Jessica Friedmann is a writer and editor living in Australia. She is the author of Things That Helped: On Postpartum Depression.
A month ago, scorched leaves began to fall from the sky. All week, the light had been vividly orange, as dust from the northern fires travelled down the coast, diffusing through the air over our small town in New South Wales, Australia. A friend of my son’s found a black crescent of eucalyptus. “Take a photo of this!” he demanded, waving it under my nose.
By nightfall, the sirens were blaring, and bathtubs and laundry sinks were full. Every 20 minutes, my husband patrolled the perimeter of the house, making sure that falling embers didn’t set the garden alight. After months of drought, the whole town was a tinderbox. Now we watched and waited, while the fire front moved closer, hosing down the outside of our homes and checking the Fires Near Me app and the town’s Facebook page compulsively.
The old-timers were out in force, yarning in their front gardens with anyone walking by.
“I haven’t seen one as bad as this since ’53,” one man told me, head craning up from his wheelchair, “but don’t worry, love, nothing’s ever come into town proper before.”
The town where I live, Braidwood, is ringed with cleared land, old growth destroyed for grazing, and the flat dry paddocks form a sturdy firebreak. Still, the air was thick with haze, and the schoolchildren had been kept inside through recess and lunch. The asthmatic children looked wan. Three hours north, in Sydney, the air quality was worse than in Jakarta.
The town hall, a tiny quaint historical theatre, had been turned into an evacuation centre, a place for residents on the outskirts and in nearby hamlets to seek shelter. I stuck my head in on the walk home from school. The volunteers told me to come back later to see what was needed, and I made a mental list of things I could quickly and easily provide: toothpaste, warm socks, pyjamas, coloured pencils and paper for bored, tired children. When I got home, I packed my own bag and got the woollen blankets out.
I grew up in the city, but bushfires dominated the summer news cycle anyway, and fire safety was drilled into us all as children. Get low to the floor; stop up the gaps in doors and windows with wet towels; get the dog on a leash to keep it from running wild. Until 2009′s Black Saturday, when fires burned viciously hotter than ever before, conventional wisdom was to run the bath and take shelter there. But bodies were pulled out of bathtubs, many of them tiny. The things we thought would keep us safe would not protect us anymore.
There is no doubt that the fires are growing more ferocious. Even without the changing climate, it would be inevitable; 250 years of land mismanagement have changed the way in which Australia’s bushland reacts to a spark.
Before colonization, fire was managed with cultural burning, sometimes called fire-stick farming, which prevented vegetation build-up, germinated seed pods and regenerated the trees and grasses that need fire to grow new shoots. These burns rotated through a mosaic pattern, staggering the growth of eucalyptus and enriching the soil. These burns were slow, allowing time for animals to relocate and, most importantly, they were controlled.
That changed after 1788. When the country was forcibly settled, large swaths of managed land were cleared to make way for livestock unsuited to an Australian environment. Cloven hooves ruined and degraded the soil; eucalyptus trees, with their oily trunks and flammable leaves, were left to grow thick and unattended at the fringes of clearings, building up undergrowth as dry as paper.
When fire came, it didn’t come as part of a managed cycle, but ripped through, uncontrolled. The author of an 1851 Argus newspaper report, bewildered, describes the fire in Biblical terms:
“Connor’s farm, produce, and implements are utterly destroyed. On Robinson’s farm, four thousand bushels of wheat and one thousand bushels of oats, together with everything of value. From Costigan’s up to Robinson’s, this point presented nothing but black desolation. From the high range above, far as the eye could reach, the scene looked as though it had been swept by the wings of the destroying angel.”
It’s as though every bushfire since is in the blood; the fear of fire runs so deeply. I can’t think of Ash Wednesday without thinking of the Ash Wednesday bushfires; every Easter, the ghost of all that burning comes around. In one of those horrible ironies, the 2019 fire surrounding our town began on the U.S. sales day known as Black Friday, which dominated social-media advertising as I checked in for local news. Black Friday! my phone chirped, as I tried not to think about the orange sky, the pink clouds, the falling embers, my child’s small trusting face.
The dog, a kelpie-collie-mastiff-ridgeback-God-knows-what, kept trying to round us up, patently not understanding why we didn’t run from the flames. The answer was the same one I didn’t give my child; though we’d packed a bag, all the roads had been closed off, with spot fires breaking out along the highway. We were safe for the moment, but surrounded; and fire can move faster than a car.
This particular fire began in the Tallaganda National Park, sparked by a lightning strike, but bushfires have also been raging in Queensland and New South Wales for the past month. Schools have been closed or evacuated; hundreds of houses destroyed; some lives lost. Koalas, which one advocate had declared, with some hyperbole, “functionally extinct,” lost precious habitat – many simply burned – and friends have rescued joeys, which hopped confusedly into their arms.
