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.