Clear and present danger – Australia’s unfolding bushfire drama

As wild fires rage across the world, from California to Australia, the Amazon to Africa, igniting intense political infighting here and in the USA, and in Lebanon, contributing to actual unrest on the streets, think of those affected by them, the wildlife destroyed, and the fire-fighters who battle them.

Here on the east coast of Australia, there are bush fires to the north, south and west of us. Ten kilometres to our east is the Pacific Ocean, but there have been spot-fires between us and the coast too which could potentially  cut our escape route.  We in the bush are implementing our bush fire survival plans, and many people have lost homes and loved ones in what has been described as one of the greatest wildfire emergencies in New South Wales’ history. Things are also pretty dire in Queensland, and to a lesser extent, Western Australia. The loss of flora and fauna, including rare and endangered species, and thousands of our iconic koalas, is incalculable.

The largest, to the west and northwest, formed by the merging of several big fires which have been burning for over two months, is less than fifty km away at the nearest point with an uncontrolled fire front of over a thousand kilometres. The whole area is full of smoke – and has been so for well several weeks now. The sky is brown and a red sun casts an orange light that renders the forest surrounding us a spooky, almost iridescent green and gold. The wind has been very strong and so the greatest danger for us is from spot fires from burning embers. Indeed, there have been spot-fires between us and the sea (our only exit route if it all goes to custard).

It could always be worse; some friends have lost their homes already and others have been in midst of the fires and on evacuation alert for weeks. But if the fires on the plateau get into the valley, which is heavily forested with flammable eucalyptus, dry, and carpeted with inches of leaf litter, and into the plantations that surround the town, we will be well and true rooted.

Last Tuesday was expected to be a nightmare with high temperatures and strong winds threatening to expand fires that we already out of control. But through a fortuitous combination of less extreme weather and the courage and resilience of the fire-fighters, we missed the proverbial bullet. But the danger has not passed – we remain on high alert. It is only November and our customary “fire season” has not begun. We are in for a long, hot, dry, and potentially dangerous summer. But it has been a serious and sobering dress-rehearsal. Roll on December, January, February and March: the fun has only just begun!

Hillville, NSW

Whilst the community spirit is as always in times of crisis strong, positive and compassionate, hyper-partisan political games play on around us, amplified by blovating and opportunistic politicians and divisive and ill-informed social media. Some blame the state and federal governments for a refusal to take action with respect to climate change and years of under-funding and under-resourcing our rural fire services and emergency services generally – there are tales of exhausted and overextended “firies” (nearly all of them volunteers) fueling their utes and tenders out of their own pockets. Others blame “greenies” for opposing back-burning hazard reduction – which is bull-dust because the actual Greens party has little political influence. as a country and community have seen this coming for a long time and unfortunately, have elected governments that have failed, through lack of will, wit and wisdom to do anything about it. The National Party leader declared “we don’t don’t need the ravings of some pure enlightened and woke capital city greenies” (those whom News Corp opinionistas universally call “the Green Left”), whilst his perennially embarrassing predecessor observed: “There’s the oscillation of the seasons. There’s a change in the magnetic field of the sun.” He said it. Yes he did! And he even referred to two of the people killed in the bush-fires as “Greens voters”, though Gods only knows why,  followed by an assurance that he was not going to attack them.

On 16th November, veteran journalist Laura Tingle summed up a widespread frustration with our leaders: “For so many people, and so many communities, there have been days and nights of sleeplessness, exhausting anxiety, and fear of monstrous firestorms; and for some, the destruction they have caused. And now the oppressive knowledge that it is likely that this could go on for months. It has also been a week of catastrophic failure of our political dialogue. It’s easy to just express exasperation at the sniping of some of the statements made by politicians this week as they have tried to fight a culture war about climate change in the midst of such disastrous scenes. But there is actually something much more alarming going on here. If our political conversation really is at a point when these cultural weapons can’t be downed in the face of a crisis, we really are in a lot of trouble”.

Such is the quality of much public debate that I am reminded of what an old Greek once said (or maybe didn’t say it quite like this): those whom the Gods wish to destroy, they first render stupid.

The reality is that we are in a drought that has lasted for ever, and drier conditions with higher fire danger are preventing agencies from conducting the back-burning we need – it is often either too wet (when we get infrequent rain), too dry and windy, or the terrain too difficult and the fuel load too heavy to burn safely. Retired fire and emergency service chiefs have spoken out on how a climate change is super-charging our preexisting and indeed, perennial natural disaster risks.

In truth, we are rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic, and whilst “thoughts and prayers” might save our souls for the hereafter, they don’t suffice in the here and now to save lives and livelihoods.

See also, in In That Howling Infinite: Loosing Earth – Tarkeeth and other matters environmental

Thoughts and Prayers. David Rowe

Old Bar, NSW

An apt if geographically and chronologically inapplicable image of the eviction of British “travellers” from their camp at Dale Farm in 2011

 

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