Australian Bushfires and Living in Canberra

I wasn’t worried.

The Australian bushfires didn’t worry me when it first started going in northern New South Wales and in Queensland in September. It was far away from me and looked like it was mostly rural areas — away from homes. Early as it may have been into bushfire season, it wasn’t going to affect me at all, and maybe it wouldn’t be too bad.

My friend wasn’t worried either, and we occasionally watched the news, watching where the fires were in the red, ‘Emergency Warning’ (lives are in danger and people need to leave without delay). There were seven up north, and I scrolled through Facebook, occasionally glancing at the news, watching as another yellow fire, ‘Watch and Act’ (start taking action), turned red.

“Have you downloaded the ‘Fires Near Me’ app?” she asked me.

“Nah.”

“Why not?”

I shrugged. “They’re nowhere near us. I don’t need to.”

She nodded. “Have you got your survival plan ready? We’re going to get the animals together and let any other animals nearby out so they can escape.”

“We’re just winging it. We’re far enough in town that by the time it gets to us, suburbs will be gone.”

Even though she didn’t look convinced by my plan, she didn’t probe anymore on the matter.

Earlier this year, two major fires had the world attention, one in the Amazon, people outraged that it contributed for so much of the worlds oxygen, yet nothing seemingly happening bar letting the trees burn, and the other in California, with the world worried for the celebrities there, watching as their houses were burnt, and thinking how huge the damage had been for both of these events.

It’s not unusual for Australia to have bushfires during the summer months, December through February, with temperatures from 30 degrees upward (86+ F) on a normal day. But this year, the bushfires started early and strong. Temperatures have been consistently in the late 30s, regularly hitting the early 40s (95F — 110F) day after day.

It doesn’t help that we’ve been in a drought for years, and the once emerald farmlands around Canberra have turned dusty straw brown. Our farmers are struggling, and Australia is dry, which means the bush is perfect fire fodder.

Then, the fires started to come south, around the beaches. A fire between Bungendore and Braidwood meant road closures, and Canberran’s annoyed that we’d have to find another way to the coast this summer, hopeful that those residents won’t be affected, and concerned for the businesses that will be affected.

Watching the news again, my friend was upset by the coverage. She was getting a bit antsy, knowing she had friends in Bungendore, and didn’t like watching the news anymore.

“They’ll be ok,” I told her, looking at the ‘Fires Near Me’ app on my phone, something I felt I had to get when the fire near Bungendore started up. “It’s still a while away from the town.”

Everything was getting worse, and the fires were getting closer.

Another fire started in the bush between Bungendore and Queanbeyan. It was only blue, ‘Advice’ (no immediate threat but stay up to date), and not close to anything at this stage.

Over the next few days, my friend got more and more worried about the fire, seeing how it was growing, and flitting between blue and yellow.

From Belconnen, in north Canberra, driving towards the airport, you could see in the distance a huge flume of smoke.

I remember the sky was blue that day, and only a few clouds in the sky. The smoke looked almost like a big cloud on the horizon, wispy and round. It would have been so beautiful if I didn’t know it was smoke.

Again, that fire progressed, turning into a red. People in the area around Captains Flat and Hoskinstown evacuated, photos on Facebook of empty houses, animals being transported away, and people thinking this would be the last time they saw their homes. Eventually, it dropped back down to yellow, flitting between red and yellow a few times, before it started to get under control and settle in yellow for a while. This was late November or early December.

The smoke started to roll into the capital city, but it wasn’t too bad.

My partner and I went to the Cherry Festival in Young this year and found the sky blue there, a few clouds in the sky, and a bit of smoke further away — just a haze at this stage, although the second day was a bit smoky.

On the drive back to Canberra, I realised how bad the smoke had gotten. We had passed Yass and Murrumbateman, where the sky had been bright blue, when I saw almost a line in the sky. On the other side of the regular sky was grey-brown smoke. Slowly, the line shifted over the car, and the blue section became smaller and smaller before finally, I could only see it out of my rear window. Eventually, it was gone completely.

We had, of course, heard about how bad it was in Sydney, Tik Toks and memes about the poor quality. We knew there were practically fires surrounding the city, but at least it wasn’t that bad here.

It got worse.

I remember before Christmas, we drove to Belconnen and the smoke was getting thicker and thicker. It was around five in the afternoon, and the sun was visible through my window — a dark orange ball sitting in the sky.

Aircon blasting, it was around 35 degrees out, with the air circulating in the car, the smell of smoke was in my car, and my partner coughed a few times.

This was the first time I’d realised how bad the smoke was.

Every day since then, it has gotten worse.

