This summer was the worst fire season Australia has ever seen: 18 million hectares burned, 34 people killed, thousands displaced, and a billion animals estimated killed. Whether directly or indirectly affected, this has been a time of trauma for many. Now we face the aftermath, and the long, slow recovery.
Please scroll down to read a note from our editor.
(Canberra, Australian Capital Territory, 8 February 2020)
Yesterday it was safe to open the windows for a couple of hours, and we saw the sky an almost normal blue. But around 11.30am the familiar sick orange wash came over the light and we knew, even before checking the air quality site, to close up the house and bustle the cat inside.
This morning, again, I water the garden wearing my PM2.5 face mask. The sensation of restriction, and the heightened noise of my own breathing, brings back a nearly forty-year-old memory. It returns when I watch my son don his own mask for the evening watering. In the long, mild summer of my fifteenth year—when I was exactly the age he is now—my school-holiday drama class wrote and produced a post-apocalyptic play. It featured creatures called Shmoogs: hyper-adapted humans whose faces had evolved into gas masks. I played one. I thought it was funny. We made Shmoog masks from cardboard twirled into cones, pierced with empty toilet rolls, slashed with crude eyeholes and painted brown to match our costumes. A length of hat-elastic stapled to each side of the mask kept it attached to the wearer’s head. The overall effect was mediaeval-plague-doctor-meets-Ewok.
How prescient that our adolescent visions of the future included unbreathable air, and masks held on with hat-elastic. Of course, we always assumed the problem would be factory smoke, or some kind of post-nuclear-detonation contaminant. Even so, fifteen-year-old me would definitely recognise us, tending tomatoes in the smoky twilight of a 2020 summer’s day, as Shmoogs.
I have spent this terrible season standing just beside the disaster. I myself have lost nothing, unless you count a few weeks of clean air, and my remaining complacency. I declare myself a bystander, and a privileged one at that. But I still have a duty to bear witness.
Despite its vastness, this is a small country. Communities separated by hundreds or thousands of kilometres are connected by invisible threads. Person-to-person they run, through kin, through shared work and friendship and love. They run, too, person-to-place: birthplaces, tribal lands, former abodes, loved holiday-places, precious wildernesses. As the impossible walls of orange flame have rampaged across the map, my most fervent wishes have been drawn out and pinned to a starburst of points across New South Wales: Braidwood, Mongarlowe, Bawley Point, Batemans Bay, Malua Bay, Lilli Pilli, Rosedale, Moruya, Narooma, Tilba Tilba, Batlow, Blackheath, Cobargo, Numbugga, Brogo. It is the same across the country. From each house, from each human, a tracery of concern, radiating into the danger zones, thrumming with hope and fear.
I am in a restaurant with a group of old friends. We are having an early Christmas party. It is the evening of a warm blue-sky day. We have finished the entrees. Someone may have just opened a second bottle of wine.
We do feel guilty, some of us. We all saw, on the news, the devastation in Queensland and around Port Macquarie in mid-November. We know there are fires still burning up and down New South Wales, and all of us are worried about someone. A dear friend of mine has been, for the past week, on and off evacuation alert for his property near Braidwood. The coastal towns of Bawley Point and Kioloa have been under continual ember attack, with many residents—including the grandfather of a friend—evacuating northwards under a livid sky.
We are, however, a long way away. Tonight we are going to try to focus on enjoying the company and the food.
Suddenly the smell of smoke fills the room. It is so strong we think the restaurant kitchen has caught fire. It hasn’t. We spill into the street with other patrons, trying to understand where the fire is. The streetlights struggle to illuminate the dense grey stuff in the air. It looks like a London fog, but reeks of emergency.
Some frantic scrolling of the ACT Emergency Service website reveals a surprise: there is no fire. Not in Canberra. This is smoke from the Currowan Fire, 200 kilometres away, on the NSW South Coast, and from the Black Range Fire, near Braidwood, 100 kilometres away. The fire raining embers on Bawley Point, and the fire menacing my friend’s farm. The smoke has travelled up to Canberra on the usually welcome easterly breeze. Now it settles itself in the natural bowl made by the ranges around the city. And stays. And stays.
