Meanwhile in Australia

It’s Saturday morning and the first thing I did when I woke up was go to the window that looks across the road. I can see across this road this morning. I can’t see anything beyond that.

Welcome to a city that has so far avoided major fires in Australia’s worst bushfire season ever.

Canberra, instead, scored major smoke. If I have to go somewhere, friends pick me up and drop me home and every hour of air I breathe outside my flat takes over twenty-four hours to recover from. This is the side of the bushfire that doesn’t make the press.

My view of life for over two weeks now has been like the view of the mountains from my window. Shadowy. Different. Filtered through windows. My ears cannot deal with the constant machine-noise of the airconditioning and the evaporative cooler and the air purifier so I turn them all off when I can and I listen for birds.

There’s a raven outside now. Australian ravens sound like crying babies when they’re at their worst, but this one emits an occasional caw. That’s because all the other birds are silent. It’s not having to do much work to defend its territory. The magpies sing occasionally, but I haven’t heard the kookaburra laugh at the morning for days, nor any of the dozen parrot species near here. No galahs. No crimson rosellas. Not even my noisy local mobs of corellas and sulphur-cresteds. Even my little local bellbird is silent.

Wait, the raven moved and cawed again and sparked off a magpie and a twitter of smaller birds. There are certainly fewer birds around, but there are still some. The calls are a modified version of the dawn chorus. It’s three hours after dawn, so they have no idea what time it is. No sun and no mountains and just this thick, thick smoke… I’m not surprised.

In the 2003 fire, most birds around here died from the heat and from the smoke. The big birds and the sassy birds survived. Local birds reintroduced themselves from nearby forest. Some of that forest is now, of course, on fire. For fifteen years, however, I didn’t see a sparrow or a blackbird within a kilometre of my place. That was an odd side effect of catastrophic bushfire: to diminish invasive species.

These bushfires are so much worse that they’re getting rid of everything. Over four million hectares (seven times the size of Singapore, someone pointed out on Christmas Day – I’d been avoiding that data point assiduously for the thought of Singapore destroyed seven times over is a vile one) are already gone and the fires aren’t even close to being out yet.

On a map, the fires look as if they’re following the mountain path. The Great Dividing Range is one of my happy places. I live in a tiny segment of it. The whole thing extends up through Queensland and down through Victoria. Small mountains. Mostly old mountains. So many mountains that you can drive for twenty four hours and not see an end of them.

We did that when I was a child. My grandfather was sick and we had to get to Queensland. That was an epic road trip. I suspect we stopped off for a few hours along the way for Dad to sleep, so, in the real world, we only drove for 18 hours and we took the highway that skipped most of the mountains (there are bushfires around it, too, today – I hope they’re all out by the time you read this). But I think of it as following the backbone of Australia because no matter how far we journeyed on that long road, we always came back to the mountains.

Yesterday we were told that the major road to the coast from Canberra will be shut for at least another month due to the fires. The next biggest road is still open, and the firies reported on Boxing Day that, although a lot of it is ashes and animals are dead and trees destroyed, Pooh Corner is safe.

There is a collection of stuffed toys at Pooh Corner. It’s a dangerous strip of road and people remember their losses at that bend by adding a bear to the family. Readers in my timeline commented that it was rather Australian that we all know that endangered species are no longer and that we hate it, but that we’re relieved the stuffed bears are still there.

Pooh Corner is on the road to the coast that leads past a zoo. No-one’s talking about the zoo yet, and I hope that means all the animals are fine. It’s hard to say in a crisis of this magnitude, though, for the noise and news about it extends about as far as my vision when I look out the window. There’s too much horror and too much unable to be said or simply not being said. We can mock our Prime Minister but we find it hard to ask about the Mogo lions. The friend I used to visit in Broulee hasn’t said anything. How near to the zoo does she live? Not so far. The roar of the lions echoed in my bedroom when I visited her.

The sun is now doing its best to shine through the smoke. It’s a pale white shine. That smoke is dangerous, but it’s also protecting us from impossible heat. It’s already nearly 30 degrees out there and only 9.30 am, but, without the smoke, it’d be four degrees hotter. This is day two of the second heatwave since the fires started. By the time this post goes up it will be day four.

Each day is different for those who are mobile. For those of us who can’t breathe the air, we get caught up with ear worms. Pollution is the song that has the most apposite lines, and Flanders and Swann’s The Ostrich is the one that interprets the behaviour of many of our leaders. I’ll leave you with them and clear the air a bit. I may be tired of all the noise and wishing my electricity bill wasn’t going to be monstrous, but breathing is a good thing.

With the sun shining weakly through the smoke the bell bird sang. Just now. Just three notes: beep-bip beep. I’m so happy it’s still there. Maybe I’ll leave you with that, rather than with Lehrer.


Update: I’ll do a proper post in a week and a half but meanwhile… The fire went right through Mogo and destroyed it. The zoo staff stayed the whole way through and saved all the animals. All the animals. My friend in Broulee lost stuff and her house was scorched but, unlike some of my other friends, she still has a home to return to. This is probably because her husband stayed with it the whole time and put out embers. Ash was falling from the sky and the air was unbreathable and… I still cannot describe what is happening on the fire front. I am on the smoke front and things are a lot worse here too. Worst air in Canberra’ recorded history. I have two rooms that are smoke free and am OK, but will have to leave if I can’t keep the smoke out. I’m putting up damp towels and keeping my air purifier running and keeping a check on my physical state. Leaving is difficult, so I don’t want to, but watch this space. If there’s no post on Monday week it’s because I’ve evacuated and don’t have all my passwords.




