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Hoping for the wind to change
When I was a kid me and Dad went down the front paddock beneath the tennis court to burn a big pile of branches. We did this every year, at least once, and Dad was always pulling wooden detritus into piles to be burned at a later date. We even had a family ritual, the Family Drag, where everyone in the family would have to go out to whatever mess Dad had made, grab an unreasonably large branch, and pull it across the 8 acre property to The Fire. The Fire is basically a very large mound of soot and dirt on the flat down the hill, until it is not and it is 6 metres tall and very, very hot.
For some reason, possibly because it’s particularly hard to drag things from the tennis court to The Fire, Dad decided that we were going to burn his new pile right there. It was a dumb idea. The pile was on a hill and the space wasn’t particularly clear of trees and, though it had rained that week, I’m pretty sure the Rural Fire Service had put out a warning.
I don’t remember much, but I do remember the fire breaking from the bonfire, getting into the grass, rushing up the hill, licking upwards towards the hanging leaves of a pine. I remember Mum on the phone to the firies, scared, and I remember then the Rural Fire Service – a bunch of unpaid blokes from across the valley based in a large green shed down the Springbrook Road – turning up in their yellow fire-retardant get-up. I remember them saving my home.
East Gippsland. Photograph: Dale Appleton/DELWP
Here’s another memory from when I was a little older. I was swimming in my Grandmother’s pool, maybe 11 years old, and my Mum and Grandma were worried that it would be a bad fire year. The night before I’d been watching some Discovery Channel documentary about Californian bushfires where they interview a bunch of traumatised people and reenact fire fronts and use dramatic music to turn destruction into entertainment. Then they sold that Californian narrative to a country where “Black Friday” refers to a natural disaster in which 71 people were burned alive.
The documentary had two main claims. The first was that California’s fires were worse than anywhere else. The second was that California’s fires were bad because California is covered in eucalypts, a tree native to Australia.
Anyway, Mum and Grandma were talking about the dry and the sun and whether there’d be fire that year and I interrupted because I was a kid and had just watched a show and because I wanted to tell them what I’d learned: that the fires were worse in California, where there were eucalypts that would “explode” into “fireballs” because of all the oils in the leaves.
Mum looked at me with a kind of deep exhausted sadness and then turned to Grandma and said “this is America being the biggest and the best at everything” by which she meant “my children are submersed in a hegemonic neocolonial culture that erases everything local”.
I was a kid and an idiot so I didn’t understand that. I yelled at her instead.
Malua Bay. Photograph: @JayElai
Nineteen people are dead, so far, this season. