North

N.W.T. community rallies around Australian teacher in wake of wildfires

An Australian man living in Fort McPherson, N.W.T., says he's been left 'blown away' from the support of northerners while he waits to hear the fate of the homes of his family and friends being evacuated during a historic wildfire season, half a world away.

Fort McPherson planning to fundraise for Australian wildfire relief efforts in support of local teacher

Richard Marlow, an Australian teacher volunteering in Fort McPherson, poses outside in his Richmond Tigers jersey. Marlow has been living in the N.W.T. community as Australia experiences its worst wildfire season on record, waiting for updates from his family and friends. (Submitted by Richard Marlow)

An Australian man living in Fort McPherson, N.W.T., says he's been left "blown away" from the support of northerners while he waits to hear the fate of the homes of his family and friends being evacuated during a historic wildfire season, half a world away.

Richard Marlow has been in Fort McPherson — a Gwich'in community with a population of about 700 — for about six months, working as a "beaver" — a teacher volunteer who helps facilitate distance learning for the community's students. Since arriving in late August, he says, he's been checking his phone, and seeing a new fire "almost every day."

"It's unprecedented," he said. 

Though Marlow is from Queensland, one of Australia's less-impacted areas, his parents live in the village of Exeter, in New South Wales, where fires continue to rage. Last weekend, Marlow says, they were evacuated from their home, and then moved a second time as fires sped up the coast.

"They had no idea until they were taken back if their house had survived," he said. "And the fire had literally stopped 200 to 400 metres from their house ... over a hundred fire trucks literally down the road, saving their little village, covered in ash and embers. Just terrifying."

Fire brigade volunteers trying to tackle the fire in Kurrajong Heights, New South Wales. The wildfire season in Australia is the worst on record, leaving residents fearing for their homes and millions of hectares of land devastated. (Ingleside Rural Fire Brigade/The Associated Press)

Marlow's parents were allowed to return to their home, but not for long; they're expecting to be evacuated again this weekend as temperatures and winds turn unfavourable.

He says that they're spending their time preparing their home, putting sprinklers on the roof and clearing brush, "and then they'll just wait again and see if their house survives or not."

'People have been unbelievably supportive'

Being so far away from home has left Marlow feeling isolated and "pretty powerless to do anything," he admitted, but said that the support from across the North has "absolutely blown [him] away."

Marlow says that he's heard from friends and acquaintances from across the territory and in Fort McPherson, where the community has rallied to his side. 

"Even Chief Wanda [Pascal] came to where I was the other day, gave me a hug with tears in her eyes, and said 'hey, how can we help?'" He said. 

That offer has led to Fort McPherson organizing a fundraising lunch to support firefighting efforts in Australia. It'll be held on Monday at noon at the community's band office. 

Marlow poses with e-learning instructors in Inuvik joining him over video chat. Marlow is helping facilitate distance learning for Fort McPherson students. He says he's heard from friends from across the territory since the wildfire season began. (Submitted by Richard Marlow)

Marlow suggested that those looking to contribute give donations to the Australian Red Cross, who is coordinating relief efforts. 

"People [from the North] have been unbelievably supportive," he said.

"Canada and Australia have a lot in common. And I just love that they can relate to me. We're in this together."

Marlow, who teaches science back in Australia, says that for his part, he's aiming to be a "global advocate for looking after our planet.

"No matter what you think about what caused it ... listen to the wisdom of those around us, who have been there before. And just be thankful that people get in harm's way, so that others will benefit."

Based on an interview by Loren McGinnis, produced by Peter Sheldon

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