“You live from packed bags, in case you need to evacuate, trying to condense years of memories and everything you own into one car ... A dark, grim reality is continually slapping you hard in the face. Firefighters losing equipment and lives, houses and towns being decimated, hearing the voices on the scanner, screaming for more resources and water that simply isn’t available. Mile after mile of bushland burnt to a crisp. Rocks exploding from the heat. Billions of animals dead, dying and some facing extinction with habitats and food sources destroyed. The continual devastation and loss have consequences on your mind, and it’s not done with yet.”
New South Wales south coast resident Bradley Stanton is describing his experience of the bushfire crisis, an experience that will resonate with many thousands of people. Bushfires are a constant of the Australian summer, but this summer is different. Doug Steley, a Victorian Country Fire Authority volunteer of 10 years, describes the change: “The weather conditions we are experiencing and the nature of the fires are unprecedented ... these fires are burning in what should be temperate rainforest ... you shouldn’t be able to light a fire [there] if you went in there with a bucket of petrol and a box of matches”.
This fire season is a devastating introduction to the political, social and environmental realities of the climate crisis. What makes the suffering so hard to bear is that the Morrison government knew this was coming, but did nothing to prepare. And now millions have to live with the consequences.
The small town of Cobargo on the New South Wales south coast made national headlines when locals’ hostile reception to Scott Morrison became a symbol of the widespread anger at the prime minister. Marco has lived out the back of Cobargo for 45 years. All that remains of his house is cracked stone walls, standing up from the ground like centuries-old ruins. He describes the moment the fires came through, “like a huge noise, a bit like being on the airport tarmac when five jumbos take off at once, it’s hard to describe other than that ... it reminded me of a snow blizzard in a movie, it was going sideways but it was actually hot ash, not snow. Very, very hot.”
Some disaster relief is filtering in, but, according to Marco, it’s too little, too late. “I think it’s a big publicity stunt now”, he says. “Morrison was obviously embarrassed, and so he should be. He was away in Hawaii while this country was burning! I mean that’s a poor effort, a really poor effort. I think he should stand down. I think the whole government should stand down, just step aside. This government has sacked a third of the firefighting national parks people, they’ve taken funding away from national parks by a third, you know it’s just appalling. It’s the usual story of growth and business: let’s sack all those guys and then we’ll have more money for the big end of town. This government is the worst government I’ve ever known, and I’ve been voting for a fair few years. They’re the most corrupt, egotistical, self-centred bunch of arseholes that you could ever come across really. That’s how I feel about it! The sooner out the better.”
The assistance that has reached fire-affected communities remains largely confined to the towns. Out in the bush, for people like Marco, there is still almost nothing. “I’m not watching television, and I haven’t even been listening to much radio”, he says. “I had to switch off, it was taking me back to the fire every time.” But the disaster is far from over, and rebuilding is still a distant dream. “For the time being I’ll apply for a caravan or something”, he says. “There’s a few being donated. Or maybe a tarp, I can get that set up. Then we’ll see from there.”
For those living on the mid-north coast of NSW, where mega-fires hit in November, official assistance and relief are virtually non-existent. Without even leaving the Pacific Highway, the impact is obvious. Trees stand like burnt sticks, with visibility through the usually dense forest extending dozens of metres.
According to Susie Russell, who has volunteered with the North Coast Environment Council and the North East Forest Alliance for 26 years, the prospect for bush regeneration in the area is bleak. “We’re facing a cascade of problems”, she explains, “which is how ecological collapse occurs. North-east New South Wales is one of the most biodiverse areas on the planet; it’s recognised internationally as a global biodiversity hot spot. There are numerous species here that are found nowhere else in the world ...
“Many creatures depend on the tree canopy for shelter and food. Lots of birds, koalas, gliders, if they survived, need the canopy for both shade and the leaves they eat. In many places those canopies have gone, they’ve been burnt or singed, or the smoke and heat have led to many surviving trees dropping their leaves. So animals that did survive the fire are starving, including many ground dwellers like quolls, kangaroos, wallabies, bandicoots, echidnas. That’s the case right across the landscape; there’s been very little sign of regrowth.”