I quickly text my two sons, home alone at night for the very first time in their lives. Don’t worry, nothing’s on fire. This smoke has blown in from New South Wales. Go to bed.
This was the beginning of a ‘smoke event’ still going on as I type: that night the air quality index in Canberra climbed well above ‘hazardous’ and stayed there for five days straight. Over the next two months, it only returned to what we used to consider ‘normal’ on a few occasions—once for three days, once for a week, and otherwise for just a few short hours at a time. At its peak, on New Year’s Day, it will rise to over twenty-five times the hazardous level. As more fires ignited to the south and west over the course of the summer, every wind change brought new smoke from somewhere.
Later that night, I see a picture of the Currowan fire. I did not know it had reached the headland at North Durras, a childhood-holiday place of mine: gorgeous, thickly forested, pristine coast, mostly National Park. I stare at the picture, wrestling with what it shows. The sky is nightmare-dark; the entire headland one bright angry mass of flame.
My reaction is visceral. Grief climbs into my gut and will not leave.
I learn a new word: solastalgia. ‘Distress caused by environmental change,’ described as ‘negative affect that is exacerbated by a sense of powerlessness or lack of control over the unfolding change process.’ (Albrecht et al.)
I am weeping and losing sleep over a headland I loved as a child. Perhaps this is solastalgia. But I don’t even live there.
Moreover, that headland is part of Yuin country. All of the places in danger, to which I think of myself as connected, have other people grieving for them—people whose source of grief is thousands of generations deep. Kurnai, Bidwell, Jaitmatang, Ngarigo, Ngunnawal, Gundungurra, Dharug, Tharawal, and so on, further and further north. I cannot begin to compare my reaction to that huge sadness and despair.
Air Quality, Florey: AQI 1413 Hazardous
Health advice for smoky air (PM2.5): 349.04—Hazardous; Extreme (>250). Everyone should avoid all physical activity outdoors; Sensitive groups* should temporarily relocate to a friend or relative living outside the affected area. If this is not possible, remain indoors and keep activity levels as low as possible.
*People over sixty five, children fourteen years and younger, pregnant women and those with existing heart or lung conditions.
(‘Health Advice for Smoky Air (PM2.5)’)
This morning is the first time the whole ACT is rated ‘Hazardous Extreme’. The colour code for this warning level is black, as opposed to the murky olive brown of ‘Hazardous High’. I scroll down the list of monitoring stations. Civic: black. Monash: black. Florey: black. It feels like a series of light-points winking out, ceasing to exist. Or a set of families going into mourning.
The fires continue to spread. On the Rural Fire Service Fires Near Me site, dark-shaded burnt zones bloom and multiply across New South Wales: a map mangled by a sooty-fingered child.
Braidwood and the NSW South Coast are intermittently cut off from Canberra, from Sydney and from each other. More and more people lose their homes and livelihoods every day. We wait, and worry.
My eyes itch all the time from smoke. My childhood asthma has returned. I can no longer be outside for longer than a few minutes before I feel the iron bands of oxygen distress closing around my chest. Canberra is sold out of face masks, and air purifiers. Of course, we are grateful not to be in the path of a fire, grateful to still have a home. But life in the smoke zone is starting to take a toll.
It has also been terribly hot, day after day in the high thirties, over forty degrees a couple of times. We only have portable evaporative coolers—the kind you fill with jugs of water—which only work if the windows can be opened. This is not an option, so we simply have to swelter, shut up inside. I have been dragging my sons to museums and libraries for a couple of hours each day, just to get fresh cool air.
My elderly parents have actual air conditioning, and seem to be bearing up well. Dad has taken to doing his daily constitutional walks around Belconnen Mall.
I worry for my children. My thirteen year old had a moment on Thursday: I wish I hadn’t been born into this. You had a whole normal life before this happened. But this is what the rest of mine is going to be like. My fifteen year old is grieving too, but like a first-born. His sadness has a stoic backbone. He insists on donating some of his own savings to the RFS.
I worry more for him, in a way. Because of his Type 1 Diabetes he needs insulin several times a day, which means he needs a working fridge to keep his supplies cold. Once you take a vial of insulin out of a fridge it only lasts twenty-eight days. I think about that twenty-eight days a lot. If something happened to the power grid, that’s how long we would have until things became life-threatening for him.
More thoughts come: unhelpful ones, about survival of the fittest, and our family’s rubbish DNA in particular. How hard it will be for us to fend for ourselves if the modern medical infrastructure we take for granted breaks down.
On dark days—code black days, like today—I think, perhaps, it is time for a cleansing, a weeding out. We will only get in the way in the world that is coming.
We manage a perfunctory Christmas. It is stinking hot but still too smoky to open the windows.
My parents-in-law have joined us from Batemans Bay, on the South Coast—just to the south of the Currowan Fire. They had to travel over 200 kilometres out of their way, via Bega, because the main highway to Canberra is still cut. Going home becomes even harder. Even with the Bega detour, they are re-routed twice more around fresh flare-ups. Soon they will wish they hadn’t tried so hard to get home.
I snap and decide to take the kids away for a few days. The fire weather is forecast to be the worst of the summer so far, but looking at the innocent sky I wonder if we are doing the right thing, fleeing. We go anyway. All the way to Launceston.
At Melbourne, midday, we stop to change planes. I check Fires Near Me. The fire front at Batemans Bay has roared into town and is sitting five streets from my parents-in-law. It has happened so fast. My partner has no idea when I call him. We can’t talk for long; the kids and I have to board our onward flight.
By the end of the day the entire south-east of the country is a disaster zone.
My parents-in-law are evacuated to a sports oval. The daytime sky is a dull, underwater-blood-red. Then, suddenly, soot-black. My mother-in-law, in constant pain from rheumatoid arthritis, spends the night in a camp chair. They are simply two among many hundreds.
Thousands of people crowd beaches at Batemans Bay, Malua Bay, Bermagui, Narooma, all the way down to the wharf at Eden. Friends at Lilli Pilli and Tilba are evacuated. No power, no phone coverage. Fuel shortages, rationing in supermarkets. Fridges full of food, spoiled. The main sewerage treatment plant loses power. In some communities the official directive is to boil all water. Dozens of properties and three lives are lost. Chaos continues for the best part of a week. Happy New Year.
When they are eventually released from the evac. centre, my parents-in-law discover, incredibly, that they still have a house. A neighbour of theirs posts footage of a tanker plane, laying down a long pink splodge of fire-retardant along the ridge behind them. Their whole street, saved.
In Launceston, I live a double life: tour director by day, horrified helpless witness by night.
Friends at Batlow, Cobargo and Brogo have fled, and may be homeless.
The main street of Mogo, close to my parents-in-law, is devastated. We have been there as a family many times, to eat ice cream; buy fudge; visit the zoo. Now it is two rows of ash and brick and buckled corrugated iron.
The Malua Bay Bowls Club, where we’ve eaten the terrible buffet cheerfully, because it was time spent with Pappou and Yiayia. Destroyed.
I’m crying again. From this time on, whenever I’m trying to stay up to date on the fires, my sons say I’m ‘watching sadness television’. They plead with me to stop.
Later, I write to my brother, who lives in Zagreb, Croatia. I can’t face Skyping.
I apologise for the lack of Christmas presents, for my failure to call. I describe what’s been happening. I am not the first to pull out the William Gibson quote: ‘The future is already here—it’s just not very evenly distributed’ (‘Talk of the Nation’). I won’t be the last. But I hope it conveys to my brother, a scientist, how it feels to be plunged into a very concentrated patch of the future. Of course we deserve it, collectively if not individually. It stings all the same.
My partner texts. He says the sun is well up, but Canberra remains blanketed in ‘mustard gas twilight’. All the devastation of the day before has gathered into the air, from the east, from the southeast, from the south and from the west, and descended on our home.
