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1 Steve: Crikey, Terry! While we’ve been away, bushfires have been getting out of hand in Australia.
2 Terry: Where did you see that?
3 Steve: Nowhere! It’s summer! Bushfires are always getting out of hand in summer!
3 Terry: Hmmm. That is true.
4 Steve: And the politicians are giving useless platitudes and trying to score political points!
4 Terry: Where did you... Never mind.
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Where to begin?
As most of you are no doubt already aware, Australia is currently enduring a major bushfire emergency, which began with fires in September 2019, which are ongoing and still posing major dangers. The past couple of weeks, since Christmas, have been particularly bad as the summer heats up and large masses of hot, dry air persist over the continent.
I spent Christmas Eve with my family at an evening gathering. The weather was relatively cool, a nice change from some of the scorching Christmases we've had in the past few years. My aunt and uncle (who were hosting the event) told me of their plan to head down the south coast to their holiday home in the tiny beachside town of Lake Conjola, to spend some time relaxing over the summer holidays with their two children (young adults).
I thought nothing more of it, until a week later, on New Year's Eve. That day was very hot, with heatwave conditions across much of south-eastern Australia. This made the still-burning bushfires more intense and helped them to spread more quickly. I was keeping an eye on news sites for updates. Before I knew it, Lake Conjola was under direct threat. This town is at the end of a single access road running to the coast from the Princes Highway, the main north-south route along to the coast, here running a few kilometres inland. The fire burned across the highway, cutting it off both north and south of Lake Conjola, so rapidly that there was virtually no time between emergency authorities issuing an evacuation order, and subsequently having to close the road due to immediate danger.
The fires closed in, cutting off Lake Conjola from the outside world. They burnt down power poles, cutting electricity to the town, and damaged cell phone towers. Just before communications were cut, my aunt sent the following photos to our family.
These show a firefighting helicopter with water bucket collecting water from the lake, and then spot fires in the town ahead of the main fire front. My aunt messaged that her plan was to evacuate to the beach if the fire got close to the holiday house, where at least she could be safe. While the world rang in 2020, I had no idea if my aunt and uncle and their kids, or their house, would survive the night. I also had a friend who was down the coast with his wife and three young girls, in a separate holiday town a bit further south. Their location was not under as immediate threat, but with the roads cut around them they also had nowhere else to go.
I woke up on New Year's Day and checked the news. It was piecemeal because it was too difficult to get emergency authorities and reporters into the area, but indications were that the fire had gone directly through Lake Conjola. It wasn't until lunchtime on New Year's Day that I heard any news about my aunt and uncle. My cousin (their son) sent a message that many houses in Lake Conjola had been destroyed, but he didn't know if theirs was one of them. A bit later there was another message, saying that the street their house was on had lost no houses, so he presumed their house was safe. At this point I realised that he wasn't there in Lake Conjola himself. The next message he said that there was still no news about his mother (my aunt).
It turned out that she had travelled down to the holiday house to get it ready for the holiday, buying groceries and so on. The rest of the family had been planning to go down a day or two later and join her, but they'd been stopped by the road closures on New Year's Eve, and never got there. My aunt was in Lake Conjola with no family.
My cousin was naturally scanning for any news he could get and collecting information from any source he could find. The next thing he sent to us were photos taken in Conjola on New Year's Eve:
He didn't say who took these photos, so I don't know. (I'm therefore unable to credit the original photographers - if you know, please let me know. I've since found some of the photos, uncredited, in this story from the Milton Ulladulla Times.)
And that famous photo that made front page news around the world, of a kangaroo jumping past a house ablaze? That was taken in Conjola on New Year's Eve. That's where my aunt was trapped.
At 3:30 pm, we finally had news from my aunt. She managed to find some patchy phone reception and sent word that she was safe, and the house was safe. The fire had gone through the tiny settlement of Conjola Park, a couple of kilometres west of Lake Conjola, and destroyed almost every house there. Fortunately for the residents of Lake Conjola itself, just as the fire reached the edge of town, destroying three houses, the wind had changed, blowing it away from the remainder of the town.
My aunt was safe, but still trapped. The highway north and south was still closed with ongoing fires. It remained this way for the next three days. Lake Conjola had no power, no incoming food supplies, extremely patchy phone reception, and no way for anyone to travel anywhere. Emergency services had bigger things on their minds, with larger towns under threat and larger populations, up to 4000 people in some cases, to evacuate from more immediate danger zones. With the fire already turned back from Conjola, my aunt had to wait with limited food and fresh water, and no way to communicate. The road finally opened again on Friday 4 January, four full days after the town had been isolated. Emergency services personnel escorted small groups of vehicles out and along the highway to safety. No vehicle was allowed to travel without an escort, in case burnt trees fell and cut off the road - they didn't want people to go missing. Later that afternoon she was reunited with my uncle.
This is just one small story from a disaster that is engulfing Australia. As I type this (on Monday 6 January), 25 people have been confirmed killed by the fires, 7 remain missing. Well over 1500 homes have been destroyed, as well as thousands of other buildings and structures. The total area burnt so far is over 80,000 square kilometres, which is larger than Ireland, almost as large as Austria. These numbers will continue increasing for weeks, as the fires continue to burn, unstoppable in the hottest part of summer, as we suffer the worst drought in recorded history.
