I’ve got a recording on my phone from 23 December 2014. It’s called ‘Bats, Wright’, and listening to it I can still see the scene when I recorded it.
It was late at night and I was standing under a bright street light that rose like a four-leaf clover from the centre of a roundabout just a few blocks from my parents’ house in one of the new suburbs of Canberra. I was listening with my bat detector to the microbats that were flitting in and out of the arc of the light’s glow, feasting on the thousands of beetles drawn to that same light. The beetles writhed on their backs on the gravel of the roundabout, clambered over the empty road, rattled and thunked against the steel and glass of the lights and whirred as they flew laboriously through the night air. Bats of maybe half-a-dozen species gorged themselves. Walking back to the house I skirted past kangaroos munching contentedly on the nature-strips, hunched behind parked cars. It was a Christmas bounty of wildlife.
The next day the kangaroos had retreated, and the bats had moved to their day-time roosts. The surviving beetles were perhaps safely chewing on leaves away from the streets. I imagine them all faded into the neighboring forest of young and slender brittle-gums, planted only a few years earlier on rough and despoiled ground. Mountain-bikers ride the tracks that wind through the gums, up and down the mountain behind the new forest. My parents often walk their dog past those mountain-bike tracks, past the gums, past the small carpark where the ash-black scar of a burned-out car still marks the tarmac, along a small artificial creek planted with tussock-grass and casuarinas where frogs call plonkingly to each-other and yellow-tailed black-cockatoos sometimes ghost in and out of the treetops.
Past the creek, in the middle of a grove, is a clear circle where I once sat and watched a flock of double-barred finches foraging, and where stand a series of columns and a red brick wall. If you look closely at the columns you’ll see that they’re made of glass and metal; you’ll see that the bricks are inscribed with names and messages. Together they’re the ACT Bushfire Memorial.
My parents were living in a different house, a different suburb of Canberra, on the 18th of January 2003. I should tell you now that the house didn’t burn down; I don’t want to cause you unnecessary anxiety. They sold it, years later, for unrelated reasons, and moved to Wright where they live now. My brother and I lived with them back then, on that day which doesn’t really have a name, in the old house. It was pre-social media and all our information came in slower ways. I recall that as the horror of the day started to become clear I was in the back garden hosing down a rug that our dog had urinated on. Even as I listened to the ABC radio emergency broadcast, reality took a while to sink in. The year before we’d all watched a water-bombing helicopter fill up from Lake Burley-Griffin down the road from the house, again and again, as a grass fire threatened the Mint and the Governor-General’s residence. This time the fire was coming from elsewhere, up from the south-west, from treetop to treetop, ember attacks leaping ahead of the front like an infantry charge, two fires in fact: twin fire-fronts joining together and sweeping with the hot dry fast wind into the city from Namadgi National Park, where they’d been burning unchecked for the previous fortnight, started by lightning and an absence of rain.
Memory is imperfect. In my mind’s eye the 18th of January 2003 in Canberra is bright and sunny, the kind of day we associate with January and a temperature of 40 degrees, even though I know for a fact that the day was dark as midnight with the smoke from the fires. I recall how charred gum leaves, black as silhouettes, fell out of the sky like an awful rain, all day long, even kilometres from the fire-front. My parents, fortuitously, were in Sydney that weekend but I recall my anxiety as my brother was away from the house all day, helping old family friends up the road get their house ready in case the fire burned through to our suburb. I can’t remember what I did with my day, apart from listen constantly to the radio—can’t remember if I prepared the house, packed up photo-albums, got ready to make a run for it. I think I packed some bags of family belongings but I think mostly I just listened, and listened, and called my brother, and ticked off the suburbs in my mind as the fire came for them: it never got closer than ten kilometres from us; not so far in a city as spread-out as Canberra. In the days afterwards, we ate out of an esky while we waited for the electricity to be restored: although our suburb had been untouched the substation which fed it was burned. We had to throw out everything in the fridge and when we went to buy food the supermarket shelves were nearly empty. Everything had gone to the evacuation centres, along with thousands of people.
What else to say about that day two decades ago and the weeks afterwards? The weeks of yellow smoke like a winter fog, the weeks of sifting through the ruins of friends’ houses, of donating clothes and toys and anything at all to friends and strangers, of counting the cost? Maybe not much else. Another time, perhaps. Just the numbers: four people killed—a miracle, only four. Four lives and all the worlds in them—an unspeakable tragedy. Nearly five-hundred houses destroyed, though that doesn’t include the ones left standing but too dangerous to live in, the mortar brittled by the heat, the walls warped. I could write you paragraphs about how when I went to the house of friends, or what was left of it, the roof of the house over the road was waved where the fire-storm’s cyclonic winds had lifted the tiles and dumped them again, but left the house and all its contents intact. I could write you paragraphs about the sheet of corrugated iron wrapped like newspaper around a dead tree on the ridge behind my friend’s house, the same ridge over which the fire had come leaping and devouring. I could write you paragraphs about the tiny daisies still bright and flowering on the still-green nature strip outside my friend’s levelled house, because the fire in all its speed and ferocity had gone right over the top. I could write about how my family didn’t see any footage of just how bad the fire had been until days later when the power was restored and we could watch TV again—all we had were photos and stories.
