The summer of 2019/20 changed the Australian psyche. Never before had we seen fires of this scale and intensity. It was hard to find anyone who was unaffected by a scorched country. Now that the dust has settled, we have the opportunity to reflect on the devastation wrought by these mega-fires. The lessons to be learned must be learned now, or we face an increasingly volatile future.
To begin I’d like to re-post something I put on Instagram last year. I re-read it last week and it brought to the surface a lot of feelings I had about the most devastating fire season Australia has seen in living memory.
I drove from Sydney to Lennox Head today. As my mum and I left the city, I chucked on ABC radio to listen to Hamish McDonald talk to certain individuals – people who had lost their homes or people in their lives – talk about a state that is literally on fire. I also heard some of the most ludicrous claims and denouncements my ears have ever witnessed from some powerful people.
Only yesterday the Pacific Highway I drove through was on fire – signs melted, barricades reduced to liquid metal, homes razed to the ground and scorched earth everywhere you look. I cried at one point, watching a fire engine tear off in the other direction with a bunch of ordinary people on board. I realised, in fact, that these are some of the most extraordinary people of all.
The summer just gone has seen unprecedented areas of land burnt, thousands of homes lost and indisputably showed the real effects of climate change on the Australian landscape. The photos in this piece, taken by Australian photographer Jared O’Sullivan, provide only one account of what it’s like to be surrounded by bushfires. Jared took these photos in the Tweed Valley of NSW, where he is currently living. The sub-tropical rainforests in this area haven’t been significantly affected by bushfires since the 1930s. Jared evacuated his belongings in the days prior to the fires taking hold. When they began to make their way through the area, Jared said, “I grabbed my camera and a quad-bike knowing that I had to document what was unfolding.” The following images were taken in the early stages of what is now being referred to as Australia’s “Black Summer”.
“I grabbed my camera and a quad-bike knowing that I had to document what was unfolding.”
Up until now for most Australians, it’s hard to imagine what it is like to be exposed to the front of a ferocious bushfire. Ironically, although we live on a massive continent, the ABS suggests that around 70 per cent of Australia’s population lives in urban areas. (ABS, 2016 Census). But for the first time, the immense power of these fires has exposed cities like Sydney, Melbourne and Canberra to hazardous levels of smoke. On New Year’s Day of 2020, Canberra’s air quality was rated the worst of anywhere in the entire world.
The fact is, these fires captured the attention of the nation and the world. These fires were an all too real indication that the world is at breaking point. I wanted to know what it was like to be exposed to the raw power of these fires. So, I figured I’d speak to people in my region of Bundjalung country in Northern NSW to hear stories and accounts of what it is like to stand in front of a wall of flames. I wanted to know what it smells and sounds like, and how this experience makes people feel. This is the story of a few people who’ve come into close contact with fire – and surely has parallels to thousands more stories across this vast country.
“You begin to see the landscape a bit differently after you have seen fire in it.”
Nic Margan works with NSW National Parks, based out of Urbenville in Northern NSW. His first experience with fire was during a hazard reduction burn in Bundjalung National Park. “You begin to see the landscape a bit differently after you have seen fire in it” Nic explains. “What had seemed to me like a flat, homogenous coastal heathland actually had slight ridges and more paperbarks than I thought”
What was most surprising about his first experience with fire? “I found myself kind of mesmerised, and that surprised me.” The thick black smoke and the movement of the smoke plumes as they oozed out of the flames coupled with the atmosphere turning red, as if the sun had a filter placed over it, all added to this captivating experience.
David Flanagan lives on the edge of the World Heritage Nightcap National Park in Northern NSW. The area is mostly covered in sub-tropical rainforest – including remnant Gondwana era species of plants that had survived for tens of millions of years. The bone-dry conditions in late 2019 provided a rare opportunity for fire to take hold. I’d been up visiting David only a few weeks before the fire started, and we had both remarked on the fact that we’d never seen a rainforest look so dry. After spending the better part of two years building his own house, last November David suddenly found himself on local fire frontlines. He and many other members of his community worked alongside the NSW Rural Fire Service to defend the home he’d poured his life and soul into.
For David, the most surprising thing about coming into contact with a large bushfire was the way in which it was so “conditionally flexible”. David reckons this ability for a fire to be flexible and heavily influenced by the surrounding conditions is “what makes it manageable and simultaneously so unpredictable.” Notwithstanding the horror and devastation that was wrought on this unique area of the world, David also described that the “harsh, dystopian beauty” of the fire burning on the hillside above his home was also remarkable to observe.