Even in places not directly affected by flames, the smoke from the fires is causing hazardous air quality across much of south-eastern Australia. For over a month now, air quality in Sydney (where I live) has been marginal some days, and officially "hazardous" on many other days. Visibility has been down to 100 metres or so because of thick smoke in the air, the sun shines down with an apocalyptic orange glow even during the middle of the day, and the smell of smoke is everywhere. Ash and burnt leaves fall from the sky, even in the middle of the city. Outdoor surfaces, wiped clean, are covered in a fine gritty ash the next day. Hospital admissions are up around 10-15% because of people experiencing increased asthma and other respiratory conditions. Canberra, which is a long way from any fires, has experienced several days in a row of horrible air conditions, with many institutions and government departments shutting down because it's too hazardous even inside the buildings for people to work.
Historic towns, full of significant buildings, such as Cobargo, have been almost entirely destroyed. Mount Selwyn, a ski resort has been entirely destroyed by fire. Huge numbers of livestock are dead or dying, and there are fears that the task of disposing of the carcasses may overwhelm resources, leading to decay and the risk of disease spreading. An estimated 500 million wild mammals, birds, and reptiles have been killed. A fire on Kangaroo Island, a 4400 square km island in South Australia, has burnt almost half the island, killing over half the population of approximately 50,000 koalas there and injuring many others beyond recovery. The koala population on Kangaroo Island was considered the last bastion of koalas, as it's the only isolated wild population free of the chlamydia infection which is killing other koala communities. Agricultural losses are huge. Many of the destroyed buildings were old, from a time when asbestos was routinely used as a building material. The smoking ruins are now too dangerous to go near or clean up without a full environment suit, because of the risk of asbestos fibres released into the air. When and if the rain finally comes, there are fears it could wash enormous amounts of ash into our reservoirs, clogging treatment systems and threatening the water supply to major cities like Sydney.
While this has been happening, the Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison has been singularly unresponsive and unhelpful. In April 2019, prior to the Australian Federal election, a group of 22 former fire and emergency services chiefs from multiple states issued a public statement saying that Australia was unprepared for worsening natural disasters from climate change and Federal and State Governments were putting lives at risk. They requested a meeting with the next Government to discuss the increased risks and how to adequately fund and prepare emergency services for them. By November, when the current fire crisis was already well underway, the Government had still not met with the group. Morrison is the man who as Federal Treasurer in 2017 literally brought a lump of coal into Parliament during Question Time and told people how great it was to mine it and burn it.
As it was becoming clear just how terrible things would be in the week before Christmas, he took a holiday to Hawaii, which he cut short when it was clear how much public criticism this was attracting. Later, Morrison toured the destroyed town of Cobargo. Not to comfort people or ask what he could do to help. He tried to shake the hand of an exhausted volunteer firefighter, who told the Prime Minister, "I don't really want to shake your hand." Morrison reach for the man's right hand, but the firefighter pulled it away. Morrison then grabbed the man's left hand and gave it a cursory shake, before walking away.
Gosh this is so awkward. Australian PM Scott Morrison goes to try and shake the hand of a firefighter who does not appear keen. (The PM was abused earlier by angry locals) Filmed by @GregNelsonACS @abcnews #AustraliaBurning #NSWbushfires #SouthCoastFires pic.twitter.com/3zjeJp3jWe— Sophie McNeill (@Sophiemcneill) January 2, 2020
Soon after, Morrison spoke to a local incident controller of the Rural Fire Service: "Tell that fella I’m really sorry, I’m sure he’s just tired." The controller replied, "No no, he lost a house."
Shortly after the non-handshake:— Siobhan Heanue (@siobhanheanue) January 2, 2020
PM: “Tell that fella I’m really sorry, I’m sure he’s just tired.”
Local incident controller: “No no, he lost a house.”#AustraliaBurning #ausfires #nswfires pic.twitter.com/9PodUTCf9z
In the same visit, Morrison approached young mother Zoey Salucci-McDermott, 28 weeks pregnant, who had lost her home in the fire. As she was in the process of saying, "I'm only shaking your hand if you give more funding to our RFS [Rural Fire Service]," he reached for and took her hand forcefully - against her will - giving it a brief shake. "So many people have lost their homes ... We need more help," she continued, as the Prime Minister turned his back on her and walked away, letting a minder do the job of shushing the woman.
Now, I'm not a politician, but I think a better option here would have been to: (1) not grab someone's hand - not a firefighter, let alone a young woman - when it's not being offered for a handshake, (2) listen to the people who are hurting, (3) tell them that you're listening, you understand that they're upset, and (4) ask them what they think the Government has done wrong and how it can change to make things better.
I don't tend to be outspoken politically online, but when when things have gotten to the point where this sort of thing is happening, and I personally fear for the life of a relative in a disaster exacerbated, if not caused, by climate change, you can rest assured that I'm not happy about where we are, how we got here, or the role of the Australian Government in making things worse. For people overseas, I'm sorry that our Government is setting such a bad example.
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