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Locals rally around Australia as wildfires rage

As wildfires have killed at least 24 people, destroyed more than 1,400 homes and ravaged 15 million acres, they have also inflicted a grievous toll on Australia’s renowned wildlife. It is estimated more than half a million animals have died.
As wildfires have killed at least 24 people, destroyed more than 1,400 homes and ravaged 15 million acres, they have also inflicted a grievous toll on Australia’s renowned wildlife. It is estimated more than half a million animals have died.NYT

The images from Australia broke Adele Ohki’s heart: burnt orange skies and animals fleeing runaway wildfires. Ohki was so overwhelmed by the scenes of her home country engulfed in flames that she felt compelled to act.

Ohki, who lives in Arlington, came across the Animal Rescue Craft Guild, an international organization requesting donations of handmade pouches and blankets for animals orphaned and displaced by the fires. Hand-sewn items include kangaroo pouches, snake nests, and bat wraps to donate to Australian animal groups such as the Rescue Collective.

“I am not an activist. This is a huge first for me,’’ said Ohki, a native of the Australian capital, Canberra, who works as a violin and viola instructor at the Conservatory Lab Charter School in Boston. “I just couldn’t sit back and not do anything.”

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Ohki is among the many New Englanders inspired to help Australia as devastating fires sweep through large swaths of the country. At least 25 people have died, millions of acres of land have burned, and an estimated billion animals have perished.

Sam Jackson, an Australia native who moved to Boston 12 years ago, was similarly moved by harrowing accounts of the fires inching closer to his friends and family. Jackson runs KO Catering and Pies, an Australian-inspired restaurant in East Boston.

“At first, the overwhelming feeling of sadness and shock made me feel helpless and in many ways useless,’’ Jackson said. “However, I knew that sitting around doing nothing and feeling sorry wasn’t going to help.’’

That’s when he realized that, with his connections to the local restaurant scene, “there was a platform for us to DO something.”

Jackson asked restaurateurs and chefs if they would be interested in supporting Australia from Boston. Overnight, “Boston Barbie for Bushfire Support” was born.

“The community support in Boston is so remarkable,” Jackson said. “I’m so thankful for people’s generosity and the least I can do is offer an outlet to be generous.”

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Jackson believes that barbies, Australian slang for a barbecue, are more about community and connections than food. Proceeds will benefit the Australian Red Cross, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, the World Wildlife Fund, Australian Wildlife Rescue Organisation, the New South Wales Rural Fire Service, and others.

“We want to show the people of Australia that they have so much love and support all the way over here,” he said.

The barbie will be held Jan. 28 at Capo Restaurant and Supper Club in South Boston. A raffle and silent auction are planned.

More than 20 local restaurateurs and chefs are participating, including John Ross from The Oyster Bar at Encore Boston Harbor casino, Ming Tsai from Blue Dragon, and Nathan Gould from O Ya. Tickets are available on Eventbrite.

“We have been just absolutely blown away by the outpouring of support from local people looking for ways to help,’’ Jackson said. “Our greatest power is our strength in numbers.”

Jackson remains hopeful that professional sports teams such as the Red Sox and Celtics will also contribute, ideally through matching donations.

For Ohki, bats didn’t cross her mind before the wildfires. But she quickly realized their vital role in re-pollinating land and allowing new foliage to grow.

Hand-sewn items such as bat wraps allow the animals to nestle securely and keep warm.

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“We can make those wraps. We can fill those pouches. We can do that here,’’ Ohki said. “We don’t have to do that in Australia.”

After joining the Animal Rescue Craft Guild as an organizer, Ohki quickly posted requests for crocheted items to her local community groups and forums. She then linked up with other concerned people on Facebook and American Rescue Crafters Connect, an online group working with the craft guild.

Danielle Letourneau, a Canadian who works on the Lewiston campus of the University of Southern Maine, was also drawn to the online crochet movement to send relief for Australian animals. On Saturday, she became the 10th member of American Rescue Crafters Connect. By Tuesday afternoon, the group had swelled to more than 30,000 members.

While she acknowledges the value of monetary donations, Letourneau also emphasizes the importance of fiber arts.

“Those of us who don’t have a heck of a lot of funds but have a heck of a lot of fabric or yarn . . . this is something we can do,” she said. “This is a call for help for handmade items, especially crochet, that can only be done by hand.”


Stefania Lugli can be reached at stefania.lugli@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @steflugli. Meghan Sorensen can be reached at meghan.sorensen@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @sorensenmeghan.