Bushfire Season

Nonfiction.

This was written what feels like a really long time ago; it's about the day of Sydney's first ever Catastrophic fire danger warning. Since the time of its writing, the country has caught fire. It's truly horrific out there.

This is only a rudimentary take on the Bushfire Crisis in Australia. It doesn't add much or help anyone - it was written in late Spring before any of this began.

For brilliant, informative pieces on the Bushfire Crisis look here and here. For an interesting poem with inconsistent rhyming scheme but ultimately powerful message look here. For a Scottish reporter getting conned into thinking drop bears are real look here. For a completely irrelevant but always hype Black Eyed Peas song look here.

6:30 AM

The jacarandas are beautiful but they are dry. Everything’s dry. Yesterday, the 11th of November 2019, was the first day in recorded history that no rain fell anywhere in continental Australia. Not even in Woop Woop.

There’s an ominousness to the early morning heat that’s made doubly spooky by the smoke haze which, like a ghost, can walk through walls. It’s in my room when I wake up, in a north-west suburb of Sydney, hundreds of kilometres from any real fire. There’s supposed to be a catastrophe today. I’d believe it.

ABC Local Radio’s breakfast programming is one seamless stream of reminders, albeit calm reminders, that this whole thing is a Big Deal. Freakish, perfect-fire-storm weather has been a’ brewin’. Everything’s dry, remember? It didn’t rain anywhere yesterday, and hot, dusty winds are blowing over from the interior, and it’s going to nudge 40°C and feel, at times, in direct sunlight, like hell on Earth. Gladys is so riled up she declared a State of Emergency for the entire week so, you know, probably time to dust off the Bushfire Safety Plan. Or, eek, time to make one. Nobody’s safe, absolutely no person should be complacent, zero humans or animals are exempt from potentially being on fire etc, etc. Most of the schools are closed and you should probably stay inside. But for God’s sake clean your gutters! Get the Fires Near Me app right now! Panic (!), but be calm about it. There’s supposed to be a catastrophe today, didn’t you hear?

Packing a Go-Bag feels kind of hysterical and embarrassing out here in the suburbs, but I do it. It’s confronting to see everything I own reduced to the irreplaceables: passport, laptop, birth certificate, medicated nasal spray, favourite pen. Remaining possessions are assessed for utility, sentimentality, and resale value. Every DVD I’ve ever bought: no. Kindle: all round yes. Comically large stuffed teddy bear: you’re dreamin’.

The Go-Bag packing process makes me realise I have a lot of stuff I'd really rather was not on fire. Like my indoor plant, I love that thing. And all my shoes. And just, jeez, on the whole, I really hope my house doesn’t burn down today.

12:00 PM

The Fires Near Me app is good but unsettling. Turns out there are way more Fires Near Me than I’m really comfortable with.

I’ve learnt a lot about bushfires today. I already knew they were hot and destructive, but did you know there are nine different modes of ignition? Did you know that New South Wales' fire danger rating system’s second lowest danger rating is ‘High’? It’s followed by the yellow ‘Very High’, the orange ‘Severe’, the red ‘Extreme’, and then the biggest one of all, the one Sydney's in today for the first ever time since this system was introduced, ‘Catastrophic’. It’s visually punctuated with black and red diagonal stripes. When I first saw the rating system I found the idea of a few fireys sitting around with colour wheels and a thesaurus trying to be impactful without slipping into ghoulish overkill almost funny. The first sentence of the Catastrophic rating’s explanation is, “For your survival, leaving early is the only option,” and this is not really funny at all.

Other things I learnt include: as of yesterday (the 11th of November), bushfires have burnt over 850,000 hectares of NSW; fire season has not even actually begun; the military is standing by (like, for aid - not to shoot at the fire as I initially pictured); and oh yeah, by the way, the world out there is Not Good. No news outlet, politician or RFS spokesperson would be crazy (or honest) enough to use a word like ‘Apocalyptic’, but they certainly use every synonym the laws of broadcasting and maintaining public order allow.

But it’s November! Mid-November, even, where everything should be at its prettiest. The jacarandas are beautiful, albeit dry, and only a few days ago it was a pleasure to be outside. And so it’s hard not to feel kind of betrayed by the Spring, and also a little suspicious of blooming gladiolus that lulled us all so colourfully into this false sense of seasonal security.

