Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd pledged yesterday that the wildfire-scarred nation would rise from the “ashes of despair,” as the blazes that killed more than 200 people threatened to flare again.
Joined by Britain’s Princess Anne, Rudd led a national day of mourning in leading a memorial ceremony at Rod Laver Arena to honor those killed in the Feb. 7 disaster.
“We rise together in hope from the ashes of despair,” Rudd told the ceremony as the Southern Cross constellation featured on the Australian flag was beamed onto the closed roof of the stadium in Melbourne.
Rudd expressed sympathy for “unspeakable suffering” endured in the bush fires, but said Australia was there to support devastated communities, some virtually wiped out by the intensity of the flames.
The prime minister pledged “a solemn contract with each of these communities to rebuild: brick by brick, home by home, school by school, church by church, street by street, community by community.”
“You who suffer are not alone,” he said at the ceremony, pledging Australia would fly flags at half-mast every Feb. 7 to remember the victims of “Black Saturday.”
“This great Australian family here assembled and across the nation today is with you,” he said.
The memorial coincided with a fresh warning from firefighters that the crisis was not yet over, with more than two dozen communities east of Melbourne warned to be on high alert amid extreme fire conditions.
Victoria’s Country Fire Authority (CFA) warned that residents wishing to flee should do so either yesterday evening or this morning — and in no circumstances attempt a last-minute dash to safety in their cars.
Thousands of volunteer firefighters are still battling the blazes that have burned out 450,000 hectares.
They were represented at the memorial service, standing in orange overalls alongside bishops at a ceremony that was televised across the country.
Victoria Premier John Brumby said many people were still picking up the pieces after the firestorms killed at least 209 people and destroyed 1,800 homes, “tearing at the very heart of communities.”
“Monstrous fires ... swept across our state, fires that turned day into night, that consumed all before them in an inferno of wind and smoke and flames,” Brumby said. “These fires have united all in grief.”