It’s bushfire season again.
Every year around December, Australia, and in particular NSW, is victim to dozens of bushfires. During bushfire season you can expect the sky to become grey all over. You can smell smoke everywhere you go. If you’re really unlucky, you or someone you know will have their house burned to the ground.
This year as of the first week of December 2002, we have over 85 fires burning concurrently, and there will be more to come. As if it could get any worse: this year we have the added burden of a drought. In fact, it's the worst drought we've had for decades. This means dry, dead vegetation and brown grass everywhere. As a strategy to help prevent their house burning down, people rake away any and all dead or dry vegetation they can, and spray the house and its immediate area with water. But we can’t forget about the drought. People in bushfire areas are being asked by Sydney Water to try and limit their water usage. And to think that some people are worried that their backyard pools don’t have enough water in them.
At this point, we have had almost half a dozen fire trucks burned and melted. On television we see images of black husks of rectangular-shaped things with irregular, locked wheels being towed out of areas that the bushfires have already passed. Fire trucks crashing into people’s homes from lack of visibility through the smoke. We watch images of people trying to abate the fires with a garden hose, surrounded by a foggy blanket of smoke, like thick mustard gas in some surreal, peacetime antipodean war zone – people walking around in gas masks with a bucket of water in a feeble last ditch attempt to save their houses. A young man on Channel 7 news is trying to save his neighbour’s house with a garden hose, wearing a red t-shirt that says ‘Champion’ on the front. How appropriate.
The media is saturated with stories of heroism and loss. We are privy to bushfire updates every 15 minutes on the radio, and nightly news regularly runs half an hour longer just to cover the news about the fires. A news reporter at the scene of a fire, surrounded by flames and dressed in a flame-retardant suit talks about where the latest fires are raging, then we watch mini-documentaries about the mentality of arsonists and why they do what they do.
As we move further into this horrid, drought-infected summer, the tolls are sure to rise – no deaths yet, and we remain hopeful that there will be none to come. As houses, wildlife and countless hectares of bushland are burned to a black, charcoal crisp; it is disturbing to think that 9 out of 10 bushfires are lit by human means. Usually a cigarette butt tossed carelessly out of a car window (one person has already been arrested and faced court for starting a bushfire in such a way), or a carelessly unattended barbeque or small fire setting nearby vegetation alight. There is a statewide total fire ban. That means no barbeques, or fires of any kind.
But not all fires are lit by accident; no, socially depraved arsonists on some kind of sick, self-obsessed power trip light some of these fires. These twisted excuses for humans enjoy the act of watching the destruction unfold. The propensity to cause such wanton destruction is clearly a portrait of someone lacking social conscience.
This year so far, we have nearly 20 homes burned and melted to the ground, and it hasn’t even been a month since the bushfires began. In 1994, a bushfire came within 100 metres of my (at the time) residence. Embers melted holes in the backyard trampoline. However, due to a lucky twist of fate, the wind direction changed and the raging inferno burned some other people’s houses and a scout hall instead. That house still stands today, unaffected by fires.
As you may have realised, bushfires aren’t just restricted to bushland remote from most urban landscapes – in recent years we have had bushfires within 10km of the Sydney CBD. And the F3, an arterial road link between Sydney, Gosford and Newcastle was shut down before many commuters could get home because fires were burning either side of the freeway, stranding many people from getting home that night. On television we see helicopter coverage of the fire on the F3 shot at night, a surreal overhead image of whipping flames and an irregular stream of embers sailing perpendicularly over the freeway.
A memory comes to mind: I’m a passenger in a car travelling along the F3, admittedly further north, between Gosford and Newcastle at around 2:00am. Through the trees to the east I can see the remains of a once raging fire, glowing an eerie phosphor red, contrasting the neon blue glow of my Nokia phone as I play a game of snake, ash drizzling mildly down as the wind blew to the west. “Wow… look at the remains of that fire. Doesn’t it look amazing” says one of the other passengers in the car. At least I think that’s what was said: I was groggy and tired, concentrating on the game of snake at hand as my eyelids got heavier and heavier, making this one of the most surreal experiences I can recall.
As I sit here typing this, I’m supposed to be doing work for a diploma course in network engineering. But I am unable to concentrate on the work. I look out the window at the grey sky, punctuated by an orange sun casting a thick, orange shade onto the intermittent carpet and linoleum floor. I can see trees, but not far: visibility is less than a few kilometres, like some sort of drab, unsaturated fog. I am indoors, yet I can still detect a faint twang of smoke laced through the processed air I breathe. I see miniature discs of ash float slowly down to the ground in front of the window from which I look. When I go outside, I can almost taste the smoke. Everything is tinted orangey-grey, an incandescent-red sky somewhat reminiscent of eschaton in some over-produced Hollywood flick.
It’s later now, I’ve seen a movie since I wrote the last paragraph, and I’m going home now. Most of the smoke in the immediate area has cleared up. As I head south to go home, the sun has just recently set. I can see enormous plumes of smoke billowing into the air casting an uneven, fiery red haze across the southern sky. Just above is the moon, a smooth convex sliver of slightly orange silver. Looking down at the road now, I see houses lit up in Christmas lights like beacons. Decorations. They blur as they rush past my car window. I hear on the radio about our first casualty – a man was found burned to death in his caravan.
We Australians usually enjoy a Christmas under a red sky.