We were all so sane and calm and efficient until now. An exemplary people doing amazing things in a terribly trying time.
My friend Conor, who visited his parents for Christmas and spent the early part of the year defending his parents’ home against fire, told me what he did. The usual things. Putting out embers. Keeping the verandas wet because if it went the whole house would go. Making food last the distance when the town was cut off (it did -barely). Going to his car for power to charge his phone so he could tell us he was OK.
Much of the time he read. He needed to escape and he had wanted a complete reading of the Wheel of Time series, and he had a lot of time with power down and the fire within a stone’s throw. If it had come to the worst, he would have gone to the beach to survive, but it didn’t come to the worst and he finished his reading.
That was the impossible for he spent several weeks cut off from the rest of Australia, with power going on and off and limited food and constant attention to keep embers from destroying his parent’s home. The fire was within a stone’s throw for over a week. He could see it out the window.
He’s fine. We watched much US superhero TV together to celebrate his return.
This made me look around, for not everyone is handling things so calmly.
Now that the impossible has become the everyday, we’re feeling it. We’re also reacting to it in a range of ways. Some people are still exemplary. These are the people I want to be in my next life. Good in crisis and even better when the crisis refuses to go away.
This is when your Australian friends need something small in their email or even in the post to make them smile, especially if they live in regions that have been affected by the months of everything going so disastrously wrong. It’s when you can help save small business in affected areas by buying something of theirs. One of my novels has been delayed by all this and the bushfires have created a series of increasingly worrying problems for most small press in these regions. In my case, something simple would help: apparently pre-orders would make a difference, so let me give you a link…. Only buy it if it’s your sort of book and I’m a writer you enjoy. There are other businesses at risk and other books you can buy. I think this goes for any help you want to give. Crises like this may be in the world’s long term, so pity and sacrifice look great, but don’t solve things. Find something you will treasure and help us by buying it. Forge links and memories. Turn something bad into something worth cherishing.
What I’m noticing now is that even people renowned for their patience are sharp and even people who are careful with things become a bit careless. The new fires every day are on top of helping those who have lost so much, or being sick due to smoke, or having lost summer holidays to sitting.. waiting… What happens when the children simply want to go into the yard and play but can’t even open a window? When the temperatures soar and heat the house during the day and outside is so full of smoke that it can’t be cooled overnight? Little things can fray tempers where the big things are handled with aplomb.
Until now, fires have been in my region, destroying the lives of my friends. Now they are closer to home. There are two fires in the Australian Capital Territory and they’re both in the Namadgi National Park. The one that flared up just this afternoon is in the Orroral Valley. I went there some weeks ago. Because it’s historically very important. This whole region is historically fascinating, but I have a special soft spot for that valley and for Honeysuckle Creek and for the paintings at the foot of Yankee Hat. The first two were critical for our work with NASA in the 1960s and 1970s and, indeed, Honeysuckle Creek is where the broadcasts from the Moon reached Earth. Those paintings predate European arrival here by hundreds of years and are beautiful.
I have photos of Orroral Valley and Honeysuckle Creek, taken quite recently. My pictures are too big for our site here and the detail is important so I am reluctant to shrink them, but if anyone wants space memories and Namadgi hills and valleys and kangaroos and is happy to host them elsewhere, I am happy to share the beauty of the region that just caught fire.
Honeysuckle Creek in particular is one of those places where Australia’s long term quiet but close work with the US shows. The NASA base at Tidbinbilla (safe from the fires currently, but those fires are edging closer) is where all that work is happening now. It also used to happen at Mt Stromlo, but Stromlo was taken out of commission for big work after the fire of 2003 melted whole domes. I have pictures of Mt Stromlo and its empty observatories, too. I go to places when they’ve changed and find out what’s happened and take pictures. I can’t go during the crisis or soon afterwards, for I am not very mobile, but I can chronicle long term change when I photograph. The photography is for my research and for my fiction, but I am an historian so I also use it to document change.
