Date: 2/19/2009

Associated Press Writer

WHITTLESEA, Australia (AP) — The electrician’s tools were incinerated, the trucker’s rig reduced to a useless, burned shell. The deadly wildfires that swept southern Australia destroyed more than lives — they destroyed livelihoods.

As the days since the Feb. 7 blazes wear on, the needs of the survivors grow more complex. Where basic tools of survival like water and food were once enough, residents of the devastated areas now need more: tools to rebuild their lives.

“My biggest point now is getting fathers back to work,” Marisa Pegoraro said Thursday from her chair inside a relief center she has frequented since she and her family narrowly escaped being burned alive in the inferno. “They have to feel like they’re looking after their families.”

As many as 7,500 people were left homeless by the fires that killed at least 208 people almost two weeks ago. These survivors are now living in tents, caravans, borrowed houses or with friends and family. They want to go home. Soon.

In the fire zone, the sound of chain saws felling scorched timber has replaced the rumble of fire trucks pumping water onto smoking ruins as emergency crews work to make the landscape safe for people to return.

The process of rebuilding lost homes is unlikely to begin for months and will take many years, but survivors want to feel that the process is moving forward and they need tools to help clear the rubble from their land and sift through the wreckage.

At Australia’s St. Vincent de Paul Society, a charity, requests are flooding in for wheelbarrows, generators and chain saws, spokeswoman Carol Taylor said.

“They’re going back into their communities,” Taylor said. “They’re wanting tools to clean up what’s left of their property.”

Charities in southern Victoria state have been inundated with donations from across the world since the worst wildfires this sun-blistered country has ever seen.

The disaster’s severity stunned Australia’s 21 million people, who sent more than 100 million Australian dollars ($64 million) to a government-backed Australian Red Cross fund in the first week, with the total still growing.

This week, the Salvation Army asked people to stop donating material goods, saying it has all it needs, though financial donations are still welcome.

Still, the donations pour in.

Dust rises into the sky as massive delivery trucks roll across the dry earth surrounding a relief center in Whittlesea, a donation hub for surrounding towns that were obliterated in the inferno. Warehouses, sporting fields and schools across the region are jammed with everything from jewelry and toiletries to cutlery and cars.

The Whittlesea relief center is piled high with boxes of food and crates of water, mountains of books and toys, stacks of linen and china. The most coveted item? Work boots.

“Initially, because the ground was still so hot and the ashes so deep in some places, they were just such a priority,” said volunteer Janine Morgan.

They are just as important now that families are getting down to the work of clearing the properties to start rebuilding.

Cleaning up the scraps is just one challenge. In tents at the relief center, the homeless can get counseling for grief and advice on how to lodge insurance claims. They can search a makeshift post office for their mail. Volunteer therapists offer massages and others a shampoo and blow-dry for dirty, dusty heads.

“In the first few days, everybody was quite shell-shocked and that’s started to wear off,” said Morgan, whose house was spared by a sudden wind change that pushed the flames away. “The reality sets in. It’s not pretty.”

Pegoraro, on one of what have become regular stops at the center, knows firsthand the sting of reality. The 47-year-old sits among the plastic tubs of donated clothes, her eyes welling with tears as she tells of her family’s narrow escape from death.

On that awful day, she and her husband covered their two children in wet blankets and hid them under a table in the garage as the flames roared through their home. They prayed. And then the house collapsed. Weak from smoke inhalation, the family fled outside and huddled in a paddock all night as the inferno raged around them.

In the aftermath, Pegoraro has not only sought help for her family but has also worked to help members of her razed town, Kinglake, get back on their feet.

One trucker who lost his rig in the blaze was going to have to wait six months until insurance paid for a new one, so she found a donor willing to lend him a replacement. She gathered tools so an electrician who lost everything could go back to work.

It is critical to get the displaced residents enough help to let them return to their properties, Pergoraro said. Children do not want to be relocated away from their friends, and adults need to stay close to their family and friends.

“We need to be here for each other,” she said. “And I think emotionally we need to be here for each other as well.”

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press.

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