The fires of hell

Every news bulletin has a report on a bushfire in Australia, and quite often multiple reports on fires in different states of the country. It’s been like that since October, since before summer began. I don’t know about others, but I’m finding it hard to take. It distresses me every time.

I feel an overwhelming empathy for the people forced out of their homes by the fires, and the utter sense of displacement and loss they must feel. Their lives have been fractured, and hearth and home taken.

Then there are the volunteer firies. This is a role borne out of community, by necessity, and often family tradition. They pitch in through the year, preparing and training, with the expectation that they may be called on come the summer to deal with a bushfire or two. In a bad year that might be a big fire that draws upon all their resilience and resources, but generally, it’s over soon enough. This year, some firies have been fighting fires for months.

Imagine the stress and exhaustion. Imagine the demands on their life, their families, their finances. These are volunteers. They don’t get paid for it. They do it because it’s the right thing to do and no complaints. In an average year, they shrug their shoulders and get on with it. They’re getting on with it now, but it’s far from a normal year, and many are trying to juggle work with family and fighting the fires. Others have taken leave off work altogether – there are crews from interstate, and even overseas, fighting these fires. They are tested around the clock, have worked through Christmas, through day and night, pulling their weight – and with fuck all support.

These guys epitomise what heroism really is, but I can’t express how disgusted I am with the government who stands by doing nothing. It’s only last week, after intense pressure, that the federal government agreed to offer some compensation to firefighters who’ve taken time off work to fight the fires. But then, it’s very selective – if you’re from NSW you’re in luck, but only if you’re a small business owner. The rest of you, the rest of Australia, can go stuff yourselves. That’s the petty, cowardly nature of our government.

These firies have had to scrounge food and fuel in many instances, and sometimes equipment, to continue the fight. The government could’ve called in the ADF to help, but hasn’t. It could’ve put the SOS out across the world to get in firefighting aircraft, but hasn’t. It could’ve converted Hercules aircraft, but hasn’t. The list of things it hasn’t done is immense. What it has done is go on holiday. Literally.

These people aren’t fit to be in the same room as the firies. They turn up for photo ops, they pontificate to the media, they obfuscate and deflect and blame, but they take no responsibility and do nothing to help.

This is a great part of my distress. My heart is breaking for the country and the good people there, but our politicians look smug and refuse to consider that may have some accountability for this.

I think the fire fronts may have been better contained had the resources been provided to do so, and the dire situation we face now may not have evolved so desperately. The fires are different now, though. The scale and ferocity is beyond previous experience. It’s like a juggernaut that can’t be stopped, but perhaps only slowed if lucky. It gets in your head. There’s a sense of abject impotence being at the complete mercy of the elements and of nature. We pray for rain and cooler weather, but the days get hotter, they remain dry, and if anything storm fronts whip up to make it worse.

We’re out of our depth – and the government sits like a deer in the spotlights. Do something!

I wonder if this how it’s going to be from here on in? Is this our future? If there is anything good to come of this, it must be that many more are now awake to the critical nature of climate change. There’s always been a clamour, but it’s building to a frenzy now. Surely, it can’t still be ignored?

In the meantime, the fires rage on. In East Gippsland, it looks like a scene from the apocalypse. Much of it has been evacuated, but many stayed, and the fires are out of control. Four are reported missing, and overnight another firefighter died when the wind overturned his fire truck. That’s how it is.

There were even fires encroaching yesterday on Melbourne suburbia, including a very urban suburb I lived in briefly 30 years ago.

In NSW the fires ring Sydney. What if they converge? That would be catastrophic. If nothing else, the government should be mindful of the huge economic impact of these fires, and the effect on tourism. Surely that should motivate them to do something? Not likely.

And in Tasmania fires are out of control there as well.

There’s an immense amount of territory on fire, and in different places across the country. The damage is catastrophic, and the toll on wildlife is enough to make you cry. If there’s a hell on earth, then these days it’s in Australia.

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