There are other consequences, less obvious to the untrained eye. As Susie explains, “Many animals depend on the hundreds-year-old hollow-bearing trees ... which are used as homes. One of the biggest impacts of the fires has been that many of those hollow-bearing trees have been destroyed. They’ve acted like chimneys, when the fire gets in it goes straight up, and anything that was sheltering inside is burnt to a crisp. The removal of them is what’s called a ‘key threatening process’, something which threatens the survival of many different species”.
Some of these delicate ecosystems will have been interrupted beyond repair. According to Les Mitchell, an ecologist who worked for NSW national parks and wildlife service for 25 years, what we are witnessing is no less than “an ecological disaster”. “There have been fewer refuges for a lot of animals”, he explains, “because in so-called normal seasons ... if you have a major fire there will always be some creek lines and rainforest patches that will provide refuge for a lot of animals, but that hasn’t been the case this time”.
The culpability of politicians in allowing the climate criminals to wreak havoc on the environment, coupled with the government’s failure to prepare adequately for the catastrophic fire season, is drawing the ire of experts in fields from firefighting to environmental conservation. Les says, “Looking at this as a whole, and given the fact of the droughts, and temperature records have been broken all over the place ... you have to say that there’s a direct link between climate change and the intensity and frequency of fires now in Australia. The government keeps saying Australia only produces 1.3 percent of the world’s greenhouse gases, but we also export all this coal, and if you add all that up, it’s much more than that”.
Les criticises the government for failing on multiple fronts. “So there’s that, and the other response has been the government saying ‘Oh we’ve got enough resources’, and that’s clearly not the case ... So the two responses have been inadequate: the lack of long-term planning in terms of addressing climate change, and then not resourcing the firefighting capacity in light of these extreme conditions.”
State governments deny their firefighting services are underfunded and short of resources, but the stories and images from the front lines contradict that. Crowd-funded equipment, elderly ex-volunteers called up to make up the numbers, woefully outdated equipment: this is the reality across the country.
Country Fire Authority volunteer Doug Stanley was horrified to see footage on social media of a Rural Firefighting Service crew frantically covering their truck with fire blankets as flames bore down on them. “I was screaming at the computer when I saw that, I just couldn’t believe that they were still using blankets, that’s 1930s technology ... I’m told that about one-third of them [NSW tankers] have adequate crew protection systems installed in them. Two-thirds of them, it’s been too expensive for the government to put in even the most basic protections. Essential services shouldn’t have to rely on people selling raffle tickets. You shouldn’t need people to donate millions of dollars to firefighting funds, that should be a government responsibility.”
It is obvious to Doug that the lack of funding is not a cash flow problem, but rather one of priorities. “Funding should come out of the $60 billion worth of taxes that disappear into offshore tax havens every year. There should be $5 or $6 billion spent on upgrading equipment. The tanker from my brigade is 25 to 30 years old. The tanker from the brigade up the road from us is over 30 years old. The federal government just bought themselves a fleet of bulletproof and bombproof BMW luxury limousines for the protection of politicians, of themselves. But CFA volunteers or RFS volunteers are going out in 30-year-old tankers ... So how can you have a government that spends millions of dollars on their own personal protection, and at the same time denies protection to people who are going out into really dangerous situations?”
Graeme Ottley is a senior firefighter with New South Wales Fire and Rescue, the professional, paid force. He has first-hand experience of the state government’s lack of resourcing. “We’ve had cuts from the state government for 10 years now”, he says. “It affects everything we do – training, equipment, fire engine maintenance. And if we don’t have reliable equipment, we don’t get to the fire and we don’t save people’s lives.”
