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Houses, memories gone in 'blink of an eye': Fires spark worry for Australian expat in Winnipeg

As wildfires continue to spread across her home country, an Australian now living in Winnipeg — and a former Winnipegger living in Melbourne — both say the psychological effects of the blaze are getting worse.

'It's this real sense of danger,' says a former Winnipegger now living in Melbourne

A property burns in Balmoral, 150 kilometres southwest of Sydney, on Dec. 19. This wildfire season has been deemed the worst in Australia's history. (Peter Parks/AFP/Getty Images)

As the wildfires spreading across Australia inch closer to her hometown, Phoebie Peters is doing her part to help — one koala at a time.

The apprentice tattoo artist at Rising Phoenix Body Art on Winnipeg's Sherbrook Street created a slate of six designs she's offering for $50 a piece — koalas, wombats and kangaroos — with half the proceeds going to an Australian organization working with animals affected by the fires.

"I really wish I'd be able to do more," said Peters, who is from Maryborough, Queensland, and has lived in Winnipeg for the past 15 years. 

Since unveiling the new designs at the end of November, Peters said she's raised about $600 for the New South Wales Wildlife Information, Rescue and Education Service — and she's hoping to get that number up to $1,000.

She said she knows the toll the fires are taking on her friends and family back home, and on other Australians living abroad.

"There's a lot of Australians here in Winnipeg that are absolutely devastated," she said. 

"Houses are gone. Memories are gone. And it's [happened in] a blink of an eye."

Phoebie Peters tattoos a client at Rising Phoenix Body Art on Sherbrook Street. (Submitted by Phoebie Peters)

This wildfire season has been deemed the worst in the country's history. Authorities say so far, about five million hectares of land have burned. At least 17 people have died and more than 1,400 homes have been destroyed.

Peters hasn't lived in Australia for years — but the smell of the wildfires that plague the country every summer is something she's never been able to forget.

"I have a very fond memory of being with my family, eating dinner, and just the smell of it sweeping through your home," she said.

"And it ruins that memory, because it just makes you sick to your stomach. Masks don't help. You can't breathe."

'Sense of danger'

One Winnipegger who has been living in Australia for the past decade said the fires are getting worse — and for locals, so is the anxiety they bring.

"It's this real sense of danger, of not being able to protect your land or your family," said Duncan Rhoda, who works as a psychiatrist at the Royal Children's Hospital in Melbourne.

"Lots of people could've been trapped in their homes [and] actually wouldn't have known that they were going to survive."

It's a sense of fear Rhoda said he learned about quickly. A month after he arrived in Victoria in 2009, the Black Saturday bushfires — which were among the country's worst — broke out across the Australian state.

"I had some roommates that were sort of really worried about their families and how their homes would be affected by those fires. But I just didn't really grasp the magnitude of it," he said. 

"Being here now a decade, you can see that people have had this experience almost every summer … and you can see that the magnitudes are getting worse and worse, as well."

Wildlife Information, Rescue and Education Services (WIRES) volunteer Tracy Burgess holds a severely burnt brushtail possum rescued from fires near Australia’s Blue Mountains in a Dec. 29 photo. Peters is hoping to raise $1,000 for the rescue organization. (Jill Gralow/Reuters)

Rhoda said while he was working as a psychiatrist for adults before taking his current job, he often saw people living with trauma after experiencing the country's wildfires.

"I've worked at times in the northern suburbs where they were most affected, and there — even 10 years, nine years onwards — you still see people that it's in their history," he said. "It came so close to either them or their family passing away."

Rhoda said where he lives in Melbourne, he's relatively safe from the fires — but residents still sometimes see smoke from as far away as the area around Sydney, more than 700 kilometres away, clouding the skyline.

"There's definitely been a few days where you can just smell it in the air," he said.

For Rhoda, the smoke on the Australian horizon is a reminder that the blazes won't be put out any time soon.

And for Peters, it's a reminder to keep doing what she can to help people back home.

"We plan on doing this until Australia is no longer burning," she said.

The first tattoo inked as part of Phoebie Peters's mission to raise money for animals affected by the Australian wildfires. (Rising Phoenix Body Art/Facebook)

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