The Fires

II

We take the sight of the sky as a given, a right enshired in our very constitution. I, for one, felt frustrated, more than I felt alarmed at first, every day that it was kept from me. In my mind, thousands of years of instinct declared the clouds should part soon or else…Or else what?

© Andreea Ilie

In the car, I scrolled through the photo gallery. Pictures, I wondered, would they be a warning to anyone who isn’t here to see it? Striking as they may be, will they amount to anything more that an aesthetic, a color scheme, be of any consequence or importance past the visual?

They did. This time, they did. Photographs that could have been disturbing enough to scroll past, instead became disturbing enough to fuel action. Millions were pledged, raised and sent over. Support poured in. The world wanted this to go away out of both empathy and fear for those in immediate danger, but also because it looked very much like an ill omen, predicting what is to come for the rest of us, everywhere.

© Andreea Ilie

We always need to be able to plan for the future. These skies that Australia looked up to now, they didn’t look like the ones we imagined would lay ahead of us when we were kids-those would always be blue; sometimes, with a slight chance of rain. That was a sight that signaled opportunity, continuity. That isn’t the case here. From now on, what is to come will be nothing like what we’ve imagined if these skies, the red ones, linger.

There were times when I couldn’t breathe well. The warnings on TV were issued for children, the elderly, and people with breathing problems. Once again, I made the cut. We were there during the hottest spring on record and on some days, the heat alone should have been enough to keep me indoors. It was nothing compared to what would come a mere month later. But Australia is beautiful, and it also happens to be at the other end of the world from where I normally eat and sleep. I wanted to know it, become part of it, watch it, learn. I told myself I’ll be fine.

The claw of smoke and ash pulled my chest in and made each breath shorter. Not noticeable from the outside, listening in. Not wheezing yet, but getting there. The memory of dim pediatric wards and children screaming and worried mothers and bronchodilators tumbled back in with the vengeance of the two and a half decades it had been suppressed for. They say it feels like the closest thing to being strangled to death. Yet, you always make it out alive to tell the story. Well, not always.

© Andreea Ilie

Growing up, I often had to be taken away to places where I could breathe; the trips came to an end when my parents decided to move permanently to a pocket of fresh air in the mountains. But that was no place to stay. I left and roamed big cities with the lunacy -or confidence, what they call it for the young- of someone who knew that exciting times are to be lived, even if out of breath, especially when out of breath.

Since I overcame all of that, grew out of it, proved the doctors wrong, ignored the cuneiform writing on my prescription that always made the pharmacist frown, and still lived to tell the tale, I figured I’d be fine this time round, too.

Panic would have made it worse. We got dressed, got our Opal cards and went out. It would all be fine. People here go through this every year and then they always get past it and all is well. All is always well in the end. Something will be done. But that’s it, isn’t it? We always wait for something to be done by someone else. For things to somehow sort themselves out.

For all my climate change awareness, advocacy and support, in an act of silent despair at the imminence of what I could not control, there I was, beginning to deny it, too.

In a way, the idea that it would all be over soon wasn’t entirely misconstrued. Over coffee and a vanilla Darth Vader cookie- which I ate every morning with the ferocity of a middle child threatened with the imminent return of their siblings- I watched the fire ratings change from catastrophic to extreme and there it was, hope. The thick haze blanketed the city still, but it seemed that fires would tone down.

There was little talk of it past the morning news. We tried to keep the subject off the dinner table. Our friends took us on trips, to lunches, on walks and drives. We had front row seats at one of the most beautiful weddings I have ever been to. There was immense trust in life going on. Try this, have that. It was gorgeous.

© Andreea Ilie

There was worry hanging in the air, sure, at times heavier than the dry skies above. But in spite of it all, we were welcomed with joy and excitement, always with arms wide open and, dare I say, love. Never before have I felt more at ease in the company of people I had just met than amongst our friends, and their friends, and their families in Sydney. That they were all nice, lovely and caring with us, as strangers-of-one-minute-ago, is an understatement.

“Well, not everyone here is so nice, unfortunately”

There were those who’d started the fires, for example. Then, the ones who found them to be a final act of justice, delivered against those who do not share their narrow perception of God and swear by its highly interpretable teachings.

The bushfires, the drought, the devastation, they believed all of them to be manifestations of the divine wrath against allowing same-sex marriages and giving women the right to terminate pregnancies. A predilection for alcohol and you’re gone, too.

With rules changed and laws broken, the Earth and its people will burn. Few men, the righteous, will remain-the sort of conviction one swears by when they’re convinced they’ll be spared of a death that’s always faithless, indiscriminate.

Then, there are the science sceptics, at the helm of a national crisis-whether they helped cause it or are trying to end it are two dots they insist are better left unconnected. The real question, for them, is whether climate change is real, not what should be done about it. Their actions reflect it.

Planning to reign in greenhouse gas emissions cost Malcolm Turnbull, Australia’s former prime minister, his position- toppled by the Liberal Party itself. Scotty said it’s a balance. He suggested the government should outlaw the efforts made by environmental groups to put pressure on businesses, with their boycots and rallies.