For the very first time, the wetlands are also on fire. Old Gondwana growth, ancient forests are aflame. This is not the forest that regenerates; what is being lost will never return. It is not hard to see that something is deeply, palpably wrong. All winter drought conditions have intensified; the building fire skipped the river, which should have been a natural break. There is practically no water left; the Shoalhaven is so parched that the town will run dry within months.
The hardest burden is knowing there is no help coming. A month after this particular fire started – our fire, I have begun to think of it as, the fire that, of the all the conflagrations up and down the East Coast, is the one that has the power to devour or deliver us – Prime Minister Scott Morrison has declined to send extra firefighters. Instead, he offers thoughts and prayers.
Like the early colonists, he turns to the destroying angel; fate, and not funding cuts and poor land management, has brought these fires to a pass – rapturous fate. My anger is so ferocious, it has died down into exhaustion. This is a man who once brought a lump of coal into Parliament and cradled it like a baby; who could ever expect him to acknowledge the link to climate change?
Denial is entrenched at so many levels, but it’s gruesomely absurd when hardware stores in Sydney are running out of particulate-blocking masks, and schools are open or closed on a day-to-day basis, depending on risk. Friends tell stories of the smoke haze setting off fire alarms inside their workplaces, so that they are evacuated into the same filthy air. Ash is turning the beaches on the South Coast black.
Like so many others, I’m in mourning for a world that’s disappearing. The Great Barrier Reef has almost died in my lifetime; thickets of insects no longer spatter the windshield when we drive down country roads. As awful as it is, it’s almost a relief to have something immediate to plan for, something concrete to protect my child from, more real than my own fear.
In town, a month of fire-ready adrenaline has worn us down to the quick. Quarrels often spring up over nothing. For the most part, though, people are banding together, offering spare rooms, rescuing wildlife, running music classes for children left at a loose end while their parents work unending Rural Fire Service shifts. A donation tin at the town’s one supermarket has raised more than $12,000 for the RFS, which, having had its funding slashed, now relies on donations so that its volunteer task force can be properly outfitted and equipped.
The circle of cleared land surrounding town, an advertisement for our adherence to colonial land-management practices, is also our saving grace. The fire has not come into the town centre, though it’s come within a few hundred metres of the borderline. Each day we check the weather anxiously. A hot, dry wind could rouse the heat from smouldering earth and kick up the fires into full force again.
I am still checking the news compulsively. To my astonishment, NSW Energy Minister Matt Kean has broken away from the Liberal government party line.
“This is not normal and doing nothing is not a solution,” he says.
The words “climate change” issue forth from his mouth like a forbidden spell. “If this is not a catalyst for change, then I don’t know what is,” he tells the media.
But it is hard, waking with a throat scorched from smoke every morning and watching my phone flicker with update after update as more and more forest is consumed, to see this fire as a catalyst and not a damning consequence. It is the product of years of deliberate neglect, of the prioritization of coal and gas export markets over the lives of people and animals and forests; it is the logical outcome, not the instigating spark.
At any moment, the wind could shift. I do hope, even pray, that there is time to escape the weight of all our bad decisions – that this is a galvanizing moment, even if it comes too late for the Tallaganda, for the thousands of koalas gone now, and for a friend’s family home, built by hand over the course of 30 years.
Mr. Kean isn’t wrong that we need to dramatically shift course, and he stands strong under government pressure, refusing to walk his comments back. It is just difficult to hear any representative of government finally come to Jesus when climate bills have been sneeringly shot down in Parliament, when the fire front is generating its own weather systems, when we run the dregs of our disappearing river water through Brita jugs to filter out the topsoil and the ash.
The week before Christmas, another notification comes through. Despite concerns, the town Christmas party will go ahead as planned. It’s important to keep things as normal as possible for the children, the conveners say, these children who are witnessing the Anthropocene firsthand.
Mr. Morrison goes to Hawaii on holidays, but a rumour takes hold that he’s actually in New York, visiting the man he has claimed as a mentor, evangelist Brian Houston, at the opening of a Hillsong church. In one photo from Hawaii, he throws a shaka (the hang loose sign) at the camera, mugging with tourists while Australia burns.
It takes intense criticism, and the threat of continuing bad PR, to bring him back home again, but he refuses to meet with the former fire chiefs who have been attempting to discuss heightened conditions with him all year and are now arranging a national emergency summit. Canadian firefighters volunteer their own Christmas breaks, and a group of Sikh men from Melbourne drive up to cook for the town, leaving everyone near tears.
There is holiday tinsel up, but the haze obscures it as smoke from the Monga National Park fire rolls through. At home, though I’m not observant, I put my grandmother’s menorah in the kitchen, showing my son how to light the candles in a tiny violation of the total fire ban. With each strike of the match I bless the things that are holding on – our dog barking madly at a frog in the garden; tadpoles; green shoots emerging from blackened ruin; the volunteers leaving carrots out for wombats. That miracle, Hanukkah, was a miracle of fire.
The flame passes from wick to wick, a little bit shaky in my son’s small hand, and for a moment it is reflected to us as it appears in the glass of the window – glowing, domestic, miniature, contained.