Finally, autumn is here. We still have fires, but the ones closest to me blinked out a few days ago and the others will follow them soon. We’re not through the season entirely, but we only have six weeks of it to go. Only.
I’ve been talking to people again, because I need to understand things. The megafires are possibly the most complex extended emergency Australia has faced. We’re normally pretty good at getting aid to troubled areas, but the Federal and State governments are stuck into paperwork, and so are some of the other bodies. Most of the real help is coming from local communities and from people who say, “What can I do?” Weeks ago I was suggesting everyone find businesses (including artists and writers and other creatives) they wanted to support and buy from them. That’s what’s working best of all. Obviously I was tapping into a zeitgeist moment when I made the suggestion.
Canberra has its annual Canberra Day in March and the emergency services people, combined, were just announced as Citizen of the Year. This reflects the same values. We see each other. We have reached out and the community nature of that reaching has got us to this point. I hope it gets us further. I can’t tell.
I can tell you more about the fire in different places, for I went to the Canberra Show last Friday. I talked with so many stall holders and a few farmers.
First, it was the smallest Canberra Show in years. There were few cattle and certain other animals because of the drought. Canberra is where the whole of NSW comes for breeding choices and breeding is secondary to survival in a drought as bad as this. That aspect of the Show would have been small even without the fire.
In one of the halls I spoke to regional industry people. I told them about this column and they all shared their stories with me.
Most of those who were hit directly by the fires couldn’t come. They’re too busy trying to build up from scratch. Everyone who was there was touched by fires and have friends and family who had their lives destroyed, but they themselves missed out. One of my favourite conversations was with a manager from a set of holiday parks on the South Coast of NSW. Every town with a park had refugees from the fires over summer. One had to be emptied of its tourists and they went next door. The manager didn’t know why the park itself wasn’t used for shelter.
He didn’t know because he had the biggest stroke of fortune. He was on holiday himself in Victoria in very early January. Most of the south coast of NSW was cut off and he stayed where he was until he was allowed to return. He still worked. He described what he did and I couldn’t help thinking that a lot of people were in less trouble because he was working from a distance and didn’t have to be evacuated himself. He managed all the bookings for Batemans Bay, Narooma, Moruya Heads and more. Every single place he helped tourists deal with the holiday from hell was nearly burned down. I found out, from him, that the towns themselves survived and that the beaches are perfect. You have to drive through an alien landscape of bleak ash to get there, but even that forest is beginning to show some green again.
Right now, he’s trying to unite tourists with their possessions and to get bookings for the rest of the year. A lot of people don’t know that the coast is still visitable. One group has kept Narooma going, however. Middle-Aged couples (many from Canberra) have saved one of the parks by booking in during February. Before the fires were out, but the moment the town was declared safe.
This fits with what I was saying earlier. Individual decisions can save businesses and towns even when the government doesn’t know what it’s doing.
Other stall holders told me that they weren’t in bushfire area at all, and they’re fighting the drought and their biggest problem is that everyone thinks that their beautiful jams and chutneys are affected and they’re not buying them, or that their knitwear or crafts may not be around.
No-one complained. I had to prompt to find out the effects of the fires. Everyone has friends and relatives who are affected and not a single one of these makers pushed the fires as a reason to buy. But their profits are way down this year because of the cumulative effect. And I spoke to the lucky ones, for they have enough space and time and income to get to the Show.
I can only hope that my friend Katie and I were typical of showgoers – we both purchased just a bit more than we intended. Our income is also affected, but the jams and knitwear and foods were tempting and the thing that will get Australia through this unholy mess is quite obviously community.
The international virus isn’t helping. Because it overlaps with the fires and because we are not out of the burning woods yet, it’s disastrous economically. I can report on my own book sales… because everyone is affected.
This is the last of the extra posts to cover the bushfires. Meanwhile in Australia will return to the first, third and sometimes fifth Mondays of the month. I would really love it if the rest of the year were pure delight and I could write you cute and funny tales of what we’re up to on the far side of the world. If this doesn’t eventuate, then I might keep the amazing preserves I bought at the Show (the brand was TerraAustralis and I have Desert Peach (Quandong) Marmalade, Macadamia Mustard and Bush Tomato Chutney – I sampled them all and they’re amazing) and eat them to make my life less impossible. I bought them for friends. I would rather the world were kind and my friends got these jars. Quandong and bush tomato are two of my favourite things and I want to share the joy.
UPDATE! There are no active fires in NSW. Those on the fire map need to be inactive for 72 hours before they’re declared out, but for the first time since July last year THERE ARE NO ACTIVE FIRES IN NSW!!!!