But properly funding fire services, according to Graeme, is not enough. “We’ve been telling them for years they should be spending more on the fire services, but also helping us by trying to stop climate change, trying to stop the temperature rising more than one degree. Every degree it rises it makes our job harder. They’ve been caught out with these fires, they’ve been told about them for decades, and they’ve just put their head in the sand. Well it has happened now, and they should be suffering the wrath of the community.”
Graeme, along with other firefighters, has attended rallies organised by Uni Students for Climate Justice. Contrary to the media’s reporting, protests are well supported among firefighters. “People are starting to come on board and hitting the street, marching, demanding zero emissions”, says Graeme. “These governments are not going to give up their coal mates. I mean they’re propping up their elections, they’re donating money to them, they’re on their boards. The politicians go and work as director when they retire; the lobbyists are everywhere. So we have to break that nexus and get rid of these people who are poisoning the earth.”
The scale and breadth of the fires have outstripped the capacity of official firefighting crews. Many homeowners have been left stranded, forced to battle the blazes on their own, using whatever resources they can muster.
Amanda Muscio, an environmental activist who lives on a property half an hour’s drive away from the small NSW town of Elands, spent days fighting relentless flames, assisted only by her neighbours. “We got no help,” she said. “We had to do everything, we had to know where the fires were, we sent out scouts. There was no official communication.”
She describes the horror that unfolded around her, “You’d hear the crashes, trees crashing down, and all the little exploding sounds. That went on for two days before the fire actually reached my place. It came racing down the grasslands, burning against the wind, which is most unusual for that kind of fire; no matter what the wind was doing, it was just always expanding. We stopped it on mine, but it spread over the back and burnt some houses further up. My neighbour tried to stay and fight, but a wind gust came through and ignited a whole row of crowns; they turned around and saw this huge wall of flame and just ran for their lives. They came to my place ... By that stage we were kind of out of panic; we just couldn’t panic any more.”
Amanda’s house was saved, but everything else on the property burned, including sheds and her septic tank. She has tried to access the $1,000 disaster assistance grant, but has been told she is ineligible. Amanda starts to sob as she describes the aftermath of days and days of fire. “Everything was smoking, just everything had been burnt. There were no animals around, there was nothing. You could just hear the trees and it was the worst sound ... every few seconds another tree falling down. It went on for days. It was just so devastating, everything burnt, not one bit of green. It certainly felt like the end of days.”
For Kate Sutton, a single mother with three kids from the NSW north coast town of Bobin, the shock of losing her home in mid-November is only just beginning to subside. Kate fled her home at midnight with her kids and her pet chickens. Seventeen homes were lost in the tiny village of 150 people, along with the local primary school, where Kate works and which her kids attend. “I guess you don’t think your house is going to burn down. There’s things I should’ve thought – ‘If the house is going to burn down I’d really like this and this and this’ – but I didn’t, so I didn’t get those things.”
Susie Russell, who lives in the neighbouring town of Elands, believes it didn’t have to be this bad. “The fire burnt for weeks in a sort of relatively isolated place before hitting the towns. If the water bombers had been available, many of these fires could have been put out before the hot dry windy conditions came along and basically just set them running ... It makes me wonder whether there are people in positions of power who are happy, or at least they’re not concerned, that the forest has burned; a lot of them think that it should be burned.”
The only happy side to the story is the outpouring of community support for those in fire-affected communities. “It was pretty amazing the strength that came through and people that came out and gave their all to help people”, Kate says. “It was just completely overwhelming, the amount of stuff that came into the donation centre in Wingham ... We very quickly replenished our clothes and toiletries and necessities ... And people are still giving us financial help. Probably more overwhelming than the actual event was the wider community: Muslim people coming from Sydney even. Just amazing, it’s changed me as a person and made me rethink how I look at society.”
