“I love a sunburnt country,
A land of sweeping plains,
Of ragged mountain ranges,
Of drought and flooding rains.
I love her far horizons,
I love her jewel-sea,
Her beauty and her terror –
The wide brown land for me!”
– Dorothea Mackellar
These words that Dorothea Mackellar wrote about Australia more than a century ago still stir a myriad of emotions in me. There’s an awe to the landscape of Australia, a vastness and majesty that stays with you. But along with the beauty there is a very real terror and wildness which is never more keenly felt than in bushfire season.
Growing up in rural Australia meant that every summer as our land became a sunburnt tinder box, we’d wait with nervous anticipation to see whether it would all go up in flames. The haunting sound of the local fire station siren drifting across the paddocks meant watching my dad drive away to be volunteer firefighter battling to save someone else’s place. I can still picture the exhaustion on his soot covered face and the unmistakable smell of burnt gum trees that hung heavy in the air around him when he’d finally return, usually in the wee hours of the morning.
This yearly ritual was one that I became accustomed to and as the years went by and our farm remained untouched there was a certain complacency that crept in. While thankfully mine is not a story of having lost everything in a fire. Mine is a story about the impact that witnessing total devastation can have on a person.
For people who live in Australia Black Saturday remains one of the most terrifying examples of the utter ferocity of bushfires. Months after the event when the fires where all put out I visited a friend who lived in one of the most severely affected areas. As I drove out of Melbourne and the road started to wind up into the ranges I turned a corner to see one of the most haunting sights I have ever seen. As far as the eye could see there was an alien landscape of black and grey. Nothing but trees burnt down to their stumps and a thick layer of ash covering the ground. I was so overcome by the destruction I pulled over my car and cried. Crying for my utter helplessness in that moment and my naivety about what people had actually gone through on that fateful Saturday.
One of the things that struck me about the way that this crisis was handled was how immediately following the fires there was an outpouring of community and government support – fundraising, volunteering and disaster relief funding all flooded in. But after a short time it all dried up. People got back to their daily lives and forgot. Government red tape meant that there were often unnecessary hurdles for the people trying to rebuild their lives. And well-meaning fundraising efforts had actually resulted in an oversupply of things like second-hand clothing that was now causing a burden on the affected communities.
The Black Saturday fires were in 2009 more than a decade ago and I still feel that we have not learnt enough lessons about how to support affected communities in the long term. The summer of 2020 was another devastating year for many but still there are reports of these communities not being adequately supported 6 months on. For example people are unable to rebuild their houses because of planning issues caused by contradictory federal and state legislation.
I was heartened to see that there is a new Government agency that has been set up to work directly with affected communities, but I think it needs to go further. As a country that burns I think that we need better education on how to effectively support those affected by bushfires and make sure that this support is there in the long term.