I woke up in Melbourne this morning, not just to the smell of smoke — I’m used to that — but the unmistakable odour of burning. It was so strong that I actually checked my partner hadn’t left the stove on, before I realised that it was coming through our closed doors and windows from the chilly morning air. In my area, we have already been warned not to go outside without a face mask and it is only 9am. The air will get much worse throughout the day.
It is inexplicably 13 degrees in Melbourne, which is a refreshing but slightly alarming change from the 47 degrees I just experienced at my mother’s house in Sydney. The women in the cafe where I write this are talking about the fires. The passengers beside me on the plane yesterday were talking about the fires, anxiously peering out the window as we soared over billowing smoke. My taxi driver that carried me home from the airport yesterday talked about the fires.
I can’t remember the last conversation I’ve had that didn’t begin and end with the fires. Every discussion drifts back to the bushfires that are consuming our thoughts as much as our health, property, businesses, livelihoods, life and wildlife. While in Sydney, I receive a flurry of messages from friends I’m unable to see because, on certain days, the heat and the smoke keep everyone indoors:
I’m getting consumed by fire stuff… I haven’t stopped watching the news… I can’t look away, it’s horrifying… it’s hard to think of anything else…feels like the end of the world…the footage is terrifying… I keep taking breaks but going back…
Although we are in the “safe” zone of a major city, we are all worried for friends or family who are not. While staying with my mum in Western Sydney for the past fortnight, ABC News was switched on last thing before we went to bed and first thing when we woke up, and just about every hour in between.
Various family members came and went from my mum’s house, and we gathered around the television — not for the cricket, as our Prime Minister bizarrely asserted — but to watch the rolling footage of bright orange skies and burning wildlife that has been the constant theme of this surreal and subdued holiday season.
Our phones would ding simultaneously with live notifications from news outlets — and if the television was off, we would turn it straight back on. Is this healthy? Of course not. But it is impossible to look away when your whole country is on fire. Looking away is a privilege that so many Australians currently do not have.
My sister lives on a farm near Bilpin, where a fire blazed out of control in the days leading up to Christmas. She evacuated her young children — 3 and 6 years old — to my mum’s house and went back to defend her property and livestock with her husband.
A few days after the threat had passed and the roads were re-opened, I went to visit her, driving through the burnt out remains of a town where people have lost their homes and businesses (though fortunately not their lives). The scale of the devastation is hard to take in, yet it is just one town of so many across Australia that will need to be rebuilt when this is all over.
On New Year’s Eve, their area was again put on high alert — and residents were warned to remain vigilant. December 31st was a horror day where a suburb in Sydney was the hottest place on earth at almost 49 degrees, several people died, hundreds of homes were lost, and 4,000 desperate people took shelter on a beach in Victoria awaiting an evacuation that would take days.
At the same time, a million people turned out to watch the fireworks on Sydney Harbour (including our Prime Minister). It has been a time of strange cognitive dissonance, as though we can’t quite work out how much of normal life we should allow ourselves.
In Australia, we are fortunate to have no frame of reference for this level of catastrophe. It is something we have only watched from afar on the news, usually in countries with civil wars. We don’t know how to behave when our own land is a war zone and nature is our enemy.
In my family, there were still Christmas presents, board games, laughter and champagne. But somehow these ordinary holiday activities only contributed to the pervading sense of hopelessness. We are aware that many families in Australia had none of these things. Are we all just fiddling as Rome burns?
Of course, it hasn’t helped that, until two days ago, the people in charge were pretending that what we are experiencing is completely normal. And I’m not just talking about Scott Morrison’s mind-blowing lack of empathy and insistence that Australia has always had bushfires (his government is overwhelmingly responsible for this crisis, after all).
It was evident in Tourism Australia’s questionable decision to release an ad in the middle of a national emergency and for the Tourism Minister to defend this by saying, “ Whilst bushfires continue to impact parts of Australia, many areas of the country are unaffected.” Despite fires raging across Kangaroo Island, the Mayor was still telling potential visitors that it was open for business — until two people were tragically killed while trying to flee.
It is nonsense to act as though this is happening in an isolated part of the country, while several states have had to declare a state of emergency simultaneously. The word “unprecedented” is thrown around a lot. Every Australian has been impacted — and there will be an enormous amount of trauma to contend with, as well as the physical damage.
A friend who had an AirBnB booked on the South Coast messaged the host in concern after Christmas and was told there was nothing to worry about. As a result, she travelled down south with her family along with thousands of other holidaymakers — and ended up trapped in a fire zone. Later she would tell me that people were swimming on the beach even as flames licked the horizon.
If we are continually told to carry on as if this is normal, then that is what we will do — until we suddenly end up with a situation where tens of thousands of people need to be evacuated on a single day in the largest operation on Australian soil in peacetime.
Yet how else should we behave? We are looking at eight more weeks of catastrophic fires — but with no significant rain forecast until April, this is probably a conservative estimate. Even then, we know this will not be “over”, more like a temporary reprieve of a few months until it starts up again. This is not only the new normal, it is a baseline for what we can expect in the future.
For those of us who are removed from the immediate danger of the bushfires, there has been an outpouring of “What can we do?” posts on social media — suggestions of where and how to donate goods and money. My newsfeed is almost entirely pictures of flames and people fleeing their homes, calls for donations, and outrage against the government’s lack of credible action. Every major Australian news website has a live feed of fire coverage.
I find myself wondering how long this will last, whether fire will become our way of life, and what will happen when it is so ordinary that it is no longer considered “newsworthy”. I remember when Syria was splashed all over the news for a long time and realise that I have no idea what’s happening there anymore because a protracted crisis loses international interest.
I know that slowly but surely my newsfeed will shift back to birthday parties and travel photos and memes, possibly even before the fires end for this season. Perhaps I, too, will write a blog post about dating.
Most Australians (the fortunate among us) will be returning to work this week. Now that I am back in Melbourne, I have a writing deadline which still feels trivial, but it means that — sooner, rather than later — I need to stop scrolling through the news and focus on delivering a screenplay.
That is how we normalise a crisis, bit by bit and day by day, because what else can we do? How long can we live with the feeling that the world is going to end, when our everyday responsibilities still call us? But for now at least, it is no exaggeration to say that a sense of doom is palpable.