Aussies living in Detroit are emotional about the loss of habitat, animals and culture from the fires.
Out of sight, out of mind certainly applies to the country that’s more than 9,900 miles away, quiet, peaceful and barely makes it on international news. But Australia is all over the news because of the fires that have been burning out of control since September.
According to CNN, 28 people have died and more than a billion animals have been killed in the fires. More than 3,000 homes and businesses have been destroyed and more than 7.3 million hectares (17.9 million acres) of Australia have been burned.
It is heartbreaking for anyone to hear about such an enormous amount of devastation, but locals who called Australia home before they settled in Detroit are extra concerned.
Da-vid Rosenthal has lived in Oak Park for five years with his wife, Rachel, and their five children. He is currently the office manager at Ayzertech. He was born and bred in Sydney, where most of his family, including his parents, siblings, aunts, uncles and cousins, still live.
“It’s stressful not having a clear picture of what’s going on,” Rosenthal said. “The information we get here in Detroit is vague and at times inaccurate and doesn’t always put things in perspective. It’s a challenge not knowing how the people you care about are doing.”
Rosenthal calls his family often and says the fires are about 45 minutes away from them. Still, the blazes seem to be impacting everyone in the country. “It’s the ash that’s affecting everyone. My mother has a hard time leaving the house — her asthma gets really bad because of it,” Rosenthal said.
Most shocking for Rosenthal was hearing the reports that some of the fires were started by people.
“Growing up in Australia, the idea of starting a fire was so taboo and so looked down on, it was not something that you would expect would ever happen. And yet, in this instance, I’ve heard that some people actually started fires. It’s completely astounding,” he said.
CPA Levi Serebryanski settled in Oak Park 18 years ago and is treasurer at Bais Chabad of North Oak Park. He has been following the news avidly and checking in frequently with his mother and siblings, who still live in his hometown of Melbourne.
A few weeks ago, Serebryanski’s nephew attended the local Jewish overnight summer camp that takes place in a small town halfway between Sydney and Melbourne. The fires were getting uncomfortably close and the camp was evacuated as a precaution.
“They were afraid they’d be cut off by the fire. My nephew said they could see thick, heavy smoke just over the mountains on the bus home,” Serebryanski said. “All the perishable camp food was donated to the locals who lost their homes and the campers had a day camp in Melbourne instead.”
Serebryanski is friends with David Gutnick, the Jewish chaplain of the Australian Reserves, who has been offering support and comfort to the “firies” (what Australians call firefighters) around the country. He said the Melbourne Jewish community managed to raise more than $6 million for the rescue effort.
Though everyone seems to be rallying together to help — a contingent of 100 firefighters from the U.S. also joined the fight — the devastation is enormous.
“It makes me so sad that thousands of years of Australian’s unique culture and the unique animals that aren’t found anywhere else on the planet, the Aboriginal art, history, human treasures, so much has been burned. It’s going to cause a tremendous impact on the country and on the entire world,” Serebryanski said.
Another Australian expat is a Southfield resident of three years who only wanted to be identified as Esther.
“None of my family are near the fires,” Esther said, “but there’s a lot of emotional attachment hearing about the destruction. I hear about burned areas and I think, ‘That’s where I hiked as a teen’ and now that entire area is gone. Or ‘I went horseback riding over there’ and I hear that all the horses in those regions died.”
According to Esther, life continues mostly unaffected for her parents, sisters, nieces and nephews, all who live in Melbourne.
“My sister went on a holiday to Sydney and drove four hours through complete fog from the smoke. She sent me pictures,” Esther said.
It is hard when something so painful happens to your hometown and you’re far away, powerless to help in any significant way.
“I keep watching and rewatching bush fire videos on YouTube and crying every time I see them,” she said. “I wish I could just hop on a plane to help somehow —especially with rehabilitating all those animals. If I had unlimited funds and real life didn’t get in my way, I would do it in a heartbeat.”
Rabbi Yerachmiel Rabin, director of Spiritual Care at Danto Family Healthcare Center in West Bloomfield, is from Sydney and has lived in Oak Park for more than 20 years. His mother and sister still live in Sydney, he has cousins in Melbourne and an aunt in Brisbane.
“My family’s out of the danger zone, but they told me the sky over Sydney is clouded with heavy smoke,” Rabin said. “I speak to my mother every day — she has Alzheimer’s and is sensitive to the smoke so she can’t even go outside, for weeks now.”
Even though his family isn’t otherwise directly affected, thinking about the many Australians who are is hugely upsetting.
“It’s so sad, all those hundreds of people, their belongings, livelihoods,” he said. “I can’t imagine how it must feel being in the line of fire, knowing my home is going to burn down with everything I’ve owned in the past 50 years and there is absolutely nothing I can do to stop it … all that farmland, wildlife … it is huge, mindboggling.”
Rabin couldn’t help but compare how life continues in Detroit while this massive national disaster is occurring. “Here we sit in comfortable Detroit suburbia; we don’t get hurricanes or any major scrapes. Life just goes on as normal. It’s really just so hard to imagine.”