As Australian bushfires rage on, some Malaysians prepare to leave while others unfazed

Azril Annuar
Fire trucks are seen during a bushfire in Werombi, 50 km southwest of Sydney December 6, 2019. — Picture by AAP Image/Mick Tsikas/via Reuters

KUALA LUMPUR, Jan 16 — Malaysians living in Australia where massive bushfires have been burning since the second half of 2018 appear to be split into two camps: the students who are more fearful and perturbed by the burning, and the permanent residents who are dealing with the disaster stoically.

Student Hanisa Anais Haizan, who is currently in Melbourne with her brother, told Malay Mail that they may evacuate the city if the fires worsen.

“We definitely witnessed a lot of smoke in the city the other day. It built up in quite a short time too. We couldn’t even go outside because we started coughing just opening the windows,” she said when contacted.

The air quality index for Melbourne crossed 450 into the hazardous range earlier this morning, but has since improved slightly at the time of writing.

The 23-year-old Hanisa, who is studying Master of Counselling at the University of Queensland in Brisbane, said most of her friends in Australia have returned to their home countries.

A long exposure picture shows a car commuting on a road as the sky turns red from smoke of the Snowy Valley bushfire on the outskirts of Cooma January 4, 2020. — AFP pic

Those who chose to remain are currently having difficulties finding local stores selling the N95 face masks that filter out fine particulates in the air, prompting them to turn to online stores for the pricier Vogmasks for protection against the air pollution.

Hanisa said neither she nor her brother Haziq Haizan have received any official information or instruction from the local authorities or the Malaysian Consulate in Melbourne on what to do in the event an evacuation is ordered.

“I’d say we are all quite clueless about what to do if there is an evacuation.

“But our immediate evacuation plan would be to stay near the docks. My brother’s place downstairs has a lot of boats so maybe if anyone is kind enough to let us one If not, we’ll go to any relief centre in the city. But most likely, we’ll go to the Malaysian consulate in St Kilda,” she said.

For now, Hanisa said she and her brother are stocking up on water and food supplies to last them at least a week.

“I read that a lot of the evacuees are coming into the city and they predict a mega-blaze could hit the city as well,” she said, adding that she saw some of her brother’s neighbours also stockpiling food and essential items.

A dehydrated and injured Koala receives treatment at the Port Macquarie Koala Hospital in Port Macquarie on November 2, 2019, after its rescue from a bushfire that has ravaged an area of over 2,000 hectares. — AFP pic

Hanisa admitted that she is uneasy about being in Melbourne where thick smoke is visible on the city outskirts.

She added that other Melbourne residents are more fearful compared to her neighbours in Brisbane on the east coast, as raging bushfires have been detected within 30km of the south Australian state capital of Victoria.

Hanisa said she and her brother have donated some money to the Australian bushfire disaster relief fund while their Malaysian friends have contributed in kind such as providing food, water and clothing.

She added that a Malaysian NGO known as Kampung Utara Melbourne (KUM) has organised a charity donation drive for the bushfire victims, in collaboration with the local councils, Red Cross and St Vincent De Paul, that has been widely shared on the Malaysian WhatsApp Group in Australia.

The Kampung Utara Melbourne community collects food, drinks and toiletries to deliver to Gippsland Farmer Relief Inc that is affected by the ongoing bushfires in Australia. — Picture courtesy of Kampung Utara Melbourne

But not all Malaysians in Melbourne are as worried as Hanisa and have no immediate plans to evacuate.

A Malaysian professional who requested anonymity said that the current bushfires are not as bad as the Black Saturday bushfires that occurred in February 2009.

The 2009 fires resulted in the death of 173 people and 1.1 million acres burnt.

“The air quality right now is bad but it’s not as bad as in 2009. Back then, I was still studying and I couldn’t even open the window — the temperature was around 50°C and I could not even breath,” he told Malay Mail, relating that his air-conditioning unit broke down, forcing him to head to a nearby casino to escape the ominous heat then.

The married man and father of one said he will evacuate only if forced to as he is reluctant to leave Melbourne for long periods of time.

The engineer said he has made a life and career in Melbourne after leaving Malaysia in his teens to further his studies and said he is willing to stay and help if he has to.

So far, the 35-year-old said he has stocked up on food and water and donated both food and money to help Australian evacuees.

Leading Seaman Aircrewman Brendan Menz keeps watch as HMAS Choules’ MRH-90 Maritime Support Helicopter lands in a burnt-out field in southern New South Wales January 9, 2020. — Reuters pic

Sydney-based Mathuri Santhi-Morgan, who has been in Australia for 12 years, is similarly unfazed, as her home is quite far from the fire.

The mother of one blamed the fires on the government for not listening to 24 fire chiefs whom she said had warned the Australian authorities that they were not prepared to deal with the blaze.

“We were OK for the most part. Nearest fires were about 20km away but we had to cancel a trip to Canberra and had tickets to watch the NYE fireworks but that got cancelled too. We live on the north shore and there were massive bushfires in 1994 so we couldn’t rest easy really.

“We learnt the basics of what we needed to do but were fairly confident we would be OK — we had the added stress of having both sets of parents’ around so had a lot of people to consider generally a stressful time. To some extent it still is,” said Mathuri who is also the Sydney Bersih chair.

Unlike the other Malaysians interviewed, Mathuri said she has not stockpiled any food as she does not see the need to do so.

She said that Sydney is pretty much protected from the bushfires and the only possibility is in the blaze hitting the outskirts of the city.

However, just like the other Malaysians, Mathuri too said she has donated supplies and cash to help those in need.

Haze from bushfires obscures the sun setting above the Sydney Opera House in Sydney, Australia, December 6, 2019. — Reuters pic

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