It is Christmas Day. Driving to our cousin’s home in Tumbarumba, a small town in NSW, the car thermometer reads 40C. The black leather is scorching.
Outside, the bushland is bone-dry. Bleached limbs of gum trees moan overhead. Grass is yellow. Cavities lie in the dust where water-holes once were. Clay brown.
The usual scurry of wildlife beside the road – wallabies, possums, wombats – is absent. Even the crickets have departed.
We arrive, eat lunch at a long table. Even with the doors closed and the fan pulsing beside us, the air is stifling. I listen, with a mouthful of pavlova, as the adults share mutual exclamations about the weather and the risk of a fire.
“It’s not a question of if,” my uncle says. “But a question of when.”
But the colours and the silence of the bush were not the first warnings. The Bureau of Meteorology declared 2019 to be the hottest year on record for Australia, with temperatures soaring 1.52C above average. Many towns across Australia also experienced their lowest rainfall ever.
As far back as May, climate scientists and fire experts warned us that our nation was grossly underprepared for the Summer to come, but these cautions were ignored by the government.
The fire season began in Winter. The first flames erupted in July near the popular tourist destination of Port Macquarie. By mid-August, three more fires began threatening towns in the South Coast. The Rural Fire Service (RFS) warned that these early fires were a clue of the conditions to come.
And they were right. By October, the fires had consumed over 90, 000 hectares of bushland. Homes were being lost every day. The flames claimed their first lives.
In November, scientists spoke up about their fears that climate change will cause a once rare weather event to become more common. Between 1998 and 2018, there had been 62 events of pyro-cumulonimbus, commonly referred as firestorms. Firestorms occur when hot air, from fires, rise and take in cooler air. If the air cools enough, it can form a firestorm cloud. These clouds can then mix with ice and cause lighting, which can begin new fires up to 60km away (Bureau of Meteorology). In three months, over 30 firestorms have been confirmed, increasing the frequency of the event by almost 50%. Scientists say that ground-level and upper-atmospheric temperatures have been altered by climate change, making
conditions more likely to spark these phenomenal events in the future.
For well over 20 years, scientists have warned that climate change could increase the risk of extreme bushfires. Warmer weather increases the number of days each year on which there is a high or extreme bush fire risk. The government, however, dismissed the science. As the leading exporter of coal in the world, Australia surely has the responsibility to decrease its carbon dioxide emissions? The government says no.
“We know that Australia on its own cannot control the world’s climate as Australia accounts for just 1.3% of global emissions,” prime minister Scott Morrison said in a conference early last year.
But Australia has the highest emissions per capita of all major nations, with an individual’s carbon footprint four times the global average. This is because of our heavy reliance on coal as our main source of energy. And when activists protest in the streets against the construction of Adani, a large new coal mine to be built in Queensland?
They are shut down, some even arrested.
Back in Sydney, the smoke clutches the city skyline like a quivering fist. It conceals the peaks of building, stains the white teeth of the Opera House like coffee. People are told to stay indoors, and those who dare venture beyond their homes wear masks. The air quality has reached hazardous.
It is the morning of New Year’s Eve when my mum receives the text. It is short. Only two lines. We have been evacuated. Leaving now. It is from her sister in Tumbarumba. Two fires that burn either side of the small town – Green Valley and Dunns Road – are merging.
We switch on the news. Immediately, I am flooded with images of the flames. Mountainous curtains of smoke billow from pulsing orange furnaces. Skies are apocalyptic-red. The same clip of a fire-truck aflame is played over and over. The dead beat of statistics is endless: hectares, homes, lives lost.
There is one image – among the orange-red blur of flames – that remains clear in my head. Burnt bones of a home: iron sheets, melted metal, charred wood, blackened pots and pans. Beside the rubble is a bike. A white BMX, untouched. Not even a smudge on its polished surface. It reminds me just how unpredictable a fire is.
The wind turns and Tumbarumba is spared. But, the good luck of one family is another’s misfortune.
With no action on climate change, this brutal Summer is just a prelude of what will become a regular occurrence in our lifetime. Although the fires have wreaked extreme devastation across Australia, they have certainly been a wake-up call to our nation, once asleep to the warming weather. Those who were once sceptical about the science saw it first-hand this Summer, whether it be running from the flames or masking against the smoke. Even Scott Morrison revealed in a recent press conference that the government is acting on climate change. Although refusing to give further details of his proposed environment policy, it’s a start. Like the saying goes: you have to see it to believe it.