I could write all that, but I’m tired. All these years later and once again fire’s been gnawing at Canberra’s edges, for months now—Braidwood, Pialligo, Namadgi once more—and I’m tired of worrying about my parents and my brother and my friends who still live there. I’m tired of being 700 kilometres away from them. I’m tired of rushing to my local Bunnings to buy a pack of P2 masks and then begging social media for someone travelling from Melbourne to Canberra to take them to my family because the smoky air in the ACT is so thick and toxic that Australia Post won’t make deliveries there. I’m tired of the relief of news of rain turning into new despair as massive hailstones destroy years-old crop experiments at the ANU, destroys cars, windows, public buildings all over the city, wildlife. I’m tired of the way this season of catastrophes has made me short-tempered so that I snap and snarl at people on social media who casually say that Canberra deserves all the punishment it’s got, because of one building populated sporadically by decision-makers who—except for a mere five of them, only 2.2% of the total—don’t even call Canberra home. I’m tired of checking the ACT Emergency Services website every day to see how big the new fire in Namadgi has become now. I’m tired of the way that fire, and so many others around the country, drop out of the news because the instant they stop threatening human lives and property. Entire national parks have been destroyed. Disaster capitalists inside and outside parliament are agitating to get their hands on what’s left.
Like everyone else in Australia I’m tired to waiting to see which place I hold dear to my heart will be devastated next … climate change as Russian roulette. I’m tired of latching desperately on to the tiniest scraps of good news: a few surviving dunnarts found on Kangaroo Island, a regent honeyeater spotted in Canberra, fires in places I love—French Island, Plenty Gorge—extinguished before they can do serious damage. These are our victories now. Small fires. Minor devastation. Species not entirely wiped out. I’m tired and I’m angry.
I’m writing and thinking about the Canberra fires of 2003 because if I stop to think about the fires all over Australia of these last months instead I don’t think I’ll be able to stop crying. How is anyone supposed to comprehend the cascade of tragedies and disasters that flow from drought, to fire, to floods that poison rivers and creeks, killing everything in the water? How is anyone supposed to understand a billion dead animals? How do you get your head around such a number? Australia is 4000 kilometres wide from east to west. That’s 4 billion millimetres. Imagine a dead animal—snail, beetle, parrot, wallaby, goanna, perch, etc—every 4 millimetres, across the entire breadth of Australia. Imagine how you’d have to pile them on top of each other just to fit them. Except you can’t imagine, nobody can, and this analogy is in the end just a way to retreat into impossible fantasy and by doing so avoid truly imagining the full scale and implications of the horror we have been—and continue to be—witness to. I can’t think about it. Not yet. I don’t have the strength. I’m aware that this is a failing. I’m aware that it’s a privilege. I’m aware but I’m tired. I’m frayed at the edges. Like so many people in Australia I’ve dreamed of one day living in the bush but right now I’m so thankful that I’m safe, deep within a major city; but the fires crackle in my ear from a distance, burn low and undetected in the undergrowth of my mind. I’m aware that I’m safe and I’m thankful for my luck but having seen once in my lifetime a community brought to its knees by fires I can tell you: nobody gets out of this unscathed.
But we’ll soldier on, as best we can. People are resilient, as our Prime Minister keeps reminding us with his focus-group grin and forced handshakes and facile thumbs up. Communities bounce back, though never the same as they were before. When I visit my parents and walk up past the memorial and into the wattles and then through to the other side I end up on top of Mt Stromlo, and the famous observatory there, where the burned-out shells of old telescopes destroyed in 2003 still stand as reminders. The suburb or Wright at the foot of the mountain where my parents now live was built on the site of a pine plantation that burned to ash and stumps on that January day. Life rising from the ashes.