Today is a terrible prospect. The New South Wales RFS projected fire-spread maps show a series of huge red welts: more wounds about to open across the battered land. The entire South Coast is now a Tourist Leave Zone, a 250 km-long stretch from Nowra to Bega.
We urge my parents-in-law to get out, to get to Canberra. They consider it but can’t buy enough fuel for the journey. They sit tight, spend another night on the oval, and lose power again. They seem chipper, though. They are adapting. Their house survives a second time.
Only two of the roads out are open, anyway—one only intermittently. Traffic is bumper to bumper. One friend’s two-and-a-half-hour journey home to Canberra takes twelve hours.
North of Cobargo, my friend’s place is under dire threat again. They are on their own, behind the fire lines, defending at their own risk. They are exhausted, but still standing, when a wind change saves them.
Batlow’s orchards burn, and some of the town. Days later my friend there posts that her place has survived, although the house is scorched, the garden gone, the garage destroyed and the water tanks melted. The dense oak tree beside the house appears to have deflected the blaze. The tree itself is badly damaged and may not survive, but my friend will never forget its gift.
We returned to Canberra a few days ago. The smoke was waiting for us. We took one last clean breath of aircraft cabin air and slid back under the grey pall, feeling it drag on our spirits.
My partner scored some PM2.5 masks while we were away. They are round, light, almost sleek; much less unwieldy than a wet knotted t-shirt. But somehow using them every day—like sunscreen, or sunglasses—feels like capitulation.
An artist friend disagrees: they are an expression of hope. Of adaptation.
Like a big old eucalypt, I think, that lets itself drop a limb. Sacrificing the extremities so the core can survive.
Surviving, even guiltily, is our task, it seems. And yet every hope and plan seems somehow ludicrous. That unevenly distributed future of William Gibson’s is now in constant flux, and it is almost impossible to live in both the ‘before’ and the ‘after’ at the same time.
I get over myself. I pop one PM2.5 mask in my handbag, and four in the car.
We spend another week away, all four of this time. While we are gone, Canberra suffers eighty kilometre-an-hour winds, a dust storm, and golf-ball-sized hailstones that smash thousands of windscreens in a single hour. The survivor guilt is real.
Yesterday a fire started, accidentally, within the ACT, at Orroral Valley in Namadgi National Park. Bright helicopter landing lights shining on the tinder-dry grass touched off a swift and deadly fireball. The crew barely escaped with their lives.
Today, smoke plumes out from the mountains to the south of the city, trailing grey-brown across the pale blue of the hot afternoon. As night falls, the southern sky reddens with the glow of the main fire, and the dark flanks of the mountain are gashed with bright orange spot fires. A volcano rising in Namadgi.
Checking Fires Near Me again, I notice the size and shape of the burn zones across the border in New South Wales. Almost all of Yuin country is now marked as burnt. All but a small crescent in the Bega Valley and a narrow strip of coast. An entire homeland, carbonised.
The Orroral Valley Fire is now over 15,000 hectares. Precious Ngarigo and Ngunnawal country, combusting by the hour. A State of Emergency is declared. Today’s fire-spread maps show it overwhelming the villages of Tharwa, and Michelago, and the southern suburbs of Banks and Gordon. Hundreds of homes are in the potential burn zone, including those of friends. Chief Minister Andrew Barr’s voice wavers with emotion as he makes the announcement to camera.
Hearing him, watching the livid sky, long-term Canberrans are reliving the fires of 18 January 2003, when nearly 500 homes were lost on a single Saturday afternoon. The sun went out at 3pm, and a wall of flame howled down the wooded ridges to the city’s west. Four people died. At the time it was ‘a once-in-200-year event’, and yet here we are again. Only seventeen years on.
At 3pm the fire is again at Emergency Warning level. The fire may pose a threat to all lives directly in its path. Fire crews may not be able to protect you or your property. You should not expect a firefighter at your door.
Today, we are lucky. Swirling wind keeps the fires penned in the south. Tharwa and the southern suburbs are spared. Not so the villages over the border to the southeast. Several properties near Michelago and Bredbo are consumed without ceremony. The red sky, blackening. The black land, flaring red.
