Dear Scott Morrison,
“We’re still waiting for the Earth to start simmering, but by 2020 the bubbles will be appearing.” Science editor Tim Radford, 2004.
I write from smoky Cunjurong Point, 25 days after the fires first descended upon us. Some days are like this, others are clear. There doesn’t seem any rhyme or reason. But we are the “lucky” ones, there is little active fire in our locality. For now. Our race with the calendar is not yet over.
Following a monumental fire fighting effort, 8 days without power or road access, and countless acts of generosity and hard work, services and routines are gradually returning here. What remains is the daily reminder of the impact.
All 13 kms of our access road are burnt on both sides, and the damage continues up and down the Princes Highway. The roadside is littered with the carcasses of massive trees, deemed too dangerous to be left standing. In places, the scene is like a cross between a construction zone and a post apocalyptic wasteland.
Green shoots are appearing on the verges. In time, they will spring from blackened trunks, where the fire was not so hot that it killed the trees. We wait with a mixture of hope and trepidation for animal life to follow and re-establish. This could take years, but no-one knows for sure. The Australian bush recovers from fire, but it’s not usually required to do so over such a large area at the same time.
Currently, the animals are seeking refuge in our remaining patches of green, two of which are soon to be developed. We are doing our best to support these de facto sanctuaries and to raise awareness of their significance. Not only have they become crucial for the recovery of our local ecosystems, they are mental oases on our daily travels through a landscape of charcoal and ash.
We see many reports of communities looking after each other, of how we are a nation that comes together to overcome adversity. This is certainly true. But the scars will go deep, and many will remain unseen. Every day we tell stories – our own and those of others – to share the burden, provide support and attempt to come to terms with our experiences and their implications for our future.
In our neighbouring communities, lives and scores of houses were lost. Two people remain critically injured. Recently, we met with a group of friends; the usual crowd from school and sport, only this time things were very different. One family had lost their home. A beacon of sustainable living, the product of years of careful planning and execution, the house had fallen victim to the fire’s speed and ferocity. Others told of stamping out fires on their driveway so they could evacuate, driving along the highway between walls of flame. One received a life-saving phone call while defending her home, imploring her to seek shelter. Having retreated to the pool, where she had previously stowed her SCUBA gear, she spent anxious minutes under water while the fire passed over her property, emerging to find the house intact.
This is just a fragment of our local experience. So many other places and people are still facing this threat, many months after it first began. The scale of the emergency defies comprehension. And it is the latest in a string of catastrophes from FNQ to Tasmania in the last 12 months alone, amassing against the backdrop of a long and crippling drought.
I feel an obligation to keep people’s stories alive, because I am scared. Scared that communities pulling together in the wake of natural disasters is no longer enough, either in a practical sense or as a defining narrative. Scared of the relentlessness of the news cycle. Scared of the intransigence of governments that ignored experts in their field who had been trying to send warnings for months, even years, about the likely danger of coming fire seasons, due to prolonged drought and high temperatures. And scared that, in the face of the unfolding disaster, tenacious ideologies are preventing the complex issue of climate from being addressed with requisite rigour and integrity.
It is in our nature to see disaster as an aberration, from which the pendulum will swing back to a stable centre. In many ways, this has served us well. But the game has gradually been changing. What was once a coping strategy may now prove an Achilles heel – economically, politically and existentially.
Many people in our community share these concerns, and this is adding to the collective mental health burden. Commentators and first hand accounts have used words such as grief, trauma, anguish and fury. This is not hyperbole. This is lived experience.
We can’t change where this all started. What matters now is what happens next. May people’s stories not be forgotten, diminished or distorted. May expertise and experience be valued. May we listen, learn and adapt.