This week I wanted to give you a bit of an insight into different views of the fires. That means lots of links and some quite scary pictures. I’ll finish on a happier note, I promise.
First, a perfectly normal fire update from this weekend. This is the fire a few kilometres down the road from me, so I’m rather pleased that it’s raining outside right now and that the active fire edge is only 74 km long.
Next, the BBC don’t report every day, but their reports are probably the best of the international ones I’ve seen. There is a timelapse video of the fire near me in this one. From fire to flood is not as odd as it sounds. The big rain is partly due to this being cyclone season up north, and the floods are partly due to the soil being unable to take in as much water as it usually does due to the fire.
I haven’t done any exploration of local videos because, honestly, it’s bad enough having friends’ lives needing a restart without finding out about strangers. I thought you might like just a couple, however.
I was looking at this first video largely for the comments and I was struck by how many people thought the vlogger lived in a suburb and that the next suburb along was on fire and that she should have left earlier. She lived in a rural town and the next town along would have been, if these fires were anything like normal bushfires, reasonably safe for considerably longer than it was.
Here is a different experience – I want to buy that bloke a drink. And here is a third, from a journalist trapped in one of the worst of the megafires. She was so close to some of my friends when she had to move from this place to that. We all have different experiences.
There is overlap, however. Even those who don’t have to deal with fire deal with smoke. Even those who have kept most things have neighbours or friends who have lost everything.
I was not the only one evacuated because of the smoke, my doctor told me. Many parents with young children had to leave this region. All the big regional hospitals for south-eastern NSW (where several of these megafires were and are) are in Canberra and every single one of them have evaporative cooling using outside air: going to hospital wasn’t safe for us, and we had to leave town. The fires weren’t near us. That, for Canberra, came later.
I found out more about the everyday this weekend.
What I learned at the market. One of the mushroom guys is from Ulladulla and lost 800m of fencing, but nothing else. All his neighbours lost everything. That sense of community I’ve written about elsewhere is keeping the town alive, as is selling things outside the region, such as the mushrooms he sold to me. They need custom, visitors … everything. Each small purchase we make from outside those hurt areas help townships get through the rebuilding.
What was particularly interesting was the chat behind me whenever I stopped to look at something. I listened hard throughout my shopping and I forgot to buy some things and bought other I really didn’t need. So many people were comparing bushfire experiences and what had happened to their friends. They talked about the smoke. Always the smoke. Today’s the first smoke free farmers’ market this year. We all came together and we talked.
I also chatted with one of the volunteers at the book fair I went to after the market. We both think that Canberra has dug deep and rediscovered the sense of community it has when I first moved here. We used to be an oversized country town and now we’re a city. The volunteer and I had both been afraid we’d lost that country town warmth and practicality.
The country town is what emerges when crises hit Canberra. A country town with its own branch of ratbaggery and with a very solid addiction to food, to books and to fresh air. A place riddled with politics and landscapes. Tourists seldom see beyond the landscapes, though they might get a glimpse of the community values if they come on the right day and attend the right events.
I was in Canberra for twelve months 32 years ago and I stayed. Recently I wondered why I stayed, but now I know: I am more than fond of foodways, of books, of fresh air, and of beauty. I am also possibly a bit of a ratbag. I belong more to Melbourne in many ways, but these are the reasons I am in Canberra and will only leave if I get a better offer. That better offer will have to compete with hugs from children at the market (for we are still that giant country town in some ways), with sunsets over mountain ranges that reach into the far distance, with the National Library, with museums, and with birds creating a soundscape twenty-four hours a day.
Most of these things are not visible to the rest of Australia. The rest of Australia doesn’t see that the two events at the exhibition grounds – the farmers’ market and the book fair – created an iconic Canberra moment: sunshine and rain and fresh site and giant bags of books and other bags full of food straight from farms that survived flame.
The fires aren’t gone yet, but today’s heavy rain and the weekend’s marketing reminds me what future we’re fighting for, and why I keep telling people to support small businesses in fire areas. I want the chatty, giving, scary-literate, foodie Australia to emerge from this catastrophe.
One of the stall holders told me about patches of green in the middle of forests that are dead and black. Some of them burn when fire returns. I gave you those articles earlier so that I don’t have to describe what happens when that fire returns. It’s a special hell. We need all the fire gone before we’re safe. We have rain now, so we have a cessation of pain and we can talk. That helps.
We’re talking a lot locally. Very little of the chat is reaching international ears. One reaction did, because it’s so very political and so very Australian.
Local papers in the areas that may be past the fires (we can only hope) help explain what we’ve been through and what we’re going through. They’re the strongest and best voices right now.
Here is another of those local voices. This one has pictures.
Australia where there is fire or where the fire is close and threatening and where the smoke shapes the day is different to Australia that is still in the old world, the safe world. The pictures that accompany it are desolate and beautiful and show how much, how very much recovery is going to cost. It’s not just the Illawarra and their Forever Fire. That’s one area – the fires have destroyed the area the size of a medium country and are still going. Multiply these pictures by the hundreds of thousands and you’ll start to get an idea. My lesser (but still huge) local fire still has an active fire front of 74 kilometres. The current comparative statistic is that, nationwide, the amount of land that has been burned is about the size of England.
Reactions around the world are not all “Not listening because it’s old news”.
Some people have realised that not only has disaster changed and not only does catastrophe look different, but we need to be open to understanding in a new way. Social media and Youtube are very handy for this. Not used enough yet, but it’s a start. This change is going to be a difficult one for so many of us. It means not living in a cosy nest where anything bad that happens is only of interest to others because it doesn’t touch our lives.
Canberra and its region’s community isn’t a bad model to follow for news and for how the whole world should deal with crises. We are a very imperfect country, but mateship might be a value we all need.
There are other values. I am delving into my own traditions to find ways in which I can keep everything important to me and still get through this impossible situation. Every few days I find something new. Today it’s the New Year for Trees for me, for I am Jewish. I was going to donate to Landcare in the Blue Mountains because Josephine Pennicott (another writer in an area that caught fire) said that her local fires were out. That means that the local Landcare groups can go in and find out what needs doing and it would help them a lot to have money to care for the bush. Australia needs trees planted and habitats restored for wildlife and it needs to start happening immediately. Local Landcare groups are a good way of moving forward, for they know what they are doing.
In the end, I donated to the Foundation for National Parks and Wildlife, because they had a special place one could donate for the planting of trees and because they’re one of the bodies that will have a heavy responsibility in the coming years. They asked me who the donation was in honour of, and I typed in “Trees.”
We’re in a strange place right now. We’re not through the fires and we’re already facing the consequences. Fire, flood, hail, smoke and cyclone. Welcome to 2020 in Australia. Now you know why I’m celebrating the Jewish birthday of trees a bit more publicly than usual: we need trees. We also need to work very hard and make sure we have a future.