On the 23rd of May, 1999, the Sydney Morning Herald ran the headline ‘Baby safe, but blaze kills girls’.
Hello, I’m Baby.
On the 21st of May a fire began in my family home in the Blue Mountains. The house burned to the ground. Almost all our possessions were lost. Our family was fractured in a way that simply cannot be articulated. Two of my sisters died. At two and four they were truly extraordinary children who I, in all reality, can never know. It feels strange and narcissistic to say that I miss them, but I do—I miss everything about them in the stories I’ve been told and the traces they have left on those around me. I miss the potential that they had and what they offered the world. I miss all that we could have been together. I miss the little girl who was the first person to hold me and said ‘this one’s mine’. I still feel that I am hers, that she is mine, that part of me is missing.
The coroner’s inquest found no answers to the question ‘what started the fire?’. That question has tormented me my entire life. Was it me? I was only a few weeks old, so was it a Butterfly Effect, me for them? Was it a gas valve, as speculated, albeit unfounded, by the papers? Was it the miniature of a bushfire, shrouded as we were by the forest and the Mountains? Was it some quiet, evil arsonist who’s vanished from history? My family are never going to get an answer and we have to live with that.
Fastforward to the 11th of November, 2019. Prime Minister Scott Morrison and NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian (among others) are asking thousands of families just like mine not to ask that question—what’s different is that we already have the answer.
- Yes, Australia has always had fires. Various things contribute to this.
- Yes, each individual, family and community deserves time, compassion, and peace as they grieve for their homes and their loved ones, without being expected to engage in politics or be in the public eye.
- Yes, the utmost priority must be to save as many lives, houses and lands as possible.
- Yes, the firefighters are doing an extraordinary job in unprecedented catastrophic fire conditions – no matter the losses, they are true heroes.
Hopefully, we all agree on the above. Similarly, we should all be able to agree that fires are getting more frequent, more severe, more widespread, and more widespread over the course of a year. ‘Fire season’ is no longer ‘Spring through Summer’, but ‘August through to February, but you know, being on alert all year round is safest, and revising and repeating your fire emergency plan every two months is what’s best, and does your two year old know stop-drop-roll yet, and there’s no place that’s safe when it comes down to it, and the principal didn’t say ‘Happy Holidays!’ she said ‘stay safe from the fires’, and sure it’s mid-winter, but what does that mean to a bushfire?’.
We structure our lives around the eminence of fire, and as a country, like we never have before. Premier Berejiklian has just said that this isn’t the time for conversation on climate change, this fire season. But when is fire season over? When are we going to talk about this, as the world gets hotter and the Summers get longer and the fires get more and more destructive?
More intelligent and informed people have given far better explanations than I could as to the impact of climate change on Australia’s fires and the broader consequences of climate change. Some of them:
AdaptNSW: Impacts of Climate Change: Bushfires https://climatechange.environment.nsw.gov.au/Impacts-of-climate-change/Bushfires
Australian Medical Association: Climate change is a health emergency https://ama.com.au/media/climate-change-health-emergency
BioScience, backed by eleven thousand scientists: World Scientists’ Warning of a Climate Emergency https://doi.org/10.1093/biosci/biz088
Bureau of Meteorology: State of the Climate http://www.bom.gov.au/state-of-the-climate/
Climate Council of Australia: Burning Issue: Climate Change Driving Earlier, More Dangerous Fire Seasons https://www.climatecouncil.org.au/resources/burning-issue-climate-change-driving-earlier-more-dangerous-fire-seasons/
CSIRO: Interactions between climate change, fire regimes and biodiversity in Australia: A preliminary assessment https://www.environment.gov.au/climate-change/adaptation/publications/fire-regimes
SBS: Former fire chiefs demand urgent action on ‘escalating climate change threat’ https://www.sbs.com.au/news/former-fire-chiefs-demand-urgent-action-on-escalating-climate-change-threat
Yes, this is an appeal to emotion. Yes, this is fuelled by anger and fear and pain and grief, because living in the Blue Mountains–anywhere in Australia!–in a climate crisis is a never-ending cycle of anger and pain and fear and grief. Yes, this doesn’t take into account the economic, international or future impacts of acting on climate change—that’s been done already and the science checks out that the biggest threat to modern life isn’t a recession or awkward international relations. It’s individuals, communities, and whole countries falling prey to the climate crisis.
I’m 20 years old and I have, by some miracle, survived two fires with only second degree burns and PTSD, with fear of a struck match let alone a gas stove. Fire is embedded in who and what I am. I can’t count the amount of bushfires that I have witnessed or quantify the amount of smoke I’ve inhaled. I can’t count the amount of people I know who have lost their homes and lives to fire. I can’t imagine the extraordinary grief and trauma individuals, families, communities are going through. But I know what can be done—and it is not giving ‘thoughts and prayers’. It is volunteering, yes, giving food and shelter, yes, helping rebuild, yes. But it is also fighting climate change with every resource we can. To not let it get any worse. Because we know what is starting the fires, and yet we are looking away.