Australia is on Fire

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This screenshot comes from the WA government’s My Fire Watch site. The BBC notes some problems with it. It is, however, a good rough guide to the extent of the fires. For scale Australia is roughly the same size as the USA (minus Hawaii and Alaska).

The front pages of newspapers worldwide are showing the catastrophic fires burning in Australia. I’ve been getting texts and emails and pings from friends overseas, wondering if I’m okay.1

I’m okay. So’s Scott.

Where we live in Sydney is a long way from the fires.2 The air here is worse than it’s ever been, but it’s not as bad as it was at it’s worst in Canberra.3 No one I know has died or lost their home. (Though friends with asthma and other respiratory diseases are having a pretty rough time.)

We’re keeping plenty of clean water on our deck for the parched birdlife to drink and bathe in. At night we’ve been getting exhausted flying foxes resting in our tiny gum trees. It feels good to do something other than just donating money to this GoFundMe for First Nations communities affected by the fire as well as wildlife rescue and the Rural Fire Service.4

I’m not okay.

Nothing scares me more than bushfires.

When I was a kid, we drove from Sydney to Newcastle through a bushfire. We must have been the last ones to get through before they closed the old Pacific Highway. I don’t remember any cars behind us or in front.

I was riding shotgun. My little sister had her head buried in Mum’s lap in the backseat. The smoke built up gradually, slowly hiding the trees. Then out of nowhere flames leapt the road, the smoke became so thick we could barely see. I remember the white lines in the middle of the road and orange coloured smoke.

My dad drove on the white line in the middle of the road, leaning forward, clutching the steering wheel. We passed only one car, on the side of the road, its wheels burning. I couldn’t see if anyone was inside. None of us spoke.

When we finally got through, what felt like hours later, I burst into tears, my sister cheered, my mum laughed and Dad swore. As we drove away cars passed us heading into the fire. I kept screaming at them between sobs to turn around.

I’ve never forgotten. For weeks I had nightmares of running on a never ending road through fire, of people and cars burning, of the whole world burning. Now my nightmares are on our screens daily. Across the entire country. Every state. Every territory.

It’s estimated that half a billion wildlife have been killed.That’s just for my state of New South Wales. It’s likely that some endangered species may now be extinct.

Half a billion.

I keep staring at that number and not comprehending. But I can imagine individual creatures burning. Kangaroos and koalas in flames. I’ve seen the photos. I’ve driven through those flames.

Millions of hectares have burned. People are dead. Homes reduced to ashes. On a terrifying number of days we haven’t been able to go outside without a P2 mask. On the days that are only supposed to be tough for folks who are particularly sensitive, our eyes sting, our noses run, our skin itches.5 It’s draining, sapping away the few spoons I have. Now imagine what it’s like for the elderly, for babies with their tiny new lungs, for those with respiratory illnesses.

Fires have burned out of control in every state. The worst in my home state of NSW, Victoria and South Australia. (The devastation of Kangaroo island is hard to comprehend.) Our fire season started in September. The year before, the fires started in August, but weren’t anywhere near as bad as this bushfire season.

Me on our deck this morning wearing a P2 mask. Normally you can see the city skyline clearly. But not on this over 200 AQI day.

We can’t breathe. Here in Sydney we’ve had our AQI (air quality index) up into the 200s, the unhealthy range, which means you shouldn’t go outside without a mask. Melbourne’s been in the unhealthy range for the last few days. A good AQI is from 0 to 50. In Canberra and surrounding areas, it reached beyond the index, into the thousands, giving Canberra the crown of most polluted city in the world multiple times. A few weeks ago, Sydney had that honour. Yay?

Before this summer I’d never heard of the AQI. Usually Australian cities have some of the cleanest urban air in the world. Not no more. Now I consult an air quality app to decide whether it’s safe to go outside and whether I need to turn the air purifier on.

I’d never owned an air purifier either. I’d never seen orange brown bushfire skies for more than two days in a row. I’d never had to stay indoors because the air was so bad you can’t go outside without a P2 mask. Sydney beaches had never been covered in ash. Apocalypse now . . .

I’ve seen multiple reports, here and overseas, characterise this as “one of” the worst bushfire seasons on record.

No.

It’s the worst.

There’s never been a fire season this catastrophic, this widespread, that’s lasted this long. There are fires in Victoria that are predicted to not burn out for another eight weeks. That means they’ll still be burning in March. September to March is half the year, and there’s no guarantee the fires will stop burning then. Welcome, to the all-year-round bushfire season.

Yes, Australia is the driest country on earth. There are bush fires in summer. Totally normal. The one I drove through as a kid was a dead standard ordinary one. The kind that happen every summer. Not that much damage, relatively easily brought under control. What is happening this summer is off the charts.

We used to be able to predict when fires would happen and prepare for them. Now they’re unpredictable, can happen any time of year, anywhere– even rainforests–and are bigger and travel faster and happen everywhere. Everything is worse.

How did we get here?

A long-running drought + deforestation + high winds + hottest weather on record = BOOM! You can read a more detailed explanation from the Climate Council.

To make matters worse, we have a climate change denying government, who came into power on the back of many horrible election promises, including getting rid of the previous government, the Labor Party’s, carbon tax, which had already started to reduce emissions.

When the conservative party, the Liberal/National Party coalition (LNP), won office they did as promised and scrapped the tax. Our emissions climbed. Per capita we’re the world’s biggest polluters.

When asked about their climate change denialism, they claim that everything is fine: “We’re meeting and beating our Kyoto targets,” the Prime Minister keeps repeating over and over and over. He might as well be saying, “War is peace! Freedom is slavery! Ignorance is strength!”

Spoiler: They’re not meeting the Kyoto targets. They are doing basically nothing to reduce our carbon dioxide emissions.

Before this bushfire season, they were working to introduce legislation that would criminalise anyone who protested their inaction on climate change. Oh, and to increase coal mining.

No, I’m not kidding. Our current Prime minister, Scott Morrison,6 once brought a lump of coal to parliament to show that coal is our friend. Nothing to be frightened of.

I can’t speak for all Australians but I, for one, am DEFINITELY SCARED OF THIS GOVERNMENT’S COAL OBSESSION AND TERRIFIED OF A FUTURE OF UNBREATHABLE AIR, HARDLY ANY FLORA AND FAUNA, ALL-YEAR ROUND BUSHFIRES AND CONTINUED DENIALS FROM OUR FEDERAL GOVERNMENT THAT ANY OF THIS IS HAPPENING.

Morrison claims his government was fully prepared for this apocalyptic summer. Um, tell that to the organisation of retired fire fighter chiefs who tried to get a meeting with the PM to present their plan on how to prepare for the coming bushfire season. You know, this fire season, which many experts predicted would be our worst ever, and is, in fact, our worst ever. He refused to see them. No one in government would meet with them. Because they believe climate change isn’t real and experts are just meanies. Or something.

Guess what? Those fire chiefs were right. How about that? The experts were correct about their area of expertise. Makes you think, doesn’t it?7

I don’t know about you, but I would like governments to make their policy decisions with the guidance of the people who’ve spent their lives studying those particular areas, and not some tool down the pub, who has a feeling because they met this bloke once, who reckoned all these bushfires were being faked, and did you know that Elvis is alive and well and living in Coober Pedy?

Fortunately most Australians know that climate change is real. While our federal government has been obstructionist on fighting climate change, civilians have the highest residential uptake of solar energy in the world. Twenty-one per cent of homes in Australia have solar and that percentage is increasing rapidly.

It makes sense. We are a sunburnt country. We don’t want for lack of sun. Well, except for recently, when the sun’s been almost blotted out by the smoke and turned an eerie orange black, and yes, the UV rays are reduced, which, yay, less skin cancer, but, boo, you kind of need the sun for things to grow and stay alive and for solar energy to work . . .

The smoke from our fires is so immense it’s been blotting out the sun in South America. They’re thousands of kilometres away . . . After leaving Australia, the smoke hit New Zealand first. Sorry, NZ. Here we are once again being the unfortunate neighbour you wish you could avoid. Watch how many Australians will want to move over there to escape this apocalypse. I say send us back home. Just like we did to some of yours.

It’s apocalypse now, but our federal government is more concerned with deporting people it deems undesirable, locking up asylum seekers and denying them adequate health care, and getting rid of gender neutral bathrooms than it is in dealing with these fires. Since the scale of this national disaster became apparent, Prime Minister Morrison has repeatedly shown himself to be more interested in PR and finding someone else to blame than in leadership.

Most of the time I can’t believe this summer is real. I can’t process it. Half a billion animals. Millions of hectares gone.

I don’t know how Australia will recover.

The amount of carbon dioxide released by the burning forests undoes any limited progress made by our spectacular uptake of solar. It also makes “meeting and beating” the Kyoto targets–which we weren’t even close to doing–impossible.

We’ve lost huge swathes of our wildlife and national parks–my favourite walk in the Blue Mountains was burnt out. And if this white Australian of not that many generations is feeling this loss how are the First Nations people feeling?

We’re looking at billions of dollars of property destroyed and much of the agriculture in NSW and Victoria has been gutted.8 We won’t know the full extent of the damage until all the fires are out. We don’t know when all the fires will be out.

Then there’s the long-term health effects. Lungs have been damaged throughout the most populous parts of Australia. Our biggest cities–Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Canberra–have all had extended days of unhealthy air with more to come. Such as today. *points at photo of me in P2 mask above*

And what about our mental health? We’ve only just begun to process. Or have we? Can you process in the middle of a catastrophe? This one isn’t even over yet. We’re probably not yet half way through this horror season . . . There are still hundreds of fires burning. In NSW they’re currently under control but high temperatures and winds are predicted for the weekend. Click here for the Rural Fire Services Fires Near Me map. You can also download it as a map.