Pete Matthieson is a beekeeper whose hives were almost all incinerated in a single day. Pete is not just saddened by the scale of loss. He is furious at the government and at the tight interconnection between politicians and the fossil fuel industry. “Our government has been so corrupted by its pursuit of fossil fuels and minerals that they don’t even work for the people of this country”, he says. “They have legalised and institutionalised corruption. Go and have a look at the revolving door between the Minerals Council and the Institute of Public Affairs for example ... Really the people need to take back control over their own country and their own governing, because the corporations that are running it now via the politicians have made it very clear that they only care about short term revenue. They’re willing to destroy the land, the water, the air, our animals, our futures, just so that a very small handful of investors can make a short profit off of it.”
The response of ordinary people to this crisis stands in stark contrast to that of the government. It is a timely reminder of the generosity and selflessness of those without a stake in the system.
The South Arm community hall, a 20-minute drive out the back of Bowraville, NSW, has become a haven for locals. It is a place where they can restock food supplies, pick up donated clothes, collect water and have a chat: a brief respite from the mental torment of the last few weeks.
One in three homes were lost in the surrounding hills, a figure that doubles when unregistered dwellings are factored in. The flames hit every two days for two weeks, transforming hectares of bushland that was alive with the noise of insects, birds and foraging animals in October into an eerily silent cemetery of native flora and fauna.
Beck Beverley, a young woman who grew up in the area and lost her family home to the fires, has been jointly overseeing the relief effort for two months with another woman. They have no formal training, they are not being paid, yet it has fallen on their shoulders to provide disaster assistance in lieu of any formal help.
Beck explains that, in the early days of their relief efforts, “What we would do was fill up my ute and then drive to every property that has been affected and drop off supplies. A lot of people didn’t have phones, power, reception, anything like that, so none of them knew what was going on, none of them could access any help. So I’d get up every day and take around little flyers ... and kind of bridge the gap because the council, nobody wanted to know anything about it”.
The job quickly became more than handing out material assistance. “It was a lot of welfare checks too ... We spent a lot of time talking with [affected people] and just making sure they were all right and touching base. We set them up tents, just something to sleep in, because often they were given two weeks of emergency accommodation, then kicked out. So you’ve lost everything, and then to be kicked out is pretty horrible.”
The tents are visible from the winding dirt roads, pitched next to the burnt wreckage of homes. Letter boxes are wrapped in yellow caution tape, a sign that the house is gone. Nothing has yet been cleared.
Beck has tried to get formal assistance for the community. “We actually went to the office of environmental disaster and the council and said, ‘Do you realise that none of the information you’re putting out, no one’s using anything because no one knows about it, and we are physically doing this and people don’t have water, don’t have food, they can’t get out of their properties because they’re blocked in, you’ve got to come to the party’, and they said, ‘No, that’s not our job, you girls have got to figure it out yourselves if you wanna do it’. So we kept doing it.”
She has also reached out to professional counselling services to deal with people’s deteriorating mental health. “I approached Beyond Blue, Mental Health in Coffs Harbour, Mental Health Access Line, Headspace, pretty much every mental health organisation. But there was nothing. Nothing at all ... We just keep trucking on but people just don’t have the ability or facilities to cope or move on, and there’s no one coming offering help. We had to beg the disaster guys to come. They came for one day, from the Office of Emergency Management and then only one person. Unfortunately, everyone else is left to pick up the pieces, and there’s just no assistance.”
Many in the community are at breaking point. Very few were able to get assistance from the overstretched volunteer firefighting crew, and most were left to fight the fires themselves. They are now tortured by the memories and struggling with the lack of support. Beck explains, “I’ve had people in today saying ‘I don’t know what to do. I can’t do this any more, it’s too hard’. So there’s a lot of those things still going on, and no one’s helping the community mentally to try to work through that, so they’re all starting to unravel a little bit”.
The community gatherings help break through the isolation, but, according to Beck, for some it’s just not enough, “We’ve had a couple of guys attempt suicide since it’s happened. They just feel, What’s the point any more? It’s too hard.”
Nelli is a local artist who has lived in the Bowraville area for 25 years in a home she and her partner built from scratch. Miraculously, their house survived, but it took two weeks of fighting and last-minute backburning to save it.
