This essay was written during the Australian summer of 2019/20. It is about the destructive bushfires we experienced then.
I am moved by fancies that are curled
Around these images, and cling:
The notion of some infinitely gentle
Infinitely suffering thing.
– T.S. Eliot, Preludes
Hannam Vale, Friday November 8 – maximum temperature 34.3 degrees Celsius at Taree Airport AWS, 0 mm rainfall at Hannam Vale (Hannam Vale Road)
The photograph was taken at sunset and it showed a wall of red flame at the top of a nearby hill, apparently pausing briefly before deciding what to obliterate next. A mate sent it to the WhatsApp group that a few old school friends use to stay in touch.
When another mate saw it he expressed the alarm which the rest of us felt: Shouldn’t you get out of there? Apparently the fire wasn’t as close as it looked. Close enough for an awesome photo: not close enough yet to run for your life. The first mate sounded matter of fact, standard for those who live in rural parts of the Mid North Coast of New South Wales, but he revealed that he and his partner and their kids were at a friend’s house – somewhere with a better view of what was going on, somewhere safer.
Before moving here they lived in the outskirts of Canberra, on a place where leaves and twigs and pieces of bark – perfect for camp fire kindling, when camp fires were still allowed – lay ankle-deep around the timber house, and trees grew densely over the property and the entire district. The location was barely a settlement at all: there was an ACT Rural Fire Service shed, which presumably housed a truck, and this building doubled as a community hall. It made perfect sense when my mate said that their bushfire plan was to quickly pack the car and go. Any notion of defending that house was risible.
My mate and his partner left the ACT and came to a hamlet with a handful of shops and a tiny yet adequate school and a local woman who comes out to your house and cuts your hair for you, saving a long drive to the nearest barber or salon. They had space and there was again room for a horse or two and all of their other animals.
The lifestyle suited them. He had worked for the Environment Department in Canberra and he had, with several others, become surplus to the requirements of a Prime Minister who remained to be convinced about the impact of human agency upon climate change. He later became a consultant, doing roughly the same work but mostly from home, which meant a rural location could work for him as well as it did for his partner, a lobbyist who needs to be in Canberra at times but can work anywhere if she has access to a phone and a computer.
His mates wonder how he’s going and if he’s happy and it is a treat to see him in Sydney, where we were all raised and went to school together. The most recent time I saw him was at our twenty-five year school reunion, and he was fine, of course, and we talked about cricket, as we always do. There I spoke to a friend I hadn’t seen for well over a decade as we looked out at Sydney’s gorgeous harbour while evening turned to night and the lights of the city shone back at us, and he told me about coming there that afternoon on public transport, a rare experience for someone in insurance, it seems, and he said, “This place is a shit show.” He was right. Sydney is an unutterably attractive yet almost wholly dysfunctional place. It has never really worked properly, and it’s too expensive to live here. My public servant mate found a different life, a way to get out. But in two weeks the fire that would begin surrounding the city would first come for his little farm.
By the Monday morning after the Friday photo message my mate and the family had come to Sydney. They had lost power and it seemed like the safe thing to do with predicted bad weather for the coming week. While they were at his mother’s place in the affluent North Shore the wind changed direction and returning home became an option. The North Shore is often referred to as “leafy” and the volume of trees became a problem when weather conditions put certain suburbs in danger. A journalist from the Sydney Morning Herald was dispatched to look for a story and my mate’s mum was interviewed about the precautions she had taken. But the fires had other plans and the danger passed.
That weekend my mate called me from his second very long car trip of the week, hoping to get back as quickly as possible, hoping the wind wouldn’t change direction again, and carrying the body of their recently deceased family dog over 300km up the Pacific Highway, to be buried where he belonged. One of our dogs had died only a month before and while it was deeply affecting to hear about the death of a beloved family pet there was something beautiful about taking him home.
Tamworth, Tuesday November 12 – maximum temperature 34.8 degrees Celsius, 0 mm rainfall at Taree Airport AWS
Another mate was on the road for work, seeing clients in Armidale and Tamworth, and he sent a photo and a video to the same WhatsApp group. In the photo trucks were stopped at a police roadblock, with immense plumes of smoke hovering over a ridge in the background. The video showed him following a truck driver attempting to skirt the fire and escape the area.
On the video you could hear ABC local radio inside his car and I remember thinking that some of the commentators he likes to watch on Sky News After Dark question the importance of the ABC and believe it should be privatised. This illustrated one of the reasons why it is an important institution – you don’t get local natural disaster updates of this sort anywhere else.
He does a job I don’t fully understand, working for a company which provides a computer program financial advisers can use to help invest their clients’ superannuation more profitably. Apparently he’s very good at the work and the need to sometimes see financial advisers in person allows him to indulge a love of driving on country roads.
During the recent federal election political discussion on our little WhatsApp group lost its humour and took on a tinge of spite. This mate felt that the prospect of older people losing their franking credits was a terrible, almost unconscionable, thing to contemplate. Others had differing views, some more strident than the rest. Dividend imputation had to be explained to me, and even after it was I couldn’t honestly say I understood it, although it sounded a bit like a reward for already having money.
And other electoral issues were discussed, in the sneering tone which the group adopted, but not all enjoyed. Once a non-political mate wrote: Can we not talk about politics again please! The election came and went, calm was restored, and important things endured, as they do in this country.
It must have occurred to someone, as this mate was trapped by bushfires, to suggest he rethink his objection to the concept of climate change, a process contributing to his present predicament. But nobody wrote that. We just wanted him safe and home again soon. The last time my racing industry mate could spare a rare few days to come to Sydney from his Asian base we sat in a restaurant with wives and partners and children and the closeness and amity of decades was felt immediately, as ever when we get together. Public servant mate made the point that we were sitting in a sort of political alignment along the restaurant table, with finance mate at the far right end and him at the far left. I wondered if there was enough distance between them and suggested that maybe we needed a longer table. We laughed about it and told the stories we always tell.
There has been pain in finance mate’s life and his family are still dealing with that pain. He’s a bit of a smartarse and always amusing company and very thoughtful whenever you take the trouble to talk to him about any of life’s big questions. And he’s also a very talented photographer, as we learned when we saw the photos he sent back from the extended overseas sabbatical he took following the death of his brother eighteen months ago.
By late afternoon this Tuesday, and having followed the truck he was tailing back to Tamworth, he accepted defeat and knew he wouldn’t be able to drive to Sydney until the next day. He seemed pleased with himself even. He wrote: Just smashed a massive schnitty. I imagined him sitting in one of the capacious, very comfortable pubs in that part of the world with a schnitzel draped over his plate and the satisfied smile which comes from making the best of a bad situation.
Darling Harbour, Tuesday December 10 – maximum temperatures 30.1 degrees Celsius, 0 mm rainfall at Sydney (Observatory Hill)
The event was at the National Maritime Museum in Darling Harbour and it was one of those off-site staff days that public servants attend to refresh and recharge and energise and to focus on what’s important. There were guest speakers and performances and the staff, who all work on making New South Wales more environmentally sustainable, were thanked for a successful year and encouraged to renew their efforts. My wife was among them.
Inside the conference facility members of the senior management team sang “Carbon Give it Up” to the tune of the KC and The Sunshine Band song, a performance featuring some rather impressive falsetto and a fair bit of daggy dancing. Outside the facility there was so much smoke you couldn’t see from one side of Darling Harbour to the other.
The public servants all had an opportunity to marvel at this fact when they were forced to go outside because the smoky air caused fire alarms to go off. One woman was overcome by the conditions and had to be sent home.
A mate of mine was forced to leave the government building in Parramatta where he works when the smoke alarms went off there too.
Elsewhere in Sydney, Prime Minister Scott Morrison gave a press conference about changes to his religious freedom bill, and had very little to say about the weather and the fires and the fact that it smelled like someone was about to start cooking on an old-fashioned barbecue all the time, wherever you went, these days. The sun looked red and the air had a yellow tint to it and nobody had seen blue sky for weeks, but the prime minister didn’t say anything about these things either.
On the way back to work after my lunchtime stroll I saw cars stopped at traffic lights a block away and the look of the air strongly resembled an early July morning in the Southern Highlands, where the fog is thick and the atmosphere is fresh and you know that the dogs you are walking will appreciate going back to the little holiday cabin and warming up again in front of the wood fire. Yet this was the middle of the day, and early summer, and I thought of all the people who suffer with asthma and other respiratory ailments, my wife among them, and how much harder it is to get through the day when the air outside isn’t safe to breathe. On this Tuesday the Air Quality Index, updated hourly on the NSW Department of Planning, Industry & Environment website, registered twelve times higher than the Hazardous level of 200 Units.