Caring for global warming makes one a “raving inner-city lunatic”, the deputy prime-minister declared. Craig Kelly then insisted that linking rising temperatures to climate change was “a total deception, a complete pack of lies. And like everything to do with ‘climate change’, it’s not only a lie but the truth is the exact opposite”. This is the same MP who linked child drowning to renewable energy, in 2016, himself a representative of the party in power.

When hearing that a news website would not quote climate change deniers, Eric Abetz found it “reminiscent of totalitarian regimes”. He linked it to Joseph Stalin, Mao Zedong and Adolf Hitler, whom he thinks would have not only approved of the move that “superciliously and arrogantly denied a voice to an alternative point of view”, but be proud of it, too. It seems Abetz found that choosing to leave out untrue statements from a news website is equally destructive as being responsible for the deaths of millions.

With the problem denied, so was the support. That fire experts and scientists describe the scale of the fires as unprecedented seems to be of no relevance to the people in power. Scotty insisted the nation remained shackled to its history- after all, fires and floods, conflicts, disease and drought are nothing new, and as Australians overcame those in the past, so shall they now. It’s part of their spirit. Call it resilience. Celebrate.

I find it despicable that anyone would even tangentially link the good, hard-working nature and innate optimism of a nation to what is destroying their country, killing their people, wiping out their animals, damaging beyond repair the environment that so many love so much. Yet, in a bewildering display of logic acrobatics, there it was, an explanation that spread as much hope as the raging fires, and subtly passed the responsibility for dealing with the disaster on to the victims themselves. I wonder what the next step would be.

© Andreea Ilie

I find it impossible to imagine how any of it could ring true to anyone watching entire communities become isolated. Seeing supplies starting to run out and roads being cut off. The power, down. What faith could be had in one’s rhetoric, when seeing that tragedy is met with departure? Leadership took a leave of absence. The fires simply didn’t burn close enough to Scotty’s door. In the face of it he remained inactive, perhaps inept. He must have made sure to send thoughts and prayers to those who persevered against the fires and perished. Not much else.

Then, two volunteer firefighters died and Scotty came back. Volunteers, the country relies on them, for over twelve hours a day, each day, and for a long time, for no pay- and then, it was three of the tens of thousands who stepped in, and lost. There’s no training for true bravery and strength, and no school for heroes- they are simply born through their actions.

Many have tried to make sense of the political response to the massive bushfire damage. For some locals, it all boils down to the tragedy of the commons, unfolding- after all, political smokescreens might have their uses, but they’re rarely thick enough to keep one from seeing the common good disregarded for the preservation of the interests of the very few.

Sharing, after all, doesn’t mean much to those who regard access to natural resources as theirs to have and exploit, independent of the wish or well-being of the masses they represent; it comes by virtue of their creed, opinion, position. It’s lucrative.

Put simply, certain resources were to be exploited without prudence, and the environmental collapse that it might lead to would be ignored. Leaders would remain committed to its denial, and if there was any truth to it, anyway, the effects would be be seen in the long term- ideally, the world would come crashing down after their own passing.

© Andreea Ilie

But it is collapsing now. There’s roars and explosions. There’s new weather systems, fire tornadoes of extreme rising heat. You put your hand in front of your face and you can’t see it. Then, it starts glowing red. The fires are coming.

Under a black and fiery red sky, 4,000 people flee their homes in Mallacoota. Their homes burn before the wind changes direction. They wait helplessly on the beach, they bring their kids into the water. They wear life vests and face masks, have rafts at the ready. Ash and ember rain from above.

Scores are still missing, death tolls expected to rise, amongst humans and animals alike. Entire species might be wiped out. There’s talk of rain, and when it falls, it’s received with cheers; there’s laughter and whistling. Relief.

But it’s not going to last. There’s more burning yet to come. The army is in charge of evacuations; settlements remain destroyed, people still sleep in cars and boats, by the water.

‘It’s just a waiting game. But we’ll get there, it doesn’t matter’
‘What are you waiting for?’
‘For it to stop’

There’s optimism yes, and there’s the tears that come down with it. The emergency situation might still last for months.

It could well be that climate change might be real after all, for all of us, no matter what we believe in or how heavy our pockets must feel when denying it.

Note: all images as shot.

Sources:

https://www.reuters.com/article/us-australia-bushfires-folau/australias-devastating-bushfires-reflect-gods-wrath-rugby-star-preaches-idUSKBN1XS0DC

https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2020/jan/01/australia-bushfires-defence-forces-sent-to-help-battle-huge-blazes

https://www.smh.com.au/national/nsw/missing-in-action-prime-minister-shows-poor-leadership-20191219-p53ll2.html

https://www.reuters.com/article/us-australia-bushfires-politics/australian-prime-minister-morrison-defends-bushfire-crisis-response-idUSKBN1Z4040