Interview – Surviving the Australian bush fires of 2019

CEM has always had an interest in what it means to be alive as the climate impacts begin to hit  (and remember, this is just the beginning). We’ve published interviews with various folks – activists, academics and everyone in between.  Today we publish this interview with Alice, who lives in New South Wales

  1. Tell us a little bit about yourself, how you came to be living in southern New South Wales and what your previous experience of/awareness of bushfires had been before the end of 2019?

I’m an advanced horticulturalist (63 years old) who has always been a keen observer of nature. I love the natural world, animals plants, sky weather et cetera & came to be living in the far south coast because I had just enough cash to buy a small house for me & my two children.

I chose this part of Australia because it’s beautiful. The forests haven’t been cleared because the topography is too mountainous.  In the hottest part of the summer we get moisture laden air & which comes off the pacific ocean meaning fires generally don’t become a problem compared with SA & Victoria which have traditionally been considered the bushfire states. Sadly this is no longer as true as it once was. The rainfall is high over the warmer months & the fire season is generally earlier in spring when we get strong winds but haven’t had much winter rain, both because we’re in the snowy mountains rain shadow, and because winter rain has reduced due to climate change.

I was born in Adelaide, but  hated its heat . I remember the Adelaide hills & the destruction caused by Ash Wednesday [bushfires in 1983]. I left Adelaide years ago because I prefer a cooler climate.

I now view Australia as a country full of people who haven’t fully grasped the impact of future climate change on temperature, soil moisture & water deficits, drought, fire & ecosystem collapse etcetera.

  1. Without re-enforcing the trauma, what happened to you during the fires of late 19/early 20?  What actions did you have to take

Christmas 2019 was spent with my adult children who came home. They left a couple of days after Christmas day & it all started to kick off after that.

I had been obsessively watching the fires moving down the east coast  since winter  & naively thought because none were really close, my part of the world would be ok.

We’d just had the worst drought on record with 100% of the state ‘in drought’ & I’d been watching the trees in the forests dying because soils around here lost all their moisture for the top metre. Something never seen before. Parts of the forests started to look like a fire had already moved through, brown leaves on gums & acacias & plants in the wet gullies starting to seriously dry out & die

After Christmas there had been a couple of dry lightning events & fires were now burning just over the border towards Mallacoota & just further west also in the Victorian forests. They were also burning to the north of me in the mountains also due to dry lightning. The sky then turned orange every day & I started to watch all temperature & wind forecast possible to understand when it would become dangerous for me because fires to the north south & west were all growing in size. Everyone was talking about mega fires. ’The border fire came over the border from Mallacoota & I was advised to leave.

I put the two cats & dog in the car & went to stay with my daughter for a few days. The fire came up over the border on a Saturday night killing every thing before it. Birds, reptiles, marsupials, amphibians, deer .. whatever was living in the forests would have had little chance of survival unless they were close to the edge of its path when it slowed.

I came back & stayed with friends on the coast for the next 5-6 weeks watching the fire maps every morning as the fire came closer to my house. (It ended up within 1 kilometre on all three sides). Every weekend I’d come home to water plants . Driving up into the mountains was like entering impending doom. Smoke, forests dying, fire trucks, overwhelming heat & the sadness of coming back to my house which I’d abandoned. I was now experiencing unsettling worry all the time. I had a shouting match with a ‘red neck’ woman who suggested the fires were caused by ’the greens’ in a petrol station & now realise the events of that summer triggered personal historic grief.

I avoided confronting the fires close to me by leaving, but they became a larger beast which threatened me for 6 weeks while they remained out of control & I haven’t been the same since. I talked to a psychologist for a year afterwards about it all.

I came home when we had a series of good rain events & the fires became functionally finished.

I have been on a few big drives through the forests near me since that time. The first time I drove over one mountain range the road sides were filled with massive fallen & felled trees on both sides as crews cleared the roads. Roads were now unrecognisable. Very large white trunked gums in wet forests which don’t like hot fires were killed. The soils cooked, killing much of the life in it. There  are still very few birds living in the burned forests because there’s little for them to eat. Insect numbers had already crashed during the  2018-19 drought & it would have taken another year for any to turn up in these burned forests. I don’t know how long it’ll take for the soils & life in them to repair. Some ridges will be scarred for millions of years. And this is what all makes me really angry, these pristine forests are now full of weeds &  thick with eucalyptus saplings because the dense canopy burnt & many gums have been very slow to start growing back  (the fires being unnaturally hot). This newer density will make future fires hotter & draw too much water from the landscape. Could we consider embedding indigenous fire practices & knowledge within national parks & rural fire agencies?.. we should, but probably won’t. We need to do it now, but I only see the same white fella approaches being enacted with little money applied & less thought.

 

  1. There was, of course, an effort by climate denialists to blame the fires on arsonists and to say there was no link to climate change? What would you say to such people? (Is there any pit of hell deep enough for them?)

There are a few farmers who’ve been ambivalent about climate change who now think slightly differently, but my fear is still that –  climate change literacy in Australia has been infantilised by politics, false arguments about money, and disinformation by both the media and both major political parties.

  1. How would you characterise the response of the governments (NSW and Federal) since then. Have they done anything well, worth celebrating?  What changes have you seen among other actors – the fire services, communities.

It’s awful watching fires in other countries.

I’ve now decided to focus on how I want to live in the future. It will be simpler, and flat so that I can walk everyday. – Alice

 

 

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