The on-going bush fires that are relentlessly sweeping Eastern Australia are truly apocalyptic, like something from a Cormac McCarthy novel, a sixties Hollywood movie about the end of the world, a war zone, or the new norm. The sky is black with smoke, the sky is crimson with smoke; day is night. Huge black clouds climb high into the sky as though spewed from an erupting volcano. Smoke and ash climb 14 km (14 km, not 1400 metres) above the burning land, creating thunderstorms that fall not as rain but as burning ash. People are burned to death trying to flee in their cars, or staying to defend homes that are often reduced to a few broken brick walls or a chimney and twisted corrugated iron roofs. The fires roar and leap and like malevolent monsters. They jump roads, valleys, ridges and mountain, flinging burned embers kilometres ahead to join up in fronts hundreds of kilometres long. Though long warned of and anticipated by climate scientist and bushfire experts it is unprecedented. And according to our PM Scott Morrison and climate sceptics, it is not caused by human activity. Morrison said we are Australians and have faced it all before. We have not. Never on this scale.
Survivors fight back tears as they look over what was and what now is, all their possessions gone, only memories remain. ‘We’ll start again, what else can you do. We are a community, we help each other,’ they say. They don’t talk in jingoistic nationalist speak of PM Morrison’s, ‘This is the Australian way.’
My sister-in-law Cathy and husband Garry, retreated from their home on 30 acres in the Southern Highlands and sought refuge in the small town of Picton. They returned after a few days and everything was intact. This time. Two friends Brian and Margo fled their and protea farm on the far south coast where a vast forest ends a couple of hundred metres from their home. They lost their outbuildings, the house survived. This time. But they are as yet unable to return.
In the nearby beautiful old village of Cobargo where earlier this year we enjoyed a great folk festival a father and son died trying to save their house. Most of the old Federation houses and shops that lined the main street are gone. It is a scenario repeated throughout NSW and Victoria. The PM was heckled by locals when he made a PR visit and tried to force people to shake his hand.
The destruction to the environment is incalculable. Stupefied cattle and horses wander back roads and paddocks, or lie, legs into the air, bellies bloated, stinking of death. There is nothing to eat on the ground, nothing to eat in the destroyed buildings. What does a farmer do with a herd of dairy cows and no food, no electrical power with which to milk them?
Mobs of kangaroos flee the advancing flames. Some make it to safety, others don’t. The destruction of birds, animals, reptiles, insects and plants is incalculable. Some will never recover.
People form long queues outside supermarkets and petrol stations; holiday makers seek refuge on the beaches of Victoria and southern NSW as the fires sweep down to the coast.
A fleet of ADF ships, helicopters and fixed wing planes are taking in supplies and medical help to the stranded and evacuating others. The badly burned, the seriously ill, pregnant women, could not get out because the Princes Highway and other roads are closed. These people will be scarred the rest of their lives.
These unfolding tragedies didn’t interfere with the NSW Emergency Services Minister, David Elliot, he went on holiday to London and Paris. He seemed to think that being a minister simply meant being paid more money. Like the PM who went on holiday Hawaii, they have so little empathy or understanding for the lives of ordinary people that it would need a micrometer to measure it.
These horrendous events of death and destruction will not change the government’s policy on climate change, and there is no opposition from the Labor Party whose leader Anthony Albanese chose this time of crisis to announce his total support for further coal mines, saying to reduce exports would do nothing to cut greenhouse gasses and if Australia did not supply coal to China and India, others would. Which is like saying, beating your children might be bad but I’m not going to stop until everyone else does.
Big, big changes are needed.