AU readers: unless you’ve been living in a doomsday bunker for the past couple of months, this general thrust of this post will (hopefully) be a familiar – albeit, sobering – summary of the recent events in Australia.
OS readers: no doubt you’re probably aware of the situation, though my intent is to hopefully highlight some particulars of the crisis.
It’s raining in Adelaide this morning. Actual decent rain. The first actual decent rain we’ve had in about a month. Preceding this cool respite in the middle of Summer, it’s been hot here. So hot in December 2019 that all kinds of temperature records broke. Just last week we had a heatwave consisting of four consecutive days above 40 degrees. There’s also been fires in my home state of South Australia – chiefly in the Adelaide Hills and a horrendous bushfire that has burned out a third of Kangaroo Island.
The bushfire season in Australia began well in advance. In September 2019, multiple fires broke out in New South Wales and Queensland. More fires followed in both states followed by Victoria, Western Australia, Tasmania and South Australia; and they’ve been burning since – claiming properties, decimating towns, destroying ecosystems and habitat, killing half a billion animals and (at the time of writing) 24 people with many still unaccounted for.
The scale of the disaster is beyond comprehension, with an estimated 6.3 million hectares of land burned across the country. Many threatened species will have been pushed to the brink of extinction. In the past week, during the latest escalation of the fires in Victoria and New South Wales, thousands of people stranded in coastal districts were evacuated by the Navy and Defence Force. In parts of the country the sky is blood red, and towns and cities are blanketed in smoke. Two days ago (January 3rd) Canberra recorded the worst air quality of anywhere on the planet.
Anyone who doesn’t have their head in the sand or isn’t a RWNJ (Right Wing Nut Job) can plainly acknowledge that the early start to the 2019-20 fire season and the sheer ferocity of the fires has been due to a warming and drier continent, exacerbated by anthropogenic climate change. It’s not just the fires. 2019 was a terrible year against the spectre of climate change and/or environmental destruction; the worst Australian drought on record; the parlous state of the Murray-Darling river system; the Menindee fish kills; towns running out of water; dust storms; land clearing…the list goes on.
By the end of 2019, I was really looking forward to a holiday, and whilst parts of it have been genuinely relaxing and a break in routine, it’s felt decidedly off and set against a feeling of existential dread and fear of the future. It’s genuinely existential, because I haven’t been directly impacted by the fires (aside from the occasional haze of smoke in Adelaide), yet they can’t escape my thoughts.
Especially the destruction of Kangaroo Island, which I only visited two months ago and wrote about in my previous Communique post. The Flinders Chase National Park that my partner and I hiked through over five days has been all but razed by fire, including the caravan park we stayed at, visitor accomodation, the visitor centre and several animal sanctuaries. The impressions of that trip are still so vivid and fresh that I’m simply struggling to reconcile and imagine the reality of those pristine landscapes being transformed into a vast, charred tableaux. The smoke and ash from the fire was drifting over Adelaide yesterday. The smell of the smoke woke my partner at 4am. On an afternoon walk through our suburb, we again caught a strong whiff of the smoke. The black seat of my bicycle was covered in ash.
The impressions and experience of this nationwide catastrophe soak into everyone and everything. I honestly cannot imagine what it’s like for the volunteer firefighters and communities directly affected and caught in the thick of the fires. Many of us have seen phone footage of the firestorms approaching with terrifying force and literally tearing the air apart. The sound is especially shocking: roaring balls of fire, crackling trees and scrub, the howling airspace; against a backdrop of sirens, shouts and screams.
The animals. Where do I begin? How can I succinctly or accurately sum up the impact?
I can’t. It’s utterly heartbreaking.
It’s an ecological apocalypse, with the full-scale not known for a long time; maybe we won’t ever know. For so many of us, the sound of our precious and unique Australian wildlife characterises our country. It tells us about our environment – sometimes it’s raucous and lively; increasingly it’s falling silent. Other times, it’s more oblique and disturbing.
The Australian Magpie’s miraculous calls are ubiquitous throughout Australia, so it was especially disarming to hear one mimicking the siren of a fire engine. It is, at once a testament to the parlous state of our corner of the world, as well as the uniqueness of the creatures that we live amongst.
I’m going to shortly close out this post. It’s quite a diversion from previous instalments, but honestly there is nothing else I can bring myself to write about presently. I’ve long been fearful of the future of my country and the rest of the planet, but these recent events have significantly rammed it home. At the beginning of a new decade, Australia is (another) ground zero for the climate emergency.
This disaster will linger for years and it will take a great deal to restore and build resilience.
I have listed charities and fundraisers below that readers can donate to: