Blackened and Bewildered
By Jock Serong
Over January this year I received messages from friends overseas, worrying whether my family and I were threatened by the bushfires they’d seen on television. Their worry – for us, at least – was misplaced. We were fine.
That is to say, we lost nothing. We did not have to flee our house. We live in a remote town – what Australians call ‘the bush’. In theory, we’re supposed to have a fire plan, so that in the event of a catastrophe we have a pre-arranged escape route. We have none. Our house is on the temperate southern coast of the continent, surrounded by ocean and closely-grazed paddocks. It is hard to think of an environment less amenable to bushfire. I’m complacent, but then, most Australians are complacent.
But as I thought about writing on the topic of our terrible summer, I came to realise that none of us is unaffected. There is not an Australian alive who will not feel the shockwaves of these events, whether immediately or over a longer timeframe.
To begin with, my writing colleague and good friend Sulari Gentill was evacuated from her home at Batlow in the Blue Mountains. Over agonising days, as her husband and son fought the flames with a volunteer brigade, she waited to hear whether her house, pets and livestock had been incinerated. It later emerged that through good luck and good firefighting, the house and most of the animals survived.
In the Australian lexicon, significant fires have titles, the same way storms do in the northern hemisphere. Our fires tend to be named after days; thus Black Friday (1939), Ash Wednesday (1983) and Black Saturday (2009). Each of these was terrible in its own way: Black Friday consumed an enormous amount of land. Ash Wednesday was the year I turned thirteen, and I remember it ravaged the coastal towns where all my friends took their holidays. Black Saturday caused the largest loss of life: 173 people.
The fires this summer had no name, largely because they did not burn on a single, titular day but over a period of weeks. Their scale was unprecedented – everybody kept hammering that word: unprecedented. Some were so huge that fighting them was not physically possible: the best that could be done was to get the humans out of the way and let them burn themselves out.
I spent late December and January, our long annual holiday season, with my family on Flinders Island in Tasmania. If you look at a map you will find that Tasmania is placed in quotation marks: an island off the northwest tip and one (or rather a group) off the northeast tip. That cluster in the northeast contains our not-so-secret hideaway, Flinders Island. On our collapsing couch we watched the news each night: the unfolding disaster, the suffering of Australians we’d never met, and our politicians’ impotence (our Prime Minister, you may have heard, was on holidays in Hawaii, and the Emergency Minister of the state of New South Wales – where a state-wide emergency had been declared – was busy sightseeing in Europe).
On Flinders Island, it all felt remote. We were detached from the disaster by insulating sea, and there’s a strange kind of guilt that comes with that. Then reality found us: first, the wind changed direction and the gigantic plume of smoke from the Gippsland fires poured south, blanketing our island until the sun disappeared for days on end.
Then the island itself caught fire. Flinders is a large body of land: sixty-three kilometres from one end to the other, and the fire broke out in a remote region away from houses and deep amongst the scrub. But it took most of the able-bodied men on the island a week to bring it under control, and had the wind changed in a particular way, it would have taken out townships, homes and other assets.
We had a guest staying with us on the island while all this was happening. I knew she had some history with fire. Being the same age as me, she was thirteen when she had to flee the family home on Ash Wednesday, as flames roared down her street. She recalls seeing the house destroyed behind the car as they sped away. Her neighbours died that day. The terror has stayed with her all of her life. In our smoke-tinged kitchen on the island in January, now a woman of fifty, she talked about the way that each new fire crisis reawakens the latent distress that waits inside her.
Much has been written elsewhere about the debate going on in California over whether mega-fires are now “the new normal”. As cool seasons become shorter, there is less and less time to do the necessary defensive work that prevents giant blazes. The fire seasons are almost joining now, end to end.
And that same question – just what is normal now? – hovers over Australian society. In ecological terms, this summer’s fires were anything but normal: fires are of course a natural part of eucalypt regeneration: their heat working as a catalyst for the release of seeds and epicormic growth and clearing out the choking understorey. But these fires – and several significant ones over the past few years – have burned with an intensity and duration that perverts their natural role and renders them utterly destructive.
Major fires in Tasmania in 2013, 2016 and 2019 have destroyed remnant populations of Gondwanan species such as pencil pines, temperate forests and alpine rainforests. These are species that were never meant to burn, and accordingly have no natural defences against fire. In New South Wales, the heat at one location was so fierce that it sheared off great sheets of granite, on which Aboriginal paintings had lain undisturbed for 500 years. Losses like these cause grief. Like deep bruising, that grief will take time to emerge.
It was not always thus: Aboriginal peoples have altered and maintained the Australian landscape through the deliberate use of fire for sixty and perhaps up to one hundred thousand years. Australian writers such as Bill Gammage, Alice Bishop, Chloe Hooper, James Boyce and James Bradley have written eloquently about Australia’s human relationships with fire. But none of us has words to explain what is happening now.
The fires of this summer exposed our inadequacies. By their terrifying scale and ferocity they mocked the notion that we are laid-back, physically courageous and self-possessed. We were frantic, under-prepared. Roads were cut off, towns abandoned. In an irony-free spin on our grim treatment of asylum-seekers, our navy collected refugee holiday-makers from the coastal township of Mallacoota and deposited them in safety, further down the coast.
We were unprepared for a mature discussion about the role of climate change in the fires, and accordingly, we shouted at each other until the exercise lost all meaning. We have no cohesive climate change policy in our country, by the way, and we track our performance against the Paris emissions targets through the use of a dishonest accounting trick involving carryover credits, for which we have been savagely rebuked by the UN.
The fires of 2019-20 positioned us suddenly and dramatically at the illustrative apex of climate change cause and effect. Here we were, on show in front of global audiences which had already made up their minds about the relationship between the fires and climate change. And we were still shaking our heads in mute denial.
The ugly truth is: the fires can be deployed for any political end you choose. Our right-wing press, overwhelmingly owned by one scheming Croesus with a long history of science denial, went straight to work. The fires were the result of arson, they said. The police immediately denied this. Very well, the fires were the result of greens politicians blocking fuel reduction burns, they said. It was pointed out that none of the jurisdictions that burned were governed by greens, making such a ban politically impossible. Australia’s always had catastrophic fires, they persisted, despite scientists making clear that nothing of the sort has happened in either European or Aboriginal memory. Logic doesn’t matter here. Science doesn’t matter. What matters is co-opting a disaster to fit with your political agenda.
Overwhelmed by the shouting and exhausted by the practical and emotional fallout, people tend to fixate upon something they can comprehend: burnt and bewildered wildlife, and ordinary men and women covered in soot and nearing the point of physical collapse. Australians gave generously to fundraising appeals in support of firefighters, largely because it represented an uncomplicated and direct way to do something, anything to help. Tennis players, internet celebrities, mining magnates, even – God help us – writers – found ways to raise money. Many organisations are now left with the awkward question of what to do with their new-found wealth.
As I write these words, large swathes of coastal New South Wales, charred and smoking, are underwater. Record rainfall has ushered in a new natural disaster, bringing destruction, mayhem and countless insurance claims. It is the way of this continent: it harbours an ancient contempt for the meddling humans that ride on its back.
Equally, there are signs of hope. We are opening a conversation with our Aboriginal communities about traditional burning practices, finally reaching for the humility to listen to people we’ve ignored and derided for over two hundred years. Our conservative government is making tentative noises about developing climate policies that address the crisis. Even some commentators from the right-wing press are engaged in a clumsy back-down from their denialist positions: if only to tell us that a warming planet might do us good.
It’s in our national character to forget: we’re very good at it. A cool, green winter and we may be back to wondering what all the fuss was about. But it’s just possible that we learned a stinging lesson this time, about the links between the immediate crisis and the longer arc of our history. Time will tell.
© Jock Serong, February 2020
Jock Serong’s new novel The Burning Island will bei published by Text, Melbourne, in September 2020. He is the author of Quota, winner of the 2015 Ned Kelly Award for Best First Fiction – translated into German as Fischzug, published by Polar Verlag; The Rules of Backyard Cricket, shortlisted for the 2017 Victorian Premier’s Award for Fiction, finalist of the 2017 MWA Edgar Awards for Best Paperback Original, and finalist of the 2017 INDIES Adult Mystery Book of the Year; On the Java Ridge, shortlisted for the 2018 Indie Awards, and recently, Preservation. His books at Text Publishing, Melbourne, here.