I drove to work the other day, just before New Years, and at ten in the morning, I put my lights on. It was too dark — too much smoke — to see very far in front of me. I couldn’t see the usual sights, and it was quite confronting.

That evening, we went to see some family who had lived in Canberra during the bushfires in 2003. I hadn’t lived here and didn’t really understand the vague recollections I’d heard over the years.

“Was it this bad last time, or worse?” my partner asked.

“Oh,” he started, “so much worse. I was at work, and a firestorm had started. These chunks of trees — ya know those bits at the end of the branches? — were falling right next to us, so we had to stop what we were doing, and I drove home. As I’m driving, it suddenly became so dark, like black, from all the smoke.”

He talked a bit about the air quality before we started talking about the types of masks one would have to wear for the fine particles, and then about the new Star Wars movie.

The next day, after my partner finished at work, she told me about how a man had been complaining about the smoke, and another said we should be grateful that we’re not caught in the fires, and to imagine how bad it must be for the firefighters. I try to be grateful; I really do, when I see on the news people stuck in their hometowns, scared that they’ll lose everything.

But I’m scared, too. Scared that having the highest level of toxic air in the world will affect my lungs, the lungs of the elderly, and the lungs of the babies. My friend has a three-week-old girl. How will this affect her in ten years? Twenty years?

One of my greatest fears at the moment is being told down the track that being exposed to this air day in and day out has fucked me up so badly that there’s nothing doctors could do for me — to not lose anything this year in the fires, but lose my life down the track from the effects of the disaster.

I’m glad that the fires are still a distant threat to us — Canberra doesn’t have to enact our bush fire survival plans yet — but that might change.

Last night on the news, they were talking about today, Saturday the 4th, how it’s supposed to be a terror of a day. Temperatures in Canberra will be high, around 42+ degrees (107+ F). NSW is in a state of emergency for the next seven days, and Canberra may follow suit, currently in a state of alert, with fears that winds will change and fires in the surrounding areas will come straight at us.

I looked at my partner, who normally hates the news, as she was glued on every word.

“If a fire comes, when are we leaving?”

“When it’s north side.”

“Where will we go?”

“In the opposite direction,” she told me.

I started to think about which path we’ll take, where we’ll go, if the fire threatens us, and depending on where the fire is. Roads will be closed, and we know we need to leave early to get out in time. If we don’t leave early enough, we’ll have to stay no matter what.

That’s what’s happening in places like Batemans Bay, or Narooma. People are stuck, roads closed, waiting and hoping for something to reopen and for a way to escape. In one place, only one petrol station is open. The news is saying people have to pay with cash because too many people had driven away without paying. Police told the manager to close, but he said he can’t — not when it’s life or death for people.

My Facebook is mostly images of the fires, people talking about how to get prepared to leave, and friends worried as they are unable to reach family and friends in affected areas, asking if anyone has heard from any of them or people in the area. One asked people not to post the good times of New Years on Facebook as they haven’t heard from their family on the coast. Another said they have nothing to celebrate while they stay in another town, waiting to hear if their town — their home — has made it or not.

We went out to the movies at Belconnen Mall. The fire alarm went off a week or two ago, because there was so much smoke getting in. Thankfully, it wasn’t smoky in the cinema. On the way home, I saw the moon. She was orange as well, a crescent, sitting in the sky. I realised I can’t remember the last time I’d seen the stars, and it felt like the first time I’d seen the moon in ages.

Yesterday, P2 masks were being handed out, with no end in sight for the terrible air quality.

I’m terrified.


These events are of course to the best of my memory, and any inconsistencies within the timeline of the bushfires are unintentional.

Also published on Medium.

4 Comments

  1. embers88

    I am also living in a not yet fire affected area, but the smoke can get really bad depending on the wind. It is so frightening because the fires are everywhere. I have a friend in Victoria that has been evacuated, I hope her house is ok. I hope you stay safe in Canberra, and yes, having the worst air quality in the world is terrifying, and so unprecedented that no one really knows what to do.

    Like

    1. felicityfeiner

      At this stage, it looks like nothing is coming Canberra way yet, so fingers crossed we’ll all be ok. Hopefully the fires keep away from you and you family and friends and all are safe

      Like

  2. Del Boudreau

    Such an incredibly human story Felicity. I’m so sad you’re living there through this dreadful time, but thank you for sharing your fears with such honesty. We all feel helpless against the fires.

    Like

    1. felicityfeiner

      Thank you. It’s hard to watch, especially seeing young children with p2 masks pressed to their faces by parents and guardians. Hopefully it doesn’t worsen and the next few months ease up for Australians.

      Like

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