“I find fire scary in the sense that it represents climate change.”
I also wanted to talk about fear. Does it take hold? Or do more basic survival instincts influence mind and body in these tense moments? Nic recounts to me that his fear for his personal safety usually isn’t an issue during firefighting. “I find fire scary in the sense that it represents climate change and threatens us with a difficult future.” The future Nic imagines is one of reduced biodiversity and broken natural systems – it doesn’t have the same impact because it’s a more diffuse kind of worry, not as immediate as a raging fire. “There’s a lot of things we learn to do to minimise the possibility of getting overrun by a fire, and when you do these things it’s almost always impossible to get caught out.”
David attributes the lack of fear to the fact he was involved and invested in countering the movements of the fire – as if his direct immersion in the firefighting efforts provided a sense of purpose that diminished his fear. He also concedes that fear could have been kept at bay by the “enormous endorphin and adrenaline rush”.
“Does it ever feel like the fire has a mind of its own?” I wonder. David and Nic’s answers vary, but both contain interesting insights into fire behaviour from their experiences. Nic’s encounters with fire “definitely feels animal, and I find myself thinking of it as animal.” He uses the analogy of a reptile, explaining that when it is cooler it becomes quite dormant while remaining alive (and the reverse happens as it heats up). Extending the analogy Nic suggests that, much like animals, fires like to sleep in logs and burrows. “Fires seem to have a mind of their own in the same way that animals do – they pursue quite primal instincts”.
David excuses the poetic nature of his answer, “It feels like fire is an element and behaves simply as a result of the factors acting upon it”. He touches on the reliable ways to measure and observe fire behaviour based on these factors, before conceding that a totally random event – like a tree exploding its crown – will change the previously predictable or manageable nature of that fire. His monologue eventually comes full circle, “If the fire does have a mind, it is simply one of relentless consumption until all available fuel is gone”
When we move on to talking about solutions, Nic talks from a firefighting perspective, noting that back burning is “part of the solution but not straightforward.” The ever-reducing window of time in winter to conduct these activities is proving problematic. He highlights the administrative inaccuracies in fire reduction, noting that targets are set according to area “without recognition of the importance of where the burn occurs”. Nic suggests this might come through a proper recognition and understanding of the “long history of burning in Australia” to manage landscapes as well as “research and development of more precise fire regimes” that are better integrated with humans, plants and animals. “More funding please!”
In David’s view the latest fire season is “an outcome of anthropogenic climate change”. He hints that while “empowering and sufficiently funding fire services is of critical importance” the most important thing is to look at our role in the changing climate and moderating accordingly.
“All the firefighters, locals, experts and conservationists I have spoken to all echo this message – that immediate, impactful action on climate change is the most profound method of prevention and mitigation of more intense bushfires into the future.”
“Immediate, impactful action on climate change is the most profound method of prevention.”
Discussion around solutions to dealing with fire often touch on Indigenous practices and our First Nations people’s relationship with country and fire. The Firesticks Alliance is a Northern Rivers based organisation that aims to “reinvigorate the use of cultural burning”. In a recent article by the Australian Financial Review, Oliver Costello, a Bundjalung man who works for the organisation, spoke of the “gaps in knowledge and practice”. Having spent a “fair bit of time all over Australia”, Costello noted that although there are hazard reduction burns and land management, the way it is carried out is not necessarily “burning in the right way for that country.”
The Northern Rivers is my home, my second home is Tasmania. After the catastrophic fires in Southwestern Tasmania last year, I wrote an article for Urth Magazine. I never thought I’d have to write one about the sub-tropical rainforest burning, but here we are. To finish, I’d like to quote myself. It’s a year on, but I still feel exactly the same way that I did when I wrote these words:
To me it seems that the key to managing the changing climate lies in creating a new type of symbiotic relationship, much like the ones that already exist in our natural world. We have an incredible and enduring wealth of Indigenous knowledge and inherent understanding of our lands that still exists, in spite of what has been lost. The potential to combine this wisdom with modern technologies gifts us a tool that could harness incredible power in adapting to our changing climate. This could mean researching traditional fire practices used in Tasmania for thousands of years and considering how modern technologies like satellite mapping, helicopters and other modern machinery could be used to effectively manage areas that are at high risk of catastrophic fires like the ones we have seen recently. The insight we could gain from exploring Dreaming stories may hold answers we never knew we had.