Expat couple killed in Australia inferno

By Dan Goldberg, February 12, 2009
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Devastation: a firefighter  pauses amid attempts to battle the flames

Devastation: a firefighter pauses amid attempts to battle the flames

The deadliest bushfires in Australian history have claimed more than 180 lives, including at least two Jews, and razed at least six properties belonging to members of the community.

John and Jenny Barnett, originally from London, died trying to escape the inferno from their holiday home some 30km from Victoria.

John, an associate professor at the University of Melbourne, and Jenny, a researcher at the National Parks Association, were in their 60s and had no children.

Mr Barnett’s colleague, Frank Dunshea, said: “When neither John nor Jenny turned up at some appointments on Monday, people were seriously concerned. Their car was found in the driveway. They had apparently tried to flee.”

Fears were also rising this week for an unnamed Jewish man whose burnt-out car was discovered near the fire-ravaged area. The man, believed to be 90, owned a country house and had apparently driven there to check on it.

Ronnie Figdor, the director of Mizrachi, said: “Unfortunately, I am able to confirm the deaths of Jewish persons as part of the horrific death toll, yet we needed no such loss to feel a personal connection with our fellow Victorians.The loss of life is unprecedented. The loss of property is staggering.”

Bushfires destroyed more than 1,000 homes and left more than 5,000 people homeless, scorching an area more than twice the size of London.

At least six properties belonging to Jewish owners were destroyed, among them Gesher House, a rehab facility. Also destroyed was the Cumberland Resort & Villa Day Spa in Marysville, where a Passover retreat has been held for two decades.

Natalie Laurie, a former teacher at a Jewish school in Melbourne, lost her home. She said: “It looks like someone dropped a bomb on our road. It’s all gone. I’m feeling numb, exhausted and shell-shocked.”

Jewish Aid Australia, the community’s disaster fund, raised almost £70,000 within 48 hours.

The Rabbinical Council of Victoria and the Council of Orthodox Synagogues of Victoria were to hold a prayer service in Melbourne on Thursday night in memory of the victims.

Magen David Adom’s administrative officer, Taube Mrocki, said the community’s response had been overwhelming.

“We’ve asked for people to stop dropping off stuff until we can clear it all,” she said. “I remember when the fires hit on Ash Wednesday [in 1983] and that was really bad but this has been unbelievable; it’s much worse.”

Trucks of goods were sent from communities in Canberra, New South Wales and South Australia. In Sydney, Chabad-Lubavitch prepared food for emergency services personnel.

    Last updated: 1:04pm, February 12 2009