at their temples, and Harinama Sankirtana sessions in the streets of major cities, with the specific prayer for rain and an end to the tragedy.
Devotees are also contributing to various combined Vedic Yajnas organized by their Hindu brothers and sisters at their temples.
“They have also asked us to perform Harinama Sankirtana at their events,” Bhakta Das confirms.