Meanwhile in Australia — 17 Comments

  1. I have been watching your continent burn with enormous sadness. It’s such a beautiful place…. I worry about your wildlife. I’m especially concerned about the possibility of Lamington National Park burning. I heard and saw(!!!) a lyrebird when I was there. Their range is so tiny, and they are *such* magical birds.

      • And I love lyrebirds so very much. Their range isn’t actually tiny. Their population is small because American birdcatchers nearly wiped them out in some regions because the feathers were very popular on US hats. I live in a lyrebird region and they were coming back in decent numbers. When people talk about 500 million animals killed by these fires, one needs to add birds and yes, some of those are lyrebirds. We won’t know until the fires are out how many of what survive, but the fires aren’t even close to being out. I suspect Australia needs more help. Much, much more help.

        • There are so many stories like your lyrebirds that demonstrate that the climate crisis is rooted in a whole series of actions and behaviors that came along with humans’ first efforts toward civilization. This is the same story as the buffalo in North America or why there are so few old-growth redwoods left in California, or, for that matter, no old-growth pine in East Texas.

          On a more cheerful note, I saw elephant seals over the holidays. Some sea mammals have been coming back, though who knows what the future (that is to say, next week) will bring.

  2. As a Californian, I deeply sympathize! At least here we have trained people and the right planes. Your PM should be asking for help, but he sounds like a complete jerk.

    • We have trained people and the right planes. Australia and CA have a lovely arrangement where we help each other in our respective fire seasons, so some of the firies working so hard are Californian. The land area that’s been burned so far is bigger than a moderate-sized European country (or the size of Maryland and Vermont added together, in US terms – though that was yesterday and the fires spread a lot overnight), though, which means we’d need a lot more planes than anyone ever thought. Our PM is not helping and you’re right about his personality.

  3. Great sympathies. Our fires were bad here last fall, but your situation seems so much worse. This is what the climate crisis looks like and every time we experience something that’s never been this bad before, we know it can only get worse.

    • It’s big in a way no-one’s ever seen before. I don’t think anyone’s yet grasped this. That the fires are so bad they’re changing the climate instantly.

  4. God, I am so sorry. I feel a great emptiness coming, and it is us the humans who will have had a hand in making it happen. we are destroying habitats (directly and deliberately, as well as indirectly through influencing climate change) and we will be very sorry when it’s too late to do anything about it at all.

    You try and stay safe. These fires probably do not discriminate and the smoke inhalation alone is not good for you…

    • I knew smoke would happen, even though I didn’t know that millions of hectares would go up in flame at once, nor that whole towns would be sitting on the sand, hoping they’ll survive. This means I have an air purifier. It’s only good for one room, but I percolate the air as far as the bedroom and I’m still breathing. I’m an asthmatic *and* sensitive to bushfire smoke, so this is a big thing. My next electricity bill is going to be an even bigger thing.

  5. Gillian, thanks so much for keeping us updated. Hang in there! This is all so hard to grasp, how terrifying and sad for all the lives lost or changed forever. This is our world now — and still our so-called Leaders refuse to act in any meaningful way. Hoping for a better new year????

    • I think I”ll do a second NY when the fires are less. We may have 2 more months of this. I think I will do an update for the next Meanwhile in Australia, explaining what has happened outside the living room. It’s too worrying right now, for it includes death and loss of everything for people I know. I need the friends who are waiting on beaches for the fire to pass to get through safely before I can write a bigger view.

  6. I was so glad to hear that the zookeepers were able to save the animals. But can they keep them safe and fed, and themselves too? 🙁

    Praying that smoke calls the rains to you, all those particulates that would have possibly killed me by now. So very glad you ordered that air purifier. I remember having my “clothes and other” bag packed, closing & packing the computer every night, and the cat’s carrier & meds next to the doorway. Every day and night for three months, several years ago in Texas. The fires reached a mile away before being extinguished.

    We will have to make climate change one of our top issues when we vote. People who have just ignored this will have to overwhelm corporate interests and their greed. We now know we cannot trust most of the 1% to ever act for the public good. 🙁

    • We’ve reached the stage where voting may not be enough. We need to make the climate our concern every day of our lives. What’s happening here is astonishing and terrible and it’s showing us the path ahead for the whole planet.

      • Voting and working to get a decent government in as many places as possible just gives us a base from which we can build a better future and actually address some of the crisis. When we have to deal with people like your PM and the con man in our White House who just started an unnecessary war on top of all the other disasters out there, we are too drained to do the work that needs doing.

  7. I’m so so sorry. Nothing about this situation is good. What I was ineptly trying to say is that I recognize that Australian species may become extinct in these fires, and that is heartbreaking.

    I very much hope you, your friends and families remain safe.

    • I’m afraid it’s not ‘may become extinct’ but will. For example, people have saved so many koalas but there may not be the trees they need to live on… the koala is one of the animals that are listed as potentially extinct soon. Others are already gone because when big regions are burned, animals that only exist in one place in the world are burned with them. So the question is not whether these fires will lead to extinction, but whether only a few species will be gone or whether we have mass extinction. I was avoiding that in the post because I wanted to show what it’s like for someone disabled to live in the middle of a region on fire, in the capital city, which is the bush capital and has been on fire before.

      later today I’ll be evacuated, and next post I’ll give a different angle on the fires, and the post after… for as long as the fires last. That means you can reach a bit beyond what the press is saying.