WEST TOWN — A group of Australian Americans living in Chicago are teaming up against the destruction of bushfires ravaging their homeland — and they need help.
The Aussies are hosting a fundraiser 6-11 p.m. Feb. 13 at TipsySpace, 1223 W. Grand Ave.
A $50 ticket covers food, an open bar, live entertainment and participation in a silent auction.
Proceeds will benefit BlazeAid, a volunteer organization that rebuilds fences and other structures in rural Australia after natural disasters.
Those who cannot attend the fundraiser can make donations here.
Chicago is home to a large community of Australian Americans, said fundraiser co-organizer Karla Cutting.
“There is a community here that is very passionate and who are Australians, and hopefully we’re going to be able to generate interest from many non-Australians,” she said.
Since September, the record-breaking bushfires have destroyed at least 26.4 million acres of bush, forest and parks, The Guardian reported.
More than 1 billion animals, including koalas and kangaroos, have died, CBS reported.
At least 26 people are dead, three of whom were volunteer firefighters, BBC reported.
While Cutting herself is not Australian, her husband Andy Cutting — a Skokie firefighter — grew up in the rural town of Riddells Creek in the state of Victoria.
At the age of 15, Cutting volunteered to help fight the country’s infamous “Ash Wednesday” fires in 1983.
While that bout of fires affected densely populated urban areas and left more people dead, today’s fires threaten to destroy more land and wildlife, he said.
“The fires right now are, in size, unprecedented,” he said. “We haven’t had anything like this before. … The environmental, ecological impact is horrendous.”
The vast majority of firefighters across the continent are actually volunteers, Cutting said.
While major cities like Melbourne and Sydney have their own fire departments, rural areas rely on volunteers who use state-funded trucks and equipment.
“These [volunteers] have given up their daytime jobs to go out and volunteer,” he said. “[They’ve been] doing it for weeks, months now. They’re exhausted. … You can easily go three, four, five days without sleep.”
About once a decade Australia experiences a serious bout of bushfires, Cutting said.
Bushfires are more likely when a dry winter season follows a lush summer; a large volume of dried-out vegetation is easy kindling.
The fires are often set by lighting strikes, but sometimes unattended camp fires or arsonists are responsible.
Because January and February are the driest summer months of the year — America’s summer is Australia’s winter — Cutting said he fears even more destruction is imminent.
That’s why he hopes Chicagoans feel compelled to attend next month’s event or donate to the cause.
“The thing about Australians is we’ve got a good spirit, we have a sense of humor,” he said. “We make the best of bad situations.”
Cherie Jackson, one of the West Town fundraiser’s co-organizers, grew up on her family’s dairy farm near Nanango, in the Queensland state.
She fondly remembered the “idyllic life” of her uncles’ cows on the pasture. This week, her social news feed was full of “horrifying pictures.”
They have “lost absolutely everything,” she said. “The mental health toll, the financial devastation, the loss of their land, their incomes, their day-to-day lives is immeasurable and that is why we feel compelled to help.”
Naomi Levine, an Australian American baker and the owner of TipsySpace, grew up in New South Wales — the state hit worst by the fires.
As of Tuesday, more than 1,300 houses in New South Wales have been destroyed by fires, BBC reported.
A thick layer of smog covers the area where Levine’s family lives. Levine’s father, who is on oxygen, has been trapped inside his home for six weeks.
“I am so stressed about these fires,” she said. “My dying father cannot go outside to breathe. … Every Aussie will suffer from the smoke smog.”
During the month of February, Levine said, TipsySpace will donate 10 percent of sales to a koala hospital in her hometown.
Like Levine, fundraiser co-organizer Kelly Page hails from New South Wales. She returned to Chicago on Monday after a three-week trip back home.
At this point, she said, her hometown of Braidwood is “totally cut off” from nearby towns.
Her uncle is helping fight the fires with the local fire brigade, which has received assistance from the United States, she said.
“Australia has supported the U.S. in every major military conflict, so to have the U.S. support us and send firefighters on the ground and help fundraise is a beautiful example of our relationship,” Page said.
In Chicago, Jackson said, Australians have felt “incredible love” from their American friends.
“This fundraising effort has arisen because we need something positive to channel our grief into,” she said. “As an expat community, we really do come together at times like this.”
Cutting, the firefighter, said he hoped people continue to donate — even after the Feb. 13 fundraiser.
“People need money, that’s what it comes down to,” he said. “They gotta rebuild their lives. I don’t want this to be a flavor of the month thing. … The help needs to keep going for a long time. It needs to continue for months and months and years.”
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