In the same trips, I took pictures of the dam that is critical to the water supply for 350,000 or more people. The fires are getting worryingly close to that, too. It’s one of the major summer recreation areas in this region, which makes for a difficult day. Today is a public holiday and parents are running out of choices for things they can do with their children.
One thing Australia has learned from the US is the use of the legal system as a carriage for change. A lot of people are using it to make companies environmentally responsible. There’s also talk of action to make the government responsible, but that’s harder, for we have no Bill of Rights that allocates responsibility in the first place. Any legal action on the government will be, I suspect, because other paths have failed. Our Federal government has done half the bare minimum in this disaster. Not a soul in my vicinity is even saying, “They’re trying to help, at least.”
This week a lot of people are pointing out that Scott Morrison is PM due to politics and that he has failed at successive other careers. “Scotty from Marketing” is the current favourite way to refer to him, but there are many, all tinged with the bitterness of fire. “Smoko” is the one that was most predictable. A smoko is a break from work to have a cigarette and Morrison was in Hawaii on holiday far too long into the crisis. His links with the far right are re-emerging, too. His strong religion is becoming more and more difficult for Christian Australia. Maybe I’ll talk about that another time. It aches my heart to see religious Christians treated the way I always have been. Freedom of religion shouldn’t mean freedom to hurt. (Morrison doesn’t technically represent Christians in Australia … the Queen does. The Prime Minister is neither head of state nor head of the Anglican church. That’s another story.)
These are things that bite hard on a day we sit back to reflect on the state of the nation. Which is today, for the long weekend is due to Australia Day, yesterday. This is why the politics and the history both creep in.
So many of us are thankful it’s Lunar New Year as well as Australia Day. I can’t get out to see the lion dance, but I’m eating some of the food at home. It’s not only that we need a new year to help us start again, it’s the joy of the moment. It gives us a break from anger and fatigue and the inevitable ratbags that some of us become when the hurt continues and continues and continues.
I say all of this from within a fire region. Outside, people are more relaxed. More trusting. Not often less angry, but unless they have friends and family hurt, they haven’t gone beyond the main reporting lines and don’t experience it in the same way. My weeks in Melbourne gave me respite in more ways than one.
The difference in Melbourne was that without trauma one isn’t caught up in post-trauma and that’s what’s hitting so many people now, even though the cause of the trauma is not yet past. We can’t take a breath and stop. Whenever we breathe we know that the air is not right. That our world isn’t what it ought to be and that we’re hanging onto the everyday grimly.
What is this Meanwhile in Australia about, really? That Australia is really good at recovery but needs help to get there. So many people are going it alone when the crisis moves onto somewhere else. Too many people are hurting. I keep saying that the pain from the fire never stops. Even when the outside world thinks it has gone, it’s still here.
It’s ironic that I started writing this before my new local fire. I have friends who may well need refuge at my place tonight, if the fire isn’t controlled by then. We’re dealing with the effects of the disaster before the disaster is even done.
Update: For those who have noticed on the news… The fire is nibbling at our edges. The smoke is blowing away from us, which means it looks enormous and everyone’s taking pictures from the bus or car as they head to the far southern suburbs to make sure things are OK in case they have to leave. No-one in Canberra is in danger at this stage. The people of Tharwa (a village a few miles beyond Canberra) are being evacuated.
I just posted to Twitter: New thing for Canberra with the bushfires about to enter the city. People are filming planes flying over to tackle the blaze. “Bloody legends” is the tag accompanying several of the clips.
I will be updating on Twitter for those who are worried about me and about Canberra. I might also be on Facebook. I can’t update in all places, I’m afraid, so I’ll save the blog here for more detailed reports. I didn’t want to be in an actual fire zone ever again (I was in 2003) but it appears I may be. We have a heat wave and won’t get any rain for days, so everything is up to the firies and rangers.