Meanwhile in Australia

It’s Sunday afternoon and in the background on the TV is the charity concert raising money. A whole day of music by big names. One band talked about which members of the band had families who have lost everything . We’re all in this together and everyone’s hurting.

There’s so much to talk about right now that I’m leaving some things out. If you’ve noticed anything on the news and you’d like me to explain it or talk about it some more, tell me and I’ll include it next Monday. This Monday I’m full of tears. There’s a distant light at the end of the tunnel. I washed smoke off my walls and windows yesterday. I haven’t counted how many people are washing smoke away, how many can’t yet, how many have lost how much. That’s still to come.

All of us being in this together has been the message from the Arts since the fires and related disasters began. It wasn’t only #authorsforfireys and this enormous concert. I’ve seen a steady stream of support and it’s not yet done. We’re not done.

While artists, writers, musicians caring for others is not a new thing, I think that one of the reasons so many of us who work in the Arts know people who have lost so much is because there isn’t that much national level support for the Arts in Australia. Each of us deals with this in different ways. A lot of us live outside the big centres. We move where life is a bit cheaper and maybe a home will be affordable with a bit of cleverness and effort. If I lived in the city of my ancestry (Melbourne) my books would be in more bookshops (for Melbourne is the literary centre of the country) but I would have to live in a studio apartment and possibly take out a large mortgage. Here I have a solid two bedroom unit that I own outright and I save myself thousands a year in rent. If I lived in the towns by the coast or in the mountains, I could afford a three bedroom home and might even have cash to spend.

Many writers and musicians and artists of various kinds have traded off big city comfort for more financial security. This means we have family and friends in all the areas that were affected by the fires. This means, of course, that there is a huge response from us… we are far closer to what’s happening than we expected to be.

We’ve had so much rain (and floods!) that many fires are finally out. One fire had been burning 210 days. My corner of Australia is one of the last few to be seriously on fire.

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It’s Sunday now and I was at a craft market today. One of my publishers had a stall there. I chatted with passers-by, introduced them to my books and to many other books, and, if someone bought one of my books, I made them a paper crane. I explained it was for healing. That always got us talking and I heard more fire stories. Also embarrassed relief from tourists. They still got their paper crane, for we all need the healing.

The creative element works in many fascinating ways. It’s not coming only from the Arts sector. Remember I said that the best way to help small town and regional and country people who are affected is to treat yourself to things you want from that place? Well, I’m not the only one who is saying this. In fact, we now have an Empty Esky movement, led by a young woman. I forget her name, but here’s the website she put up.

The idea is to have small road trips or big road trips or do some mail order. The bushfires ate many small firms’ income for the year, since they happened during peak tourist season. So… the idea is to pack an empty esky or two in your car then drive to somewhere interesting and buy local produce. That’s such a very Australian response. We are a foodie country and this is a foodie solution.

Even the website is only a partial list right now, but I noticed something when I looked at the map of affected businesses. The part of Australia most affected by the bushfires (in fact the part still on fire) is my corner. At its worst, it was a very big corner, starting from Bass Strait and going to just below Brisbane, but it’s my corner. A lot of the farmers and quality food stalls at my farmers’ market are from the towns that are struggling to survive right now. I know the producers of the black garlic and olives and dairy and… quite a bit. If they’re on the Empty Esky page I can tell you about them. The taste of the olives, when the truffle season begins. That kind of thing.

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Now it’s Monday and we have had more rain.The Australian Capital Territory and the south east of NSW are still being described as living in Groundhog Day, for we still have fires. The fires are finally contained, though, and we’re hoping we get a bit more rain and a bit more and a bit more and that they leave, never to return.

There’s very little smoke, now. We have, for about 23 hours a day, our pristine air back. This region is known for the best air in the world outside Antarctica (except in midwinter when too many people burn wood in the fireplaces) and it’s such a relief to breathe it again. On a daring and bad day this week, the pollution index reached 46. Right now it’s 0. This is so far removed from it hitting the thousands that it’s like living in a different world.

Groundhog day means starting each day the same. Checking the fire. Checking the weather. Checking the air. Checking to see what damage assessments have been reported and how far friends have gone in their sorting things out. Some of my friends have reached six weeks after it finished for their town, and the emotion is hitting them. Lifeline (a phone support network) has set up a special line for people needing counselling over the fires.

So many things being sorted while every day we wake up and find that the fires are still on our border. What’s great is that they’re no longer everywhere. Canberra is now the top end of the fire. The biggest fire still burning in NSW is over 315,000 hectares. That’s over 1,200 square miles, for those who like translations. Most of the fires are out, then, but we’re still not safe. In fact, even if all the fires were out, we won’t be safe until summer is sufficiently in the past. April is that time. But the danger is reduced now. Fewer people and places are being destroyed.

We still live in the land of Much Oddness. That cyclone last week gave us a tropical summer in the south. We are a long way from the tropics and still it’s muggy and even degrees in the high twenties are uncomfortable. I hate this weather. I love it, too, because the humidity and the low temperatures (no more than 30 is so much better than no more than 43) mean that fire doesn’t spread as quickly. This means that the fireys can work to contain it. This means that most of the big bushfires are contained. Actually, really, truly contained. I can’t say this often enough. It’s such a big thing. Fire is still destroying a terrible number of plants and killing wildlife and in general doing the horrible things big fires do, but the disaster tourism has fallen right down and pyrocumulus clouds are no longer a standard part of our skyline. Nor is billowing smoke. Nor is that giant landscape where flame eats everything.

The flame is still there, but it’s not moving at thousands of hectares a day. This may be just a lull, but I am so hoping this is the end of the catastrophe. I want to retrieve enough energy to care about other peoples’ problems. Europe has storms and the US has an election. Plus there’s a virus… These things are difficult to spend time and energy on during Groundhog Day.

We’re getting through it. It’s slow, but we’re getting there. Regrowth has begun in areas that are fire free. Lots of people post pictures of interesting plants growing off the side of half-burned trees. Also pictures of carrots and other comestibles being distributed for starving wildlife. Paula Boer, the writer of horse novels I spoke about earlier in this saga, has announced proudly that, thanks to the rain, wildlife now has water, and that all she has to do is feed that wildlife.

This means that full assessment on how much damage has been done and is still being done can begin and has begun. It’s worse than we feared. When a native species becomes extinct in Australia it’s really unlikely they exist elsewhere.

We don’t know yet how many species are extinct. As we find out, we’re going to get more articles containing less and less cheer.

A lot of Australia will recover. There will be beautiful mountains with good skiing and the best beaches in the world, but in some critical ways, we’ll never be the same.

Heroes. This is a good moment to talk about them. The big concert the other night was for our local heroes – all the people who’ve volunteered their time (and even their lives) to save Australia. My favourite moment was when fireys were on stage being celebrated by some of my favourite musicians. (There’s a video at the bottom of the linked page.)

It’s easy to choose one person and call him Superman and say, “This is our hero.” In Australia right now, there are hundreds of thousands of heroes. Every day we all see people who fight fire and are living with fire and dealing with the hail and the flood and the smoke and finding solutions for problems. Heroes don’t belong in movies. Heroism has become everyday. Maybe it always was. Maybe I just didn’t see it.

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