Australia is Burning

This isn’t the blog I planned to post today. Just back from a fabulous two-week holiday with our kids in Sydney and Tasmania, I planned to continue the saga of the Great Australian Road Trip Eric and I undertook to Adelaide in October/November. I’ll resume that story in due course. But with Australia’s catastrophic bushfires making headlines around the world, it’s time to address the subject. In doing so, I fully recognize that I am not a climate scientist, a firefighter, or a farmer or family watching their home and their livelihood go up in a blaze. I’m not an Australian, and though our seven months in Oz so far make us more than casual tourists, Eric and I are still outsiders. At any time, we can pick up anchor and sail away. I feel guilty even writing that.

As of today, the numbers we hear for Australia overall are 24 lives lost including 3 volunteer firefighters, 2,500 homes damaged or destroyed, and 15.6 million acres burned. Shockingly, unbelievably, an estimated one billion animals have died—not just the beloved kangaroos, wallabies and koalas but farm animals, birds, bats, reptiles, amphibians and invertebrates vital to the ecosystems. All these numbers are likely to increase in the days to come. Most of all, there is so much anger, frustration, grief and finger-pointing underway that Australia is burning in more ways than one. As an outsider, then, I will write what I can to give Eric’s and my perspective, detail our personal experiences with the bushfires, and express our concerns.

First, we want to assure the many friends who have asked about our safety that we and Corroboree are in no danger here in Bundaberg. To the best of our knowledge there has been only one bushfire in the region, a week before Christmas, in a forested area an hour’s drive north of the city. At the marina, located outside the city near the river mouth, we had a day or two of grayish haze and a smoke smell in the air. It was distinctive but not oppressive enough to stop people from going about their business. Driving through the burnt area after the fire was extinguished, we saw a long stretch of blackened trees on either side of the two-lane highway and some small, intact homes. Two people suffered burns; fortunately, there were no casualties. It can be difficult getting followup on these stories as one bushfire quickly piles upon another.

It’s also tricky trying to summarize Australia’s overall bushfire history. It is known that the Aboriginal people, who have inhabited Australia for some 45,000-60,000 years, practiced controlled burning to reduce the danger from bushfires. The European settlement which began in the late 1700s brought widespread deforestation and the introduction of alien animals and crops. Add climate change and Australia today is the driest continent on earth, a land of weather extremes in which both fire and flood can play a devastating part. What particularly exacerbates the current hell is the ongoing drought—said to be the worst in decades—along with record heat waves and strong winds that spread and shift the flames in seconds. In short, the perfect ingredients for an inferno.

When Corroboree arrived in Bundaberg in late May, Queensland was entering its dry season, and Eric and I certainly didn’t complain about blue skies virtually every day. Neither did the residents of Brisbane when we sailed there for six weeks in July/August. I don’t recall a drop of rain the entire time we berthed there, which Aussie friends said was typical for their “winter.” It’s why people flock to live there and why the stretch of coast north of Brisbane is aptly called the Sunshine Coast.  

But by September, when we embarked on our first road trip in Glinda, the farmers and ranchers we met in the Outback were getting anxious for the rain to appear. The wet season in Queensland begins in November, and the previous wet season hadn’t been very wet at all. Nevertheless, it was still early and most were hopeful. They had endured severe droughts before. To us it seemed inconceivable that Europeans ever settled this dry, dusty land. What enabled them was the Great Artesian Basin, the largest and deepest aquifer in the world. It underlies 22% of the continent and provides the only source of fresh water for much of inland Australia. But even after you sink wells, channel rivers and build dams, you still need rain. What we saw on that trip to Longreach were shrunken ponds and cracked creek beds. Reports of distant fires began to punctuate the news.

Queensland Outback, September

In October we set out on our second road trip. Heading south to Sydney, we encountered a few road closures due to bushfires in the Dividing Range, the low range of peaks that separates the coast from the interior. The closures were broadcast on local radio, prominently posted at tourist information centers, and marked with signage and alternate directions well in advance of the junctures. Government websites also provide maps illustrating the active bushfire areas. The coastal roads being unaffected, we felt safe to pursue our journey. The fires were still “somewhere else,” the sky remained blue, and we detected no hint of smoke in the air. Past Canberra, traveling the south coast to Melbourne and Adelaide, we began to get spells of heavy rain, to the point that we spent several nights trapped in Glinda while the campground turned to mud around us. When the sun returned, it shone upon lush green forests and fields in New South Wales and Victoria. All that was about to change.

Rainbow along the south coast, October
Green campground in Victoria, October

In mid-November, heading inland from Adelaide, we drove into the town of Bathurst. The atmosphere that day was eerie, the air infused with a fine dust that turned the sky a pale orange. Farther on, enroute to Wellington, the situation worsened as the wind whipped up blood-orange topsoil from barren fields and swirled it away in angry gusts. The air thickened and the color deepened to a sick orange-brown. In the diminished visibility, it felt as we had stepped into a science fiction tale set on another planet. When we stopped in the small historical museum, a wonderfully packrat place kept alive by the determination of a small core of volunteers, we found the shelves, display cases and every exposed object and surface layered in the fine brown powder the wind had forced in through the windows and doors.

Bathurst, NSW, November

All this was way beyond the level of dust we encountered on our first trip when we headed due west from Bundaberg. There it had manifested as a minor nuisance in the form of grit in our eyes and nostrils by the end of the day. To the best of my recollection, at no point did it discolor the air. Here, just seeing the topsoil blow away as we entered town had brought to mind images of the Dust Bowl in the Great Depression. Nevertheless, as an outsider not wanting to overdramatize the situation, I hesitated to use the term “dust storm” in speaking with the museum curator. She didn’t. Pointing to the red shirt I was wearing, she said, “Two weeks ago the sky was that color.”

The next day we learned that all the state parks in New South Wales and Queensland were closed due to bushfires; some schools were shut as well. One forest renowned for its birding reopened in the morning, but when we drove in, it was a colorless, bone-dry wasteland, bereft of birds and other animals. The following day we saw plumes of smoke rising from the hillsides in three places along the road. I emphasize that we saw no flames, the road was open, and these might have been controlled burns. All the same, we worried.

The start of a bushfire or a controlled burn?

That night, we felt lucky to camp beside a pretty creek in the woods near Uralla. It was very peaceful, no wind, not too cold or too hot and no flies! There were even reports of platypus in the creek, though our search failed to find the elusive critters. Then just at dusk, the wind leaped up and a thick pall of smoke rolled in. The only other campers were a young German couple, and though between us we couldn’t find any news on the Internet about danger in our area, we agreed that if any of us awoke to a changed situation in the night, we would wake the others, bolt by car if possible, take refuge in the creek if necessary. In the morning, all was clear. 

Our creekside campsite at sunset before the smoke engulfed it

The scenario repeated the next evening in a roadside campground outside Glen Innes. Here, too, there was a creek, this time with two official-looking trucks backed up to it and four uniformed figures snaking hoses down the bank into the water—firefighters from South Australia who had come to support the local crews. Their tanks topped up, they departed, leaving Eric and me with a few campground neighbors. We had just started to fix dinner at one of the picnic tables when a strong wind materialized out of nowhere. Within minutes, we were in choking smoke. Abandoning any attempt at cooking, we threw together some salads and dove into Glinda’s front seat with our meal while the wind thrashed the trees. Dinner accomplished, we did a speedy switch to our bed in the back. I had a hard time falling asleep, though it was reassuring that traffic continued to rumble by on the road. Had any fires been close, I’m sure the firefighters would have sent us on our way. After a while, the smoke blew off, and outside the window I saw a skyful of glittering stars.

We had no further dramas for the final week of our trip, but even in unscorched areas, restrictions were underway. Most of the towns we passed had enacted total fire bans—not so much as a barbeque was permitted—and urged residents to limit domestic water usage to 200, 150, 100 litres per person per day. One dam we visited was down to 5% capacity. Some lakes had vanished completely. Here and there the air was hazy and lightly smoke-scented but not intolerable.

Water restrictions, Stanthorpe
The field at right used to be Lake Claredon. The sign advises that you can launch your paddle craft here.

But news reports and Internet videos of roaring flames and exhausted firefighters in other parts of Australia were becoming ever more numerous, and by the time we reached Bundaberg in late November, it seemed as if the whole country had exploded. Still, any town that had a shop or hotel or tourist attraction open was urging visitors to come, desperate for the income. We ourselves were finalizing plans to meet up with our kids and Eric’s sister and her husband in Sydney at New Year’s for a much-anticipated reunion, though some voices were calling for the famous fireworks to be cancelled. How dare anyone celebrate with fireworks amidst such devastation?

The show did go on, however, and we had a spectacular time. But two more encounters lay ahead. From Sydney, we and the kids flew to Tasmania, where, in the first week in January, dense smoke from fires 200 miles away in Victoria billowed in. At the beach B&B where we stayed, it obscured the sun. The smoke then traveled 1,200 miles to New Zealand. It’s staggering to comprehend. A few days later, on our return flight to Bundaberg, the stopover in Melbourne felt akin to being wrapped in a gray shroud.

Our Tasmanian B&B beach the afternoon we arrived
The smoke-obscured beach the next morning
Melbourne Airport, early afternoon

Who’s to blame? With some 200 bushfires devouring Australia at this moment, it’s impossible to investigate how every single fire began. Undoubtedly, some have been started accidentally by humans—a carelessly tossed cigarette, an untended campfire or backyard grill. Perhaps a few were deliberately set, but the reports of widespread arson now overwhelming the Internet are entirely false and are being spread by robots and trolls. Fire officials say the great majority of fires are sparked by lightning, which can occur even in the absence of rain.

Of course this doesn’t address the larger picture, which is where the finger-pointing comes in. From the texts and letters to the editor we’ve read in various newspapers, readers are slamming everyone from the current administration, headed by Prime Minister Scott Morrison, for inaction on climate change, to the Australia Greens Party for past legislation restricting burning that might have reduced the bushfuel load. To my surprise, a few have spoken out against their fellow Australians, the farmers, cattle ranchers and sheep grazers who, by overworking the land, have contributed to the drought conditions. This may be true, but then what are the accusers eating? Everyone agrees, and I concur, that the firefighters and animal rescuers are heroic.  

What is clear is that unless whole governments—not just individuals and concerned organizations—find the guts and will to make climate change an immediate priority, scenes like the Australian bushfires and the Caribbean hurricanes we dodged in Corroboree will become ever more destructive and common. I’ll still continue to use my green bags, recycle our cans and bottles, limit my shower time. But it’s peanuts, and I know it, and even if every last person on the planet gives it everything they’ve got, we are in so deep that only global leadership can address the problem and enact solutions. Many others have already said the same, more eloquently and with far greater authority than I possess. Are you listening, USA, Russia, China, European Union?

Meanwhile, in an evil twist to the bushfire story, officials here are warning people to beware of scams purporting to be raising donations for bushfire victims and for animal rescue and firefighting organizations. Some have set up fake websites, others pretend to be relatives of victims begging for help for their loved ones. How low can you sink? For those who do want to donate, Time Magazine has published the information below. Thank you!

From Time Magazine

Where to donate to help with Australian bushfire recovery

The Salvation Army Australia, which is providing meals to evacuees and frontline responders, is accepting monetary donations.

The Australian Red Cross is accepting to contributions to its Disaster Relief and Recovery Fund, which has so-far deployed 1,285 staff and volunteers to disaster-affected communities.

Local fire services in several states have set up donation funds, including the New South Wales Rural Fire Service which has set up a collection for some of the families of volunteer firefighters that have been killed battling the fires. You can also donate to the local fire service directly. Victoria’s Country Fire Authority has set up a Bushfire Disaster Appeal to support community members affected by fires in the area.

Volunteer organization BlazeAid is accepting donations to help rural families rebuild after the damaging fires.

The Port Macquarie Koala Hospital, which helps rescue and treat injured koalas, is accepting online donations. A separate GoFundMe campaign has raised more than $4.7 million for the organization.