You could smell the smoke under ground in Sydney Metro stations, a form of driverless public transport we were all supposed to be excited about, but which rapidly lost its novelty and became like the others – subject to official exaggeration about efficiency, no faster than alternatives, and likely to experience problems which just shouldn’t happen (in one Metro station an escalator stopped while I was travelling on it on two separate occasions, and another escalator broke down, unusable for months). Beside these commuting innovations there had been a few things to get used to since being forced to move to Macquarie Park after a company merger early in the year. For starters, there’s the heavy vehicle traffic and constant construction noise and the absurd time it takes to cross Lane Cove Road. Even before smoke from the fires this was one of the most polluted places in Australia. The state government is encouraging businesses to move to the area and we must hope that one day it will become a pleasant place to work.
Point Clare, Sunday December 15 – maximum temperature 28.9 degrees Celsius, 0 mm rainfall at Gosford AWS
Friends visited briefly to see the foster cat we had decided to keep who had originally been part of a family of strays roaming their suburb. He’s a lovely ginger boy and they were happy to see him so well and grown so big. My wife and I were decorating gingerbread bells and angels and Christmas trees with icing when they arrived.
Talk quickly moved to the weather and the fires and a historical perspective for our New Zealand friends. Almost my entire life has been lived in this city and bushfire smoke is something which does happen, but it is uncommon and lasts for a day or so, not for a month with no sign of abating. My wife recalled fires in early 1990s when she was on a jazz camp in the school holidays and they stood in the low surf in the Northern Beaches and could see dark masses of dirty grey on the horizon to the west. But this example lingered in the memory because it was unusual.
The man said his sister in Auckland told him that our smoke could be smelled there too. He was becoming frustrated with the sense of apathy in the city: the keep calm and carry on mentality when people should be shouting and screaming and demanding that something be done. At the recent rally organised by Extinction Rebellion and others, called ‘NSW is Burning, Sydney is Choking’, which marched from Town Hall to Hyde Park a few days before, he said it felt empowering to finally be around people who wanted to actually do something about what was happening.
And then my mobile phone rang and I was called away to talk to a male relative. He completely overwhelmed my attention, which is often the case when he calls unexpectedly, and his rare calls always seem unexpected.
I stood in the least dilapidated room of our rented house, recently transformed into the Christmas room – with a closed door to keep our five cats away from the tree and the tinsel and the lights, preventing damage to decorations and injury to curious felines – and spoke to him. In his gruff and guttural way he opened with a challenge:
“I got your Christmas card.”
“Oh, good. I’m glad,” I said.
“Yeah, I don’t send them. I’m a bit more like ‘Bah! Humbug!’ with Christmas.”
I said that was fine, but he got a card like everyone else on the list, and even if it wasn’t an important occasion for him we still wished him a Happy Christmas. I think he said “Bah! Humbug!” again at this point. He certainly said it a few more times before the conversation was over.
When I asked how he was he said things were pretty bad. I recalled that his joints tend to ache in the colder months and hoped the pain was reduced in summer. He said his main difficulty now was in his head, and I thought about the loss of his partner, a woman he had loved very deeply for so long in his undemonstrative way and had grieved for very hard when she died two years ago.
But we talked about the fires. I said I had looked for Point Clare on the Fires Near Me app and realised that there was nothing very close to him on the Central Coast.
Again there was a challenge: “Just how close do you think is close, Phil?”
In response I took cover and only emerged with extreme caution when the coast was clear. I made a joke – “Well, it’s not burning right outside your back door” – and admitted that he was right and what I said was a collection of ill-chosen words.
Ours has always been a strange relationship. Despite attending a fairly fancy school and graduating from uni with a fairly pointless degree he has never rejected me as soft and girly.
The truth is that we are very different types of men. Facial hair and adventure sports and having almost any practical skills at all are foreign to me. My male relative can build things and used to go diving and still pulls heavy things on a trailer through mud and shallow streams with his 4WD. We’ve bonded over footy and drinking, in his case with a little more theatre and much more capacity than mine.
If the fires got closer he said there may be nowhere to run. His part of the world would be cut off. He suggested that the huge trees in his area which grow among the houses should be replaced with more manageable and fast growing trees that only reach a couple of metres high, as the truly fine specimens, trees he loves, are just too dangerous if there’s a fire or a storm, when they come down and cause harm to people and property. This seemed sensible. It also seemed sensible to put electrical and phone cables underground and take away the telegraph poles which are also potentially dangerous.