There was no warning. It was only when Nelli arrived home from work and saw 50-metre high flames that she had any idea her house was under threat. “We just started packing things”, she recounts. “We knew that we had to get out. If the wind hadn’t changed that day we would’ve lost our home, but it changed and went into town.”
It would be another two weeks, with the fire hitting again every two days, before things calmed down. The lack of resources from the government made the situation worse. “They knew this fire was coming”, she says, “and they didn’t stop it, they didn’t send resources ... Our poor firies were just so ill equipped, had ill-fitting gas masks and one set of clothes; some guys and women have been on the fire front for over 60 days in a row with one set of clothes ... They also had no tools. If a tree fell down on the road in front of them they didn’t even have a chainsaw to cut their way out. Their own lives were at risk, and that’s a very common story around here, that they really put themselves, their own lives, on the line, and we’re so thankful. There are partnerships where the children are asking ‘Why aren’t you in the same truck?’, and they don’t want to say to their kids ‘You don’t want to lose your mum and your dad in one go’. It’s heart wrenching.”
People are trying not to think of the future. Many who have lost their homes will struggle to rebuild, and even those who kept their houses are worried they may not be so lucky down the track.
“Some people will never come back”, Nelli says. “They won’t be able to replace what they had for a start with that [insurance] money, and no one feels safe any more, it’s really hard to feel safe. If this is what we’re to expect from our future, is to have more fires, it’s going to be a hell of a future. I don’t know how, emotionally and physically and mentally, people are to prepare for that.”
Uncle Martin Ballangarry, an elder from Bowraville, visited the surrounding hills in the aftermath of the fire. He collected two large pieces of bark dropped by a eucalyptus tree, damaged in a way he hadn’t seen before. He will keep them wet and pin them down with weights, transforming them into thick canvases to create new pieces of art: the potential for beauty in the midst of heartbreaking destruction.
On a stifling hot day in January he finds shade under a tall tree next to South Creek, which snakes around behind Bowraville. As a child he would float on his back around its curves and bends; today it is almost bone dry. Uncle Martin points out the many ways the land has been misused, native trees felled with the resulting loss of canopies that prevent evaporation, fields cleared to rear cattle and ancient burning practices ignored.
He is saddened by the fires for many reasons, including the spiritual loss for his community. “The fires, they’ve been burning all the tribal trees, all the trees are getting burnt, and the old spiritual places. I think we need to change the government, but none of them are any good. They don’t work for Aboriginal relations; they just want to keep us downtrodden, keep us oppressed and depressed.”
Uncle Martin also feels for the people who have been directly affected by the fires. “I think they should be compensated, paid out to the people who lost so much, not only lost their dignity, lost their houses, been traumatised by the fire. And then there’s the after, you got to treat the people after.”
These are just a handful of stories about a crisis that has affected an astounding number of people – an entire half of the country’s population, according to the Australia Institute. Millions have been inhaling toxic smoke for months in the major cities, causing serious respiratory problems and even death.
The environmental impact is similarly devastating – an area roughly equivalent to the whole of England has burnt to the ground. At least a billion animals are estimated to have perished, some of which are now likely extinct. Billions of insects are also gone. Fragile, millennia-old ecosystems are destroyed.
Climate change is no longer an intangible future problem, but the new reality. There will be more fires, but there will also be catastrophic floods, heat waves, cyclones, storms. The relentless pursuit of profit at the expense of all social and environmental considerations means capitalism has trapped us in an ever tightening grip of climate chaos.
And this summer has proved just how inadequate the current system is at dealing with the crisis. Those responsible have suffered no consequences. In December, while megafires were ravaging New South Wales, energy company Equinor was granted approval to start drilling for oil in the Great Australian Bight. Neither Morrison nor Labor leader Anthony Albanese is willing to criticise the coal and gas barons destroying the planet under their noses.
We can’t go on like this. We need radical, transformative social change if the inevitable future crises are to be dealt with in a humane way.