Australia’s current bushfire crisis is of a level difficult to comprehend. For those on the frontline, their experiences are unfathomable. For me, and many others, it’s been an anxious ten plus days of phone calls, checking online updates, extending assistance to fire effected family, friends and random evacuees. It has revived visceral memories of previous wildfire catastrophes, and amplified frustration and anger at our government’s lack of commitment and action to combat climate change and its devastating effects.
Bush (or wild) fires have always been a part of our landscape and history. But compared to what we face right now, they were small.
One of my earlier childhood memories is Ash Wednesday. Bushfires ravaged South Australia and southern Victoria destroying homes, school buses full of children, livestock, livelihoods and entire communities. Our family home and farm were in the firing line, and while spot fires hit the property igniting small fires, somehow, miraculously, the wind changed as the fire front hit our boundary and burnt it back on itself.
Barely four years old, I still so vividly recall the events of that fateful afternoon and evening, 16 February 1983. It is the smell, the pink ashen sky that turned black way before night was due. The hot dry blistering winds, the eeriness in the air and an uncertainty so unfamiliar that a sense of panic (amongst the adults) was almost absent.
These triggers appear to punctuate all our catastrophic fire days, though now in an intensifying manner. This time, not only have sunsets and visibility been thwarted across communities ravaged and threatened by the ferocious fires, but the fire blackened skies continued to forego a sunrise. In the following days smoky, glowing orange skies become the norm. What used to be maybe a 12-24hour period of catastrophic fire conditions has morphed to over a week, over two, and the ‘fire season’ has barely began for the southern part of the country.
Fire patterns have changed, and they’re continuing to change – arguably in an alarming manner and rate. There is no argument that fire isn’t part of our past, but there is no mistaking that perfect firestorm conditions are not more frequent. The dryness is increasing, extreme heat and winds are more frequent, safe burning off periods are shrinking, and the state of bushfire emergency event has grown from a day (Black Friday 1939; Ash Wednesday 1983) to roughly 48 hours Black Saturday 2009, to the current 2019/20 crisis across the states of NSW, Victoria and South Australia has exceeded a week(s).
And as I write, conditions across SA, northeast Vic and southern NSW have soared back to extreme… Nervously, I am simultaneously monitoring online updates as the homes and livelihoods of more family and friends sit like waiting ducks in the firing line of two of largest fires, these fire-fronts predicted to merge across our alpine region. Temperatures of 40C + and unpredictable winds of up to 90km/h are set to sweep through a range of fire zones, which could dramatically expand the size, nature and direction of the fire front. That’s when things could kick off yet again.
The scale and impact of Australia’s current national bushfire crisis is immense. Nearly 10 million hectares of land across NSW, Victoria and NSW have already burnt – 5 million of that in NSW alone. Thousands of homes have been destroyed, at least 26 people killed, tens of thousands of people evacuated, and countless species pushed towards extinction. The extent of wildlife, livestock, farmland and livelihoods severely impacted is yet to evolve/ be accounted. One can only begin to imagine and embrace for the extent.
Smoke plumes pose a significant health threat to even those living miles away – as the winds are carrying heavily polluted air into Sydney, Canberra, Melbourne and as far as New Zealand. (Last Friday, Canberra’s air quality index measured 5,185 which is more than 20 times the level that is considered hazardous.) Ironically enough, one friend sent through smoky, low visibility footage and declared happy to be evacuating, as another one who’d been reporting on the frontline of NSW south coast fires for our national news broadcaster posted a message of how relieved she was to be back in Canberra with its (comparatively) cleaner air!
I’m currently working in Tasmania – the small island state across the sea strait below Victoria – and have woken a number of mornings to what we call a bushfire moon (glowing orange) and the air thick with smoke from the mainland fires. Previous trips to Delhi during winter have had me gasp at the extent of pollution and (lack of) air quality; Delhi smog and pollution now pale by comparison.
Bushfire smoke contains poisonous gases such as monoxide and fine particles known as PM2.5 which pass through the lungs and can harm virtually every organ in the human body. These carcinogens not only pollute the immediate air across our cities and countryside, but will impact our food supply chain for weeks, months and years. Not to mention the bushfire impact from loss of rural livelihood assets and supply chain infrastructure.
Across the globe 2019 was the second hottest year on record, and warmest without an El Nino event.
Australia was no exception, and our six hottest days on record were all recorded in December 2019 with the lowest average rainfall across the country that month also recorded. The average maximum temperature across the country was 40C on 11 days of the month, smashing the previous annual record of seven, set in 2018. Only four days between 1910 and 2017 averaged more than 40C – two in 1972 and two in 2013. The Australian Bureau of Meteorology says there is also very clear evidence that rainfall in south western Australia and parts of south east of the country has decreased.
Just two nights before Christmas I sat nervously into the night with a close friend who’s only weeks away from expecting their second child, while the father and her husband fought to bring the Plenty Gorge fire in Melbourne’s suburbia under control. As a firefighter, his day shift morphed into a double night shift. While historically associated with rural areas, in the last couple of decades bushfires have crept disastrously into urban pockets or outskirts of our cities; Canberra, Sydney (Blue Mountains) and Melbourne – the latter being 2009 Black Saturday fires which took 178 lives, not to mention the non-fatal injuries and suicides that followed. Thankfully my friend’s husband returned safely – we celebrated by cracking into the cardamom and salted pistachio caramel I’d made for Christmas! The angst escapes few, if any, of our entire population.
I am just one amongst many Australians and my story is not too different to many. My brother in law is managing the Falls Creek alpine area evacuation and emergency response while his home remains in the firing line, his family evacuated. Friends from the north east Victoria (where the fire fronts from both NWS and Victoria are entering) have taken refuge in my Melbourne home while I’m travelling interstate. Yesterday, I witnessed further bushfires close up in Tasmania as I drove south toward Hobart. Still burning out of control with helicopter and fire engine crew working tirelessly this ‘smaller’ fire in the Fingal area, like many, doesn’t even make the news or media now.
Currently we are in the emergency response phase, it is the months to come that will really hurt and the devastation be told. Rural livelihoods gone, our agriculture and food chains massively disrupted, suicide escalates…..I’ve seen it before, although not to this extent.
My sister’s family were burnt out in the Black Saturday fires and their community of Marysville flattened. It took years to rebuild the first houses and a decade to see a village remerge, the skeletons of tall Mountain Ash (eucalyptus trees) remain a constant reminder 11 years on. Two years ago, my cousins’ home and their town on the coast were destroyed in a fire that swept through the surrounding bush and countryside. Gradually the town is physically rebuilding, but at this stage many vacant land blocks and black debris remain. My childhood and parents’ home was again surrounded by fire 20 months ago, and somehow, again miraculously, the fire was contained on the neighbouring property. Many of the neighbouring farms and community members weren’t so lucky.
In all of these events, there has been no denying the human spirit – these communities have shown it in bucket loads.
Right now, I don’t know what the next hour or twelve hold for our fire threatened communities, but I do know I need to grab every moment of reprieve I can. Rather than the current emergency response phase, my role will be an intense one supporting and rebuilding our rural communities in the months and years to come.