The few times I go outside, the rumours I’d heard about the uniquely, empirically horrible day prove true. It’s what I imagine being inside a convection oven to be like. The air isn’t especially heavy or dense, it’s just hot. Moistureless. Every particle of it is radiating heat, and the breeze fans hot air round and around until you start to feel like you’re baking. And the wind really howls. It’s getting stronger, trying with increasing ferocity to pull every tree in Sydney out by its roots.

3:00 PM

There’s a bushfire on the other side of the valley, 2.5km from my house (in a straight line). The wind is blowing it away from me, which is relieving until I start to wonder, for the first time in my life, how anyone can really ever know for sure which way the wind is going to blow? Because it seems to me, especially today, that the wind can be quite changeable and self-righteous.

Anyway, South Turramurra is a little bit on fire. The RFS arrive quickly and in great numbers, evacuating people and establishing frontiers, and then they fly in a water bomber. The Coulson C1300 air tanker just susses it all out at first, flying a few lazy laps of the sky well above the blaze. I can see it from my house. And there’s a news helicopter too, high above, and three more choppers circling fires in the south and the west. The sky is full of things.

The C1300 lurches suddenly low, buzzing the treeline, and drops a stream of pink fire retardant from its belly. The liquid slaps down onto cars and houses and the RFS volunteers and, crucially, the blaze. The result is good enough for Channel Nine to resume its regular programming.

This whole thing was interesting, maybe frightening, but definitely not a surprise; I’ve been conditioned to expect a Fire Near Me all day. An aeroplane dumped some magic pink chemical from the sky, very close to my house, and it didn’t seem off-kilter. It only added to the surrealness and unease I’ve felt ever since waking up to a filmy veil of smoke in my bedroom.

Nausea over Bushfire Season has come in waves throughout the day. It’s mainly run of the mill existential anxiety over, you know, the catastrophic danger of me or my family or my home being on fire. But that’s obvious, front of the brain stuff. What’s worse is the creeping realisation that I am not somehow special or immune to the global and national crises I see on the nightly news, that the destruction of people’s homes or lives by some inexplicable, uncontrollable disaster could happen to me, and that I’ve just been lucky. And the third wave of bushfire nausea is just a very brief tightening of the chest, a blip, a quick and calm shattering of some grand delusion I’d formed all my life: those People On The News exist beyond a television screen. Those People On The News might have indoor plants.

6:00PM

It’s gotten spooky. It’s still warm but not hot. The wind is calmer but not still. The sky is full of smoke that, backlit by the setting sun, tints everything a creepy, orangey grey. And for a while there were no birds. I don’t know where they went, but for a couple of minutes there was no sound but the breeze. If this imagery isn’t working for you, I’ll just say this: It’s freaky out there.

A portion of the news talks about other people talking about whether or not it's okay to talk about Climate Change at a time like this. At a time like what? At a time like people in the suburbs have spent an entire day feeling like they were in the first few minutes of a hacky disaster movie? At a time when the sky is a putrid, glowing brown? Maybe they mean the time isn’t right because it’s Spring, it’s mid-November, and the jacarandas are still beautiful, if a little dry.

The cool change blusters through a bit after 8:00PM. It brings no rain with it. The day melts into an amber/purple haze, but not in a pretty way.


Today (the 30th of December) About forty days have passed since the day that this story is about. New South Wales is still on fire, as is Queensland, and the surrounding states are starting to go up as well. A word like "unprecedented" has become numbing - used so many times that it's lost any meaning or gravitas. A word like "unprecedented" now feels normal. If you want more information, a great array of facts and news and opinions on these awful fires (by people with actual insight) are Googleable, but the gist of it is this: Hundreds of homes and many lives have been lost around the state and country. The fires didn't even have a day off for Christmas. It's no longer terrifying to wake up to a thin smoke haze in your bedroom, it's just annoying. And sad. Still no one with any real power wants to talk about Climate Change "at a time like this".

https://www.rfs.nsw.gov.au/volunteer/support-your-local-brigade