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Australia In Peril

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I have been shocked by bushfires before. As a terrified boy in the 1970s I couldn’t believe gum trees detonated like wooden bombs as flames crackled near my home in Sydney. As an adult I did a doubletake while reporting on the 2003 Canberra bushfires. That inferno melted solid brass garden taps and liquefied the alloy in cars.

A few years later I was on Victoria’s catastrophic Black Saturday firegrounds where 173 men, women and children died. That time I wasn’t so much shaken by the fires’ colossal scarring of bush and buildings, but by the emotional wounds it left on survivors – especially the kids.

Yes, having reported on half a dozen such disasters, I figured I’d just about seen it all when it came to the damage bushfires can wreak. I was wrong.

While horrific in their own right, previous fire emergencies passed by relatively quickly. The rains fell, the threat abated and the counting of costs began. Not so in this Black Summer that heralded the ghastly new age of the ‘mega fire’.

By now we all know the toll: 34 people dead, upwards of 6,000 homes and buildings destroyed, 18.6 million hectares of bushland scorched and billions – billions – of native animals, birds and insects wiped out.

The fires burned for so long it’s hard to remember when the slide into this dystopian-feeling new decade began. In my little corner of the country on the NSW south coast things grew scary last November when early signs of the looming disaster were as depressing as they were alarming.

Billions of burnt leaves from fires further south had blown into the Tasman Sea, staining every beach with sooty, zigzagging tide lines that resembled charcoal electrocardiograms of a gravely ill planet. At Christmas, holidaying swimmers dived half-heartedly under black-speckled waves only to re-emerge with their faces encrusted in burnt bits of distant forests. By then the choking smoke had descended. Then flames arrived.

On New Year’s Eve my family watched with dread as billowing plumes spewed skyward just few a kilometres away. It was the gaseous remains of 89 homes ascending into oblivion from the doomed neighbourhood of Conjola Park. People died there that day. Just up the road.

A few days later, as I urgently plugged my own gutters and filled them with water ahead of a dangerous wind shift, a friend further down the coast regaled me with an anecdote from his forlorn attempt at a smoky early morning surf:

“I was sitting out there when this bird weakly fluttered past,” he told me flatly. “The next thing I knew it just dropped into the water beside me. So we’re low on water, the power’s still out, and now dead birds are falling from the sky.”

I didn’t doubt him. I’d counted plenty of birds decaying in the blackening sand on the two occasions in the Christmas holidays I dared take my little girls out into the filthy air for a swim.

Although my own suburb was spared through nothing but sheer luck we felt the knock-on consequences of nearby devastation. The region’s only supply lines were cut by blocked and blackened highways, we lost power and communications, and interruptions to sewage treatment triggered dire warnings not to swim at my local beach.

With no electricity, virtually all shops and services ceased to function along vast tracts of the south coast for a time. Petrol pumps were dormant, doors couldn’t open, ATMs didn’t work and refrigerators thawed. Suddenly reliable food supply became a real issue for people. It definitely made me wonder what I’d do if it continued…or got worse.

In scenes straight from a Hollywood disaster flick, tens of thousands of tourists were ordered to leave the south coast as yet more fires erupted in the first week of 2020. Fearful families complied but new outbreaks, and fallen trees and power lines, severed the highways again causing 20km traffic jams that morphed into conga lines of desperate impromptu campers.

For weeks the grimy air was crowded with the thump of helicopter blades and the shriek of low-flying water-bombing planes. Royal Australian Navy ships – dispatched to evacuate people cowering on fire-ringed beaches in eastern Victoria – slid purposefully past a once sleepy coastline more used to hosting sailboats, migrating humpbacks and surfers.

None of it is normal and people everywhere made the same nervous observations:

“So now we know what it’s like to be caught in a real disaster.”

“Can you believe what’s happening?”

“Never seen anything like it.”

“It feels like the end of the world.”

At times it really did – a sobering new experience for me and many Australians. We have long told ourselves we are the Lucky Country; girt by sea, far from the world’s troubles and blessed with riches. Refugees in need of evacuation, smashed infrastructure, threats to supply lines, people wearing face masks in cities, world-record high temperatures – these scenes play out on TV or in other countries, not here.

Not until now.

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