People are rallying all over the country with donations pouring in. Folks are offering up their homes to those who’ve lost theirs. It’s heartwarming but it shouldn’t be necessary. It shouldn’t have happened like this. If our government had listened and taken climate change seriously . . .

How do we make sure we never live through a bushfire season like this again?

Do we redirect our armed forces to fire fighting and reforestation? But how can forests grow when there’s no water? Rain isn’t predicted in any meaningful amounts for months and then it’ll likely be floods washing more of the top soil away.

Even if this government was to do a complete turn around and introduce every single one of the Climate Council’s measures–SPOILER: they won’t–having government and industry switch to solar and wind, phasing out coal mining and coal power stations etc. etc., it’s already too late. It won’t bring back the forests, it won’t bring back the wildlife. It won’t shorten the bushfire season or bring back the rain.

The time to do all of that was decades ago. Each successive government, Labor and the LNP, but let’s get real, especially the LNP, have failed us by not doing enough. We have failed us by not fighting harder and louder, because we didn’t believe in climate change, or we did believe, but couldn’t comprehend how soon these experts warnings would come to pass. Most of us humans are terrible at imagining the future.

Tim Flanagan says Australia is committing suicide. He’s right. This apocalypse we’ve created, this armageddon, is slower than those usually imagined by us story tellers. As Omar Sakr puts it, this “apocalypse, having begun long since, might last for the entirety of our lifetimes; we could live through this slow worsening, the poisoning of sky, water, land, and mind as the world heats up, resources become more scarce, and violent conflict spreads.”

Australia’s future is bleak. The land won’t die, not completely, but most of what’s living on it, us humans and quokkas and fingerlime bushes, and all the many other creatures and flora and landscapes that make me love this country, are looking doomed right now.

So, yeah, I’m not okay, and neither is Australia. Neither is the world.

But I’m not giving into despair. We might not be able to save our country, but I can hope we can mitigate some of the damage, learn from this catastrophic bushfire season, so we’re better prepared for the next one. Perhaps we can delay the very worst of this armageddon.

It helps me to do little things to minimise my carbon footprint. I’m reducing my consumption of single-use plastics, using less water,9 only buying clothes that are vintage and/or made from recycled and sustainable textiles,10 planting trees, taking public transport not taxis,11 trying to fly less,12 donating to the organisations that are fighting for a cleaner, better world, here and overseas.

And protesting.

I’ll be at the protest this Friday, 13 January. They’re happening all over the country. In Sydney it starts at 5:30PM at Sydney Town Hall.

I hope to see those of you in Sydney there. Let’s be loud and fight our federal government’s negligence, malfeasance, and incompetence together.

  1. Which I really appreciate. Thank you for caring! No, I’m not returning to my other home of NYC early. []
  2. Well, except there was a grass fire on Bunnerong Road, which is 11k from here. It’s out now. []
  3. Thinking of you, all my lovely Canberra people. []
  4. You can also bid on Shane Warne’s baggy green. Lol. All proceeds go to the Australian Red Cross. There’s fundraising wherever you go. At the Sydney Uni Flames games and at the Operation Ouch show at the Opera House we took the niece to buckets went round. []
  5. Fun facts I have learnt about smoke-filled unhealthy air: it triggers migraines and makes my dermatitis and rosacea worse. Also nauseating. []
  6. It’s Australia, we run through PMs pretty quickly, so that could change by the time I post this. Or it would if parliament was sitting. []
  7. I wish it did because then all the climate change denialists would disappear. I take some hope from op eds by folks who were all in with this government until this catastrophe made them realise that mitigating climate change is more important than tax breaks. But honestly what took them so long? []
  8. Such as the wine industry: smoke taints grapes. Smoke tainted grapes can’t be made into wine. []
  9. We’re on level 2 water restrictions in NSW because of the drought. I’m trying to do better than that. It’s really hard. []
  10. I know, I know, it’s not much of a sacrifice given how much I love vintage clothes. I bought some pieces from Audrey Scarlett because all proceeds are going to WIRES and Victoria’s fireys. []
  11. I know a lot of this isn’t possible for many people. Do what you can. []
  12. But I’m not ready to do what Yael Stone is doing. She’s right. It is unethical to live in both Australia and the USA but I just can’t. Not yet. []

2 comments

  1. Emily X.R. Pan on #

    Please share fruit with the wildlife as well! Take any netting down off your fruit trees. For flying foxes who are exhausted and have lost their food supplies, this is lifesaving.

    Also, if anyone can, please donate to the bat rescues. Fly By Night bat clinic is a great one, taking in so many sky puppy orphans who will not survive otherwise: https://www.gofundme.com/f/bats-have-suffered-the-catastrophic-heat

    • Justine on #

      Thanks so much, Emily. I love our flying foxes and have donated.

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