He said that of course the fires were linked with climate change and he couldn’t believe it was possible for politicians to fail to recognise the connection and do something about it. He said that his mate, who works in forestry, had been fighting bushfires continually since September, while the fire season is not supposed to start until late December.
He told me about the insurance on his home, a little place which would now be out of financial reach to us, as all houses seem to be. In the event of fire, he would need to replace everything, as he backs onto a National Park and the entire structure would go. Also, it would only be possible to rebuild with more expensive, fire retardant materials, including double glazing. We agreed that we hated insurers and banks and the words “extortion” and “thieves” and “bastards” were used. News reports we both saw showed people saying they would not have enough insurance money to rebuild their incinerated houses.
And he told me that he had seen a psychologist and I said that I saw one in 2017 and 2018. It became a supportive conversation, the kind we want more men to have: listening and sharing without judgement. As he left his first session the psychologist wished him a happy Christmas.
“Bah! Humbug!” he said.
“I like your sense of humour,” she replied, and when he told me this I felt like there was a good chance therapy would help him.
Bundanoon, Thursday December 19 – maximum temperature 37.1 degrees at Moss Vale AWS, 0 mm rainfall at Fitzroy Falls (Red Hills)
The plan was to take our friend to see the glow worms at Bundanoon in the Southern Highlands just before the week of Christmas. Hopefully this would mean avoiding traffic and it would be a leisurely afternoon, with a pub dinner in the evening, glow worms after sundown and home at night a couple of hours later.
In the afternoon we began to focus on the Balmoral fire, also in the Southern Highlands, one of the fires NSW Rural Fire Service Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons spoke about at the press conferences he held during the day. Our friend had worked with Shane and said he was a lovely person as well as being a very competent commissioner. He had been good to her when her mum died. She had no doubt that the powers conferred by NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian in declaring a state of emergency would be very wisely used by her old boss.
We made the only sensible decision, not to go. Those fighting the fires would need road access and their job could only be more difficult with added people who didn’t need to be there. Locals were already clogging roads in and out of the area, trying to get home or to leave.
So we didn’t see the glow worms, which aren’t really worms at all. They are larvae of fungus gnats from the genus Arachnocampa, which are only found in Australia and New Zealand. They dangle silken threads, which capture insect prey like spider webs, and attract that prey with blue-green bioluminescence, seen at night, produced by a reaction between an enzyme and a pigment in the larval body and oxygen in the air. The effect is magical. Glow worms require constant moisture and there are now only a handful of colonies in Australia as habitats become too dry to support them.
Our plan for the day had to change. What to us was an inconvenience was to others a very real and rapidly unfolding tragedy. Two Rural Fire Service volunteers were killed that night.
We could see the glow worms at another time, we thought, when peoples’ lives weren’t combusting only a few kilometres away. In the month since, fires have twice threatened the town of Bundanoon, causing it to be evacuated, and the danger is not over yet.
Sydney Harbour, Tuesday 31 December – maximum temperature 36.6 degrees Celsius, 0 mm rainfall at Sydney (Observatory Hill Comparison)
On New Year’s Eve it was hot and we had forgotten to get sparklers and so didn’t go outside and perform our little midnight ritual. We didn’t make figures of eight and spirals and write our names in glowing flame while the oblivious neighbourhood sleeps on, undisturbed by sporadic backyard fireworks detonating until dawn.
Instead we went to bed, too tired to see the New Year in. We didn’t watch the $5.8 million Sydney Harbour fireworks on TV which 284,000 petition signatures had sought to cancel. We didn’t see the display, which generates $130 million for the state economy, and which only went ahead because the Rural Fire Service exempted it from total fire bans imposed on much of New South Wales that day. Apparently it was very fine, as usual, and over $2 million was raised for bushfire relief.
The next day we learned that smoke from Australian fires had reached New Zealand, blanketing the south island and reducing visibility to 10km. Glaciers had turned brown and the peaks around Queenstown, where our friends had visited their families for Christmas, were covered in haze. And so 2020 begins. At the time of writing in mid-January this summer’s Australian bushfire death toll is twenty-nine and climbing, with countless losses to property and biodiversity, and no prospect of the situation improving until we have proper rain, maybe in April. It is a sad and scary thing to be ringed by fires in this luminous city which we have never been able to make work and which nature is showing us we don’t deserve. But sadness should be for the fire victims on the outskirts of our little suburban lives. We are no longer immune from their concerns – indeed we never were, but some of us are starting to realise that now.