The carefully planted local Indigenous ‘food larder’ landscape I have loved and depended upon most of my life, and that has survived 200 years of colonisation, cannot survive fires like these. Farms and vast areas of bush already teetered on a knife-edge in the worst drought in history. Now they are ash. The Araluen Valley, south-east of Braidwood in New South Wales’ Southern Tablelands, has lost much of its remaining peach orchards. Will the orchardists replant? We don’t know.
I do know our community will support them. And that I have never been prouder of my nation.
Leaderless, leaders emerged; the magnificent firies, but also those who defended their houses and others with nothing but hoses and determination. Our neighbour, Robyn, singlehandedly waited to defend her farm while checking on the properties of those who had evacuated, knowing that with age or injury we would now be a hindrance, not a help, on the fire front.
I have never been prouder of my nation. Leaderless, leaders emerged … [And] this is the comfort we must give our children: in the past weeks, Australia has been a truly great nation. We must remain one. We must not forget.
Friends in their 70s and 80s, who would not want to be called old men, have been out for days or nights for three months with the tankers. I have seen a man, dying in great pain, still struggle towards the flames to give his wisdom on where the fire might go; I have seen wombats share their holes with snakes, quolls, possums and a nervous swamp wallaby; a fridge on the highway kept constantly stocked with cold drinks for those defending us; six firies leaning against the hospital wall, too exhausted to stagger inside for first aid. The next day they went out again.
Last term, a local school was asked how many of their students were suffering bushfire trauma. Their answer? All of them. Every child had either watched fire rage and flicker round their house or has a best friend who is still white-faced and silent. The teachers spent the final weeks of the school year creating joy: a school rain dance, a book give-away, an ‘Academy Awards’ ceremony far more hilarious than any real one. When kids look back in 20 years, I hope they will remember community fun and kindness, not the terror.
Bryan and I have been offered rooms, clothes, help with tending the wildlife, cups of tea, smiles. And the smiles meant a lot. I’m part of a daily network asking by text and email: are you OK? Do you need help? How is Carol? Have you heard from Harry?
Peter Marshall, who lent us the evacuation room where I began this article, has faced the flames every night for the past week, as well as for months before that. He described how the “fire came screaming at us out of Monga Forest like 10,000 B29s on full throttle”. Eucalypts exploded in the heat. And then the fire reached his farm, and stopped. For 30 years he slowly created a landscape that stops fire. Yes, it can be done, just as we can – and must – now build homes that are fire, flood and windproof. This is just the beginning.
What do we need?
- National disaster management, with mobile teams that can be sent into disaster regions with portable hospitals, medics, evacuation centres, rescue gear. The expertise exists. But I bet you that non-experts will look at the reports, then shove them in a bottom drawer.
- A bushfire and emergency response system that does not depend on volunteers. Yes, there will always be magnificent volunteers, but the job of fighting for our nation’s fires, floods and cyclones should not be on their shoulders. Volunteers must be supported, not just financially, but physically and emotionally, and their families too. The Rural Fire Services should not have to ask for donations. They are a government body and should be funded by government.
- We need more independence for local fire brigades. That old farmer or the wrinkled woman with her walking stick are the ones who know that the wind will change at 4.50pm exactly and the fire will leap across the ridges.
- We need containment lines across the country from which fire can be safely fought. We once built a rabbit-proof fence across Australia. We need nationwide fire-resistant planted landscapes, a mosaic of thousands of kilometres of fireproof walls, and burning regimes suited to each ecosystem, not one size fits all.
- We need building codes that dictate that all houses, roads, rail, bridges, power supplies, communications and essential services must be flood and fireproof, in cities as well as rural areas.
- We need redundancy. If one phone, water, bridge, road or energy system goes down, there must be others to rely on. As I write my computer is powered by our solar system. Our local grid is down, our phone is out, but because of our solar system I can connect to the world and know where the fires are. We have our own water storage and sewerage too. There must be nowhere in Australia that does not have back-ups like these.
- Most importantly?
DO NOT FORGET. This is most Australians’ first taste of climate change. But we are the descendants of those who have faced Ice Ages, plagues, wars, famine. Most humans died. Our ancestors did not. When times are hardest, humans are capable of the greatest kindness and innovation. The best way to survive the decades to come is by forging strong community links, because when disaster strikes, those links will stand strong.
DO NOT FORGET. Because those who make vast sums of money from businesses that, as a side effect, destroy our planet, put vast sums into PR or political campaigns so that laws are never made to hinder their actions. The politicians who denied climate change, the need for disaster planning and firefighting equipment, and who cut fire budgets by 30-40 per cent this year alone – despite warnings from their own experts that we faced catastrophes this year – will use political spin … let’s just call it lying … to try to make you forget before the next election.
DO NOT FORGET. Because the federal fire aid has only been offered now because of the rage of ‘quiet Australians’. You and I and every Australian who expressed contempt has achieved this. We must keep demanding what is needed. Unless we keep up the rage, the passion and compassion, our children and our children’s children will die in more climatic disasters, from winds to cyclones, floods, tornadoes, bushfires and storm surges: the ‘new normal’ of the Anthropocene.
DO NOT FORGET. Because long after these flames are doused, there will be traumatised kids, fireys who collapse when the adrenalin seeps away, businesses destroyed, half a billion wildlife killed, with just as many injured, starving, needing food and water stations if their species is to survive.
DO NOT FORGET. How we have worked together, fighting disaster without political leadership, leaders emerging in their own communities, from those who fought the flames to those who offered rooms, diverted traffic amidst red smoke, raised funds or simply offered all the smiles they could find. Do not forget that when we acted together we achieved miracles.
This is the comfort we must give our children: in the past weeks, Australia has been a truly great nation. We must remain one.
We must not forget.
Jackie French was the 2015 Senior Australian of the Year and the 2014-2015 Children’s Laureate. The author of more than 200 books for children and adults, she has lived in the Araluen Valley, west of Batemans Bay, for 46 years, an area now under attack from the Charleys Forest Fire. Jackie French’s fee for this article will be donated to buy books for schools that have lost their libraries.