Another survival. Another harvest of guilt.
The smoke came again last night. The familiar claustrophobia, the taste of ash, the body’s panic response which must be mastered. This morning, again, an orange-Strepsil sun.
At 8am my children put on their school uniforms for the first time this year. They refuse, as every year, to let me photograph them, so there’s that. Familiar patterns reasserting themselves.
It is the first sitting day of Federal Parliament. I go to the rally at Parliament House. I have not had time to make a sign, so I scrawl CLIMATE ACTION NOW across my PM2.5 mask.
During the rally, I cry, again. Many times. Tears of relief, mostly: the speakers are speaking the truth.
At the end the crowd forms a slow ring around Parliament House. Surrounding it, like encircling flames.
The smoke worsens suddenly mid-afternoon, while I am out running errands. I have to use yesterday’s mask. I traipse, Shmoog-like, between the charity shop and the supermarket, my whole face silently shouting CLIMATE ACTION NOW. This is me, adapting. Owning my curtailed life, growing into a new shape. Am I showing hope?
My Batlow friend posts about her plans to replant her devastated garden, re-using the melted water tanks in the new design. She will regenerate much of the yard as native bushland, planting many more trees than were lost, with a deciduous firebreak zone around the house, of oaks.
I hear similar stories from up and down the still-smouldering country. It seems every person, each pin-point in that tracery of concern, is mucking in, making plans. I am awed by the spirit that refuses to be cowed, that regrows from the root. Even when the extremities are lost.
The air quality in the ACT returned to normal levels from the 13th of February, 2020. Orroral Valley Fire was declared out on the 27th of February, 2020. The last fire in New South Wales was extinguished on the 4th of March, 2020. Canberrans are now using their remaining PM2.5 masks as protection against COVID-19.
Melinda Smith is a Canberra writer and editor. She’s the author of seven books of poetry, most recently Goodbye, Cruel (Pitt St Poetry, 2017) and Listen, bitch (Recent Work Press, 2019). She won the 2014 Prime Minister’s Literary Award for poetry, and is a former poetry editor of the Canberra Times. She rarely writes non-fiction, prose, or memoir, but felt compelled to do so for this piece.
ACT Health Directorate (website), ‘Health Advice for Smoky Air (PM 2.5)’. Sourced online at: https://www.health.act.gov.au/about-our-health-system/population-health/environmental-monitoring/monitoring-and-regulating-air-0
Albrecht GI, Sartore GM, Connor L, Higginbotham N, Freeman S, Kelly B, Stain H, Tonna A, Pollard G. ‘Solastalgia: the distress caused by environmental change’, Australas Psychiatry, 15 (Suppl. 1) (2007):S95-8. DOI: 10.1080/10398560701701288, sourced online at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18027145
Gibson, William (interview), ‘The Science in Science Fiction’, Talk of the Nation, National Public Radio (30 November 1999, timecode 11:55). Sourced online at: https://www.npr.org/2018/10/22/1067220/the-science-in-science-fiction
A Note on the Series
In the wake of this year’s unprecedented bushfire season, incredible solidarity and compassion emerged across communities in response to the tragedy. In the writing and publishing sector, we saw the #authorsforfireys campaign, a massive online auction led by industry professionals all across Australia, raising funds to support bushfire charities. Westerly contributed our own auction items to this, and raised $981. Coming out of that moment, and the #authorsforfireys campaign as a whole, we wanted to make a space in our publication to acknowledge the experience of the fires and engage with some of the discussions which have circled around them. Westerly put out a call for submissions, with a pledge to both pay authors for their contributions and donate the equivalent amount to government-approved charities still working on the recovery.
Westerly is proud to present here one collection of writing from this campaign. A second feature of work related to the fires will appear in our next print issue. This series brings together bushfire writing of all kinds—from witness accounts to heartfelt immediate responses to considered critical thinking on the fires, including questions of climate change and the environmental future we face. They are works of fear, sadness and anger, but also of contemplation and hope.
We pay our respect to all the victims of the fires, and offer our condolences to their families.
Catherine Noske, editor