Much of the Australian bush has a similar and astonishing capacity for regeneration—but it’s not indestructable. We know that fires and other extreme weather events are only going to get more frequent and more intense, their seasons longer, as climate change accelerates. We’ve known this for a long time—for multiple iterations of parliament, for multiple governments, both Liberal and Labor. In only a few short years we’ve become accustomed to the bushfire season in south-eastern Australia stretching from September to April. Half of the year is now bushfire season, a fact which puts the lie to the Prime Minister’s attempts to dub these past months ‘Black Summer’. A forest that is incinerated every year, or even every two years, or every three years, and gets potentially only a few months to recover before coming into risk again, cannot thrive. Epicormic growth is already sprouting from eucalypts up and down the fire grounds but even the best boxer in the world can only take so many blows before they can no longer get back off the mat. Those charismatic, attention-catching birds and mammals which survived this most recent season of infernos, and survive the starvation and predation by cats and foxes afterwards, will need places to live, and to raise their young. For so many Australian species those places are tree hollows. It takes a hundred years or more for a eucalypt to start developing hollows—even if we stopped logging all our old growth forest immediately, how many of them would be safe from future fires? And how many Australian forests are going to go the next hundred years without burning?
While Namadgi burned entire, and Square Rock—where I sat and ate lunch with my father last September to mark my 40th birthday, looking out over the dark green mountains that I fly over whenever I return home—was overrun by a fire that spread from the Ororral Valley to the south. I thought about when my father and I went on an overnight walk over twenty years ago to Yankee Hat just south of the Ororral Valley. The regrowth from a fire a decade earlier was so thick that it was impenetrable. In human terms those trees would have barely been out of childhood by the time they burned again this year, as Yankee Hat’s also been claimed by this most recent fire—a fire which, as I write this, is only just being brought under control.
If the memory and trauma of the Canberra bushfires of 2003 were a person they’d be able to vote next year. But who would they vote for? Minor parties which might have something to offer can’t stop fighting among themselves for long enough to be truly useful. Meanwhile, neither major political party in this country appears serious about doing the hard, tough, long and necessary work of building for a future in which Australia is not in thrall to fossil fuels. The best that either of Australia’s parties of government are doing is giving lip-service to the need to prevent fires in future while acting against all evidence and knowledge as to how to do that.
Let’s not beat around the bush and say they’re expressing opinions, or making statements: they’re lying. They are liars. The truth of how any given fire has started takes only seconds to find for anybody with an internet connection. Any decision to blame arson, or a failure to do hazard reduction burning, for the vast majority of these fires is a lie. In this age of information saturation it takes effort to tell the truth, but it takes no effort at all to tell a lie.
Like the fires the misinformation and disinformation creates its own weather, spreading itself until everything before it is consumed, truth most of all. The Canberra fires of 2003 occurred in the context of the Millennium Drought which was reckoned by many people to be the worst drought in Australian history; it only took a decade for that record to be surpassed. The Orroral Valley fire in Namadgi this year was started by a safety light on a military helicopter: the bush in southern Australia is so dry that a hot light can start a fire that burns more than 85,000 hectares. Yet people in positions to change and shape the national debate about these most urgent matters, whether tabloid media or tabloid politicians or tabloid mining magnates, are presenting the lie that the cause of these fires is only binary: dry lightning or arson. For the record, the bush on the northern side of the walking track where my father and I walked up to Square Rock, bush which has now been overrun by the Orroral Valley fire, was in September black and ashy where a hazard reduction burn had been conducted. I remember commenting to my dad at the time about how the burn only went a couple of metres up the trunks of the trees; by the time the Orroral Valley fire swept over Square Rock the fire would have been leaping from treetop to dry, unburned, treetop.
I think people in power and priviliege are spreading these lies because they legitimately believe that they and their families are going to get out of this alive. It’s not just politicians but business interests, too. Magnates and billionnaires spend more time dreaming up how to escape the earth than how to save it, because to save it would mean acknowledging that the system of rampant exploitation that is capitalism needs to be at the very least fundamentally rethought, and it’s that very system that allows them to be billionnaires in the first place. It’s easier for the rich and powerful to point the finger at anyone other than themselves than it is for them to accept the consequences of their actions. Blame fictional arsonists; blame non-existent bans on hazard reduction; blame, obscenely, a made-up fever-dream conspiracy theory of environmental activiats supposedly lighting fires as a way to further their coal-hating agenda.
The Prime Minister is right, in one sense: to survive the next inferno, and the one after that, and the one after that, and all the other nightmares that the climate change we’ve created will send us, we’ll need resilience. But it will be a resilience of communities, broader than ourselves and our friends and our families, and in opposition to our politicians and the lobbyists from extractive industries who grease their palms and whisper in their ears.
The settler-colonial mindset on which this country called Australia was founded lives in stubborn denial of the reality of the landscape it inhabits. It treats this land—our ‘beauty rich and rare’—as an open buffet. Or in fact not even open: because only a very few reap the real rewards of the grotesque wealth accumulated on the back of the destruction of this extraordinary and unique place. This system which has brought the Australian continent and the rest of the planet to its knees was not made for us. Any given one of us is far more likely to lose everything we hold dear in a fire than we ever are to live in a big house on a hill with all the possessions and power we can dream of.
But even if by some miracle we get to the top of that hill, sooner rather than later the fires will burn that house down too.