This is not the return (again) to blogging that I imagined. I’m moved to write to whomever have hung on and to any others who might be hearing the plight of Australia’s drought, heat and bushfires that have raged for months.
There is a well loved poem here, called My Country, by Dorothea Mackellar. Perhaps its most famous line…
I love a sunburnt country, a land of sweeping plains, Of ragged mountain ranges, of droughts and flooding rains…
I think of these words each day as I dread turning on the news. Almost daily we hear of worsening fires and personal loss, as well as livestock, habitat and native animal losses. I watch it because it is uncomfortable, but not nearly as uncomfortable, I know, as for those who are living it.
We grew up in a small town. When almost anything happened, you would either know the person, the family, or know someone who knew them. That is how Australia feels to me. We are the same size as the contiguous USA, but only a tiny fraction of the population size. We have traveled all over Australia and it has always been our favourite kind of travel. So when something devastating happens, it feels like it is happening to someone we know. My heart is very heavy. I watch so I can understand the challenges and witness the triumph of humans during tragedy, as well as the horror when humans make bad decisions…like starting fires in a tinder dry country.
Parts of our country have been in drought for 5 or more years. Last year the Murray Darling River was so dry in spots that millions of fish died, towns ran out of water, farmers went out of business, entire regions suffered. Farmers have had to de-stock their stations because they are out of grazing land and feed is too expensive for them to buy when they have no income. Further, lands this dry are vulnerable to dust storms that carry topsoil thousands of kilometres, here to Alice Springs and beyond.
…Core of my heart, my country! Her pitiless blue sky, When sick at heart around us, We see the cattle die…
Fires have spread like angry beasts to wine producing regions and fruit growing areas, previously moist enough to resist them. While it is true that people who live in the bush sometimes allow too much build up of fuel on their properties, it is also true that previous fires have been more manageable. We are witnessing unprecedented heat and winds on top of drought and the results are quite literally catastrophic.
A few days ago the government deployed military personal and boats to assist in areas where the power, food and water were gone and to evacuate people. Some were taking refuge in and near the water, where possible, because the fires were still threatening, having already taken hundreds of properties and an unknown number of lives. Over a thousand people have been evacuated on navy ships, while many thousands more have vacated the fire threatened regions when and if they can get petrol to do so. This is not easily possible in some areas where fuel is scarce, though being transported in, and where there is only a single highway in and out of the areas. Fallen trees and fires that have jumped roadways have necessitated road closures, trapping people in some cases.
In fires back in September/October, a huge area of koala habitat was destroyed, as were hundreds of koalas. People began bringing Koalas to the Port MacQuarie Koala Hospital and their Go Fund Me page saw generous donations from everywhere, enabling their important work for now and the future. They will be using some of the money to establish wildlife drinking stations over a wide range of lands, but the loss has still been devastating. Estimates of losses at nearly half a billion animals have shocked all of us.
Now we are donating to the people who have lost everything. Most of these people were living in regional areas because they love it, but also it is less expensive. Many do not have insurance and cannot afford to rebuild. The government is working on helping them, but of course no government can afford to rebuild housing for so many lost properties. And no one can replace a lifetime of physical mementos. But with help many will be able to rebuild and move forward.
Here in Alice we have learned 2019 was our driest on record. We received only 67mm (2.6 inches) of rain where our normal is 289mm. This, after a particularly dry previous year. Our town basin water is at its lowest point ever. We have had many more dust storms than normal, and high winds much of the time in between, drying the land out further and creating poor air quality. Mostly it is not heavily laced with smoke, though sometimes it is. Areas around Alice have burned periodically over the last year. We live in a place where everything is brought from a distance where it can be grown, so we are quite vulnerable when large scale flooding, drought and fires happen. Unprecedented, sustained temperatures in excess of 40C up to 46C (114F) have taken a toll even on the native vegetation.
This morning as I write I can barely see the mountain for dust in the air. But I know the winds and heat we have had are moving south and will worsen their fires. I feel somehow complicit. There are dire warnings for this day in particular. There are still hundreds of fires burning, many out of control. If you are seeing these stories in your news, believe them. It is real, and much worse than most of us ever thought we would see. We know we are in this together, that Australians are resilient and compassionate people—even more so for the hardships suffered.
And finally, to the thousands of volunteer firefighters who make up most of the crews. I cannot imagine how exhausted you are, the horrors you have seen or the size of your hearts to protect your fellow beings. We are all enormously grateful.
An opal-hearted country, A wilful lavish land– All you who have not loved her, you will not understand–