Despite overwhelming public generosity in response to South Australia’s deadly bushfires, scammers are seeking to exploit the unfolding tragedy.
According to South Australia Police, fire victims have reported receiving phone calls claiming to be from banks looking to pass on disaster relief funds.
The fraudulent callers have asked for the victims’ bank details, and have also targeted members of the public outside the bushfire regions.
It follows anecdotal reports of looting in bushfire zones, and police have urged anyone contacted by scammers to notify them.
“There have been people in the Adelaide Hills targeted by scams,” said Senior Constable Mick Abbott.
“With the fires widely reported in the media, sadly there are people out there – not necessarily from South Australia, or even Australia – randomly ringing people in the fire zone area.
“If you do get a call supposedly from your bank regarding disaster relief funds and wanting your bank details, don’t give your details over the phone, give us a call and call Scamwatch.
“They can sound quite sincere. You’re very vulnerable and you’re probably not thinking straight, you’re thinking someone’s just out there to help you – it’d be your worst nightmare.”
The Country Fire Service is warning the danger from the devastating Cudlee Creek fire in the Adelaide Hills has not yet passed, and that flare-ups are continuing.
The fire remains at watch and act level, and a spot fire that broke out yesterday destroyed a house and came close to another, in addition to the more than 80 houses confirmed to have been lost so far.
On Monday, the SA government announced it had activated the State Emergency Relief Fund to coordinate monetary donations from the public.
“There are still fires which are under way in South Australia. They’re not controlled. But we are also turning our mind to the disaster recovery,” Premier Steven Marshall said.
“As people would be aware, the disaster relief centres have been established at the moment. We have two operational in South Australia, the emergency payments are underway.”
As we come to terms with the scale of destruction of the Cudlee Creek fires, we're acting quickly to ensure support is available.
On top of the emergency grants & Local Recovery Coordinator announced earlier, we've established the Cudlee Creek Fire Appeal to help people in need. pic.twitter.com/azevNpWlMA
— Steven Marshall, MP (@marshall_steven) December 23, 2019
Relief centres have been inundated with donations of goods from the public.
“We’ve never seen anything like this … a non-stop parade of folks donating all manner of things for an hour-and-a-half,” Blackwood CFS said on Facebook.
“If anyone doubts our community spirit – show them this. This community is amazing.”
A community event in Nairne on Tuesday provided families who have lost everything with bare necessities donated by the public.
“We have had toiletries, pantry items, clothes, bedding, linen, animal items,” organiser Michelle Leverington said.
“We even had a man – he called me yesterday and said he has a caravan he wants to give to somebody if that person wants to raise their hand.”
Local supermarket chain Foodland is also offering $500 gift cards to families who have lost homes.
“While $500 is not enough to bring back a home, we hope it can make Christmas a little bit more merry,” the retailer said.
Fires inflict physical and mental toll
The Cudlee Creek fire has claimed the life of Charleston man Ron Selth, 69, while others – including local racing identity John Glatz, who suffered burns to 60 per cent of his body – were severely injured.
“Our thoughts and our prayers are with our much loved committee member, John Glatz and his family,” Oakbank Racing Club chairperson Arabella Branson said on Monday.
“John’s health is a private family matter … we are in contact with John’s family, however, we are conscious of the need for their privacy at this stressful time.”
SA Health on Monday issued a public health warning about the impact of smoke on surrounding areas, including Adelaide’s CBD.
But it has also highlighted the mental health impact of the bushfires, saying it is normal for people to experience psychological distress.
Chief psychiatrist John Brayley said survivors could experience a range of emotional and physical responses, including anxiety, intrusive thoughts, fatigue, headaches and nausea.
“We know the people who stay connected and are with their supports – family and friends – will do better and if somebody does appear to be withdrawing reaching out to talk to them is important,” he said.
‘Absolute miracle’ more lives weren’t lost
Some Adelaide Hills residents could be without power for Christmas day, with SA Power Networks saying it could not guarantee every household would have electricity restored by by Wednesday.
Spokesman Paul Roberts said crews had to cut short restorative work within the Adelaide Hills on Monday and evacuate amid flare-ups from the fire.
“For the people to have power in Cudlee Creek by Christmas will depend on what the fire does today (Tuesday) and what access we have,” he said.
“I’d say there’ll probably be some that won’t, but we’ll be in direct contact with customers as we move through the area and make repairs.”
Fire flare ups at #MtTorrens & #Gumeracha forced the evacuation of crews today, slowing progress. We are pouring resources into the area, however due to the damage, we cannot guarantee supply will be restored to some areas by COB Tuesday. Outage info 👉 https://t.co/dvCko4GcKB https://t.co/dUJiEUJDte
— SA Power Networks (@SAPowerNetworks) December 23, 2019
About 170 firefighters remain on the fireground and crews are bracing for more hot weather, with a top of 42 degrees forecast for Adelaide on Sunday.
“It is an absolute miracle that there haven’t been more lives lost with this tragedy,” the Premier said.
“We’ve seen the fires in NSW and Queensland go for weeks and weeks and weeks. What we had was very different – a catastrophic day.
“We’re very concerned for the longer range forecast, which is showing we are heading towards more difficult days at the end of this year.”