The burning times

By | 2013/10/21

FlamesIt’s not even summer yet and vast swathes of NSW are burning with savage intensity.

I’m sitting in Sydney Airport as I write this, and the smoke haze is growing more intense – visibility has tangibly fallen since I sat down at my gate and the smell of smoke pervades even the relative isolation of the terminal building.  It reeks of ash and cinder, and imparts no small amount of foreboding.

January 14, 2013, almost the exact middle of summer, here’s what the fire map looked like for NSW:

Alerts NSW RFS Jan 14

Today, 21 October 2013, just past mid-spring, and the map looks like this:

NSW Fires oct 21 2013

That’s mid-spring – we’re not even into summer yet and already parts of the country are in dire straits.

When you look at those maps you have to remind yourself the icons are hugely disproportionate to the size of the affected area. Otherwise you’d assume, like a European news agency did a few years ago, that all of Sydney was ablaze and all residents fleeing.

Mother nature, apparently, can sometimes be a real bitch.

Australia has a unique environment. We have trees whose seeds can only open and spread after fires – fire is an essential part of the regeneration of our native environment.

That should make us particularly mindful of the nascent danger of fire, but some live in blithe, perhaps even wilful ignorance of it.

A taxi driver this morning asked me, “Where do you call home?” When I replied with “Melbourne”, he responded with exasperation, “Shouldn’t you guys be burning? Isn’t Victoria meant to get all the bush fires?”

I don’t know what world he lived in – I grew up in NSW, and bushfires have been a part of my life for as long as I recall. Thankfully, never too close, but always present during summer, like the proverbial monster under the bed. I remember as a teenager going out with my father to a brush fire. The smoke from that was incredible, stinging my eyes. A ribbon of fire approached like some living wave, with farmers and volunteers frantically working on a barrier, fighting fire with fire and machine, building breaks and imposing their collective will on the front.

Full bush fires are not so easily tamed though. The ones currently plaguing NSW perhaps have not yet even hit their full stride, and the damage already done has been substantial.

It’s foolish and ignorant to think that the bushfire problem belongs to someone else. Yet I suspect it’s a misconception that’ll be carried for a while yet. The harsh reality of climate change will take perhaps a decade or more to sink in sufficiently, and for some it never will, but the obvious effects are already surrounding us – once in a lifetime events are now once in a decade events; soon they’ll be even more regular.

I suspect we’ll come to know this part of Australia’s history as the burning times.