A year on from the Black Summer bushfires, Australians reflect on the country’s worst blazes in recorded history.
KIM Most rural fire brigades knew that there was a bad season coming. They knew that the conditions were getting drier and for us around here, we knew that our fuel loadings were higher. We haven’t had a decent fire for a number of years, so something bad had to happen. It was going to happen. We just didn’t know when.
STEPHEN When the fire approached, we defended my mother’s house and protected neighbouring properties as best we could before escaping at the last minute to the beach. We watched as the fire roared down the coast and houses burned. My mother’s house was still standing but four homes on her street were gone. My brother helped five people to safety. Here and in other areas, the fire just went through and cleared everything in its way. It was like a rocket going through.
INDIA I just couldn’t imagine losing our house so I was prepared to fight as long and as well I could. My main fear was the smoke I was breathing … if I was going to pass out. When the tree caught on fire, I really thought the tanks were going to melt, and the house was going to catch on fire there as well. The fire had burnt through the hose in two places. I don’t know how that would’ve gone if that hose was completely screwed.
GEOFF [The fire] was about a kilometre from us and we were watching it. And there’s helicopters and sirens and it’s getting pretty dramatic. I turned around and saw the whole hillside to our north was fully alight and the whole hillside to the east was fully alight. I could see there was spot fires everywhere and there was no controlling them.
GRAHAM When the water goes off and then the power goes off, and then you’ve got spot fires starting all around you, you can’t do anything about it. Everything you think you know about fire, when it comes, it just makes its own mind up.
MARAIAH It just kept coming back and coming back. The fire came back across ground that had already been burnt, it was that hot and that intense and that relentless — nobody had ever seen anything like that.
EVAN It was completely unprecedented in my view — I’ve never seen anything like it. The fire activity, the overall size of the fires, and just how fast they moved, I’d never seen anything like it before. When the sun should have been up, it was pitch black. There was ash falling from the sky. This was a situation that I have never been in.
JONATHAN With a single road into and out of town through heavily wooded terrain, we realised our window of opportunity to get out was closing. The likelihood of being cut off and trapped in was high, but the consequences of being caught in a firestorm while driving out were more significant. We believed the safest option was to move swiftly to the town’s wharf. We found an ideal spot by the water’s edge with a low rock wall and parked the car. To protect ourselves from hot embers flying through the air, we wrapped ourselves in woollen blankets. Others nearby did the same. In the event of a firestorm, our final escape option was to jump in the water, shielding ourselves behind the rock wall.
NEIL Our neighbour informed us that the impending fire could not be stopped. With our only firefighting resource being three garden hoses supplied by town water (which historically fails in a crisis) and a house full of guests not used to this type of situation, we decided to follow government recommendations and evacuate early. We waited and hoped. There wasn’t much else. Around 2:30pm, we received a text message from our neighbour who had reliable news that her house, along with ours and many others in the same street, was gone. The hope evaporated.
SUE My husband came up and said to me “Look, we’ve had all our windows blow up. The house is on fire. We’re not going to save it”. He still did try. He tried so hard. The fire brigade eventually came late, and they just said “No, you’re not going to save it because you’ve got a flat roof.” You live in the bush, you live by the rules of the bush, and that’s it. And it’s just so disheartening that somebody next to you doesn’t, and you just lose everything.
ROB I remember thinking, “This can’t be happening, how can we be getting so much fire?” We had all these [blazes] in the north and all the ones around Sydney and then we started to have all these lightning strikes down south … That’s what really happened, the mountain ranges from the very north of the state burnt to the very south of the state.
PETER When you wake, even before you’re properly awake, the first thing you smell is the smoke. This is despite the fact the vents in the house are closed; the smoke still gets inside. The streets are deserted. Public pools and major tourist attractions closed. Sporting events have been postponed. Businesses and government departments sent their workers home. The national airline stopped all flights. The postal service halted all deliveries. Petrol stations sold out of fuel, supermarkets sold out of bottled water, and bank ATMs were emptied of cash. It’s the stuff of the apocalypse.
MARY The fire brought whipping winds, bursts of thunder, lightning strikes and, very briefly, rain. There was an eerie quiet, punctuated only by the anxiety-provoking but reassuring sound of sirens. There were gas blasts, houses toppling and trees crashing or exploding. The fire produced deafening, apocalyptic roars that will stay with me forever.
JANE The frontline firefighters and people in affected communities will live with the ongoing trauma of things they cannot unsee. Like many of my fellow Australians, my anger is directed at those who were supposed to lead but have for decades failed us, and at those who continue to peddle spin and misinformation. Faced with apocalyptic fire conditions, an unruly rabble of politicians, media hacks and others with vested interests have been desperately grasping for explanations that do not relate to our changing climate.
NADA I am devastated for my country, the tragedy of the loss of lives, homes, incomes, for the pain and suffering of millions of wildlife and livestock and the ecological destruction. Yet our Prime Minister still persists in selling coal to India. I’m in despair at what we leave for future generations.
SARAH As a climate scientist, I’m not surprised by the bushfires. What I am is exhausted. I am tired of repeating again and again about how climate change is already here and that we are to blame. What will it take for everyone to finally realise this, and by then will it be too late? As an Australian, I’m shattered. The fires have changed Australia forever. The wrath of climate change is no longer on the horizon. It’s here.