School communities under fire

Remaining calm in the classroom has been key and trying to engage the students in meaningful learning experiences. Explaining our sky was orange a few weeks ago had a scientific explanation helped comfort students.

Suzanne Penson, IEUA NSW/ACT General Executive Member, has been in touch with IEU members in the Lismore area who have had to cope with major bushfires.

Bushfires began on 26 October near Crestwood, Port Macquarie. Cath Eichmann started her first day as principal of MacKillop College the following Monday. By Tuesday she informed us that Year 8 camp and Year 11 retreat were cancelled due to the bushfire risk and safety concerns. The school was closed for two days the following week.

On 8 November the sky turned red. Karen Bale from St Joseph’s Regional College said “It was like Armageddon” as she was driving home from PD at Coffs Harbour.

Day went to night at around 3pm, street lights were on and the air was filled with thick black smoke. Helicopters buzzed overhead every two minutes to water bomb the fires near Lake Cathie and Innes Lake. Residents were told to prepare to evacuate. 350 koalas and their habitat perished.

St Joseph’s Regional College, Port Macquarie closed for five days as they were in the centre of the emergency fire zone.Lismore CSO staff felt very well supported during this time.

Samantha Adams is a music teacher at MacKillop College. This is Sam’s experience of bushfire. “I frantically packed our essential documents and a few overnight things just in case. The boys’ daycare centre was surrounded by fire and closed for almost a week. With a return of fire warnings, power outages and daycare/school closures it really has been a testing term”.

Remaining calm in the classroom has been key and trying to engage the students in meaningful learning experiences to keep their minds off the outside environments. Explaining that the reason our sky was orange a few weeks ago had a scientific explanation, similar to that of how we see rainbows when it’s raining and sunny helped comfort students. Combined with the humour of suggesting we were living in an instagram filter helped to get us through that day”

Emma Daley is an RE teacher at MacKillop. “The fires towards Pappinbarra – watch and alert to see if they would continue this way. Spending a couple of nights checking for spot fires and any signs of fires was exhausting. We have been most fortunate, although the fire is slowly still spreading towards us.”

Catriona Martin, Leader of English St Paul’s High School Kempsey said.

“On 8 November, the sky turned bright yellow, the colour of cellophane. It was the most eerie feeling and when my husband rang to say I needed to get home straight away at 2.30pm I knew it was bad.

“We’re sandwiched between the Kian Road fire and East Carrai fire which is huge. We are living in a state of heightened awareness; watching the sky, listening for choppers, watching for embers, filling gutters and checking Fires Near Me, an app I barely knew existed a week or so ago.

“We have evacuated overnight once, which was the most gut wrenching feeling and I now have an evacuation suitcase permanently in my car and the box of photo albums stationed at the carport door.

“Our school has been closed three days in the past week due to the threat of bushfires and the smoke pollution, this has meant students haven’t been able to attend excursions or sporting events and the Year 12 Graduation has been postponed. Two Year 12 students who sat the Chemistry exam on Monday had been evacuated and one of them had spent the weekend prior fighting bushfires near his home up river.

“Others I work with have had it much worse than me with damage to their properties, lost stock due to burnt fences and no power or water and barely any phone reception for the past week.

Jodene Barnett of St Paul's Kempsey recounting her experience: “34 degrees, hot westerly wind blowing ash and charred leaves through the grounds and orange smoke filled the air with a sense of panic. Many of the town folk were dressed in their finery, sipping chilled champagne awaiting the late afternoon running of The Kempsey Cup blissfully unaware of the danger that lay ahead. Within a few short hours many properties, homes and lives were destroyed as the inferno raged through the Bellbrook and Willawarrin area.

“We were all feeling it. One of the last conversations I had was with a kid that lives in the Main Street of Willawarrin. I didn’t find out until Thursday that he and his family had successfully defended their home from the fire.”

On 15 November Port Macquarie had the worst air quality in the world. The air quality index for Port Macquarie was 3807, New Delhi 817, Beijing 192 and Sydney 57.

The Environment Department warned residents to stay indoors. At lunchtime schools were advised to evacuate. Residents are vigilant as the bushfire season has just begun and the current situation could change at any time.

TMB and Teachers Health are offering support during these difficult times. See

Photos courtesy of Jodene Barnett, Emma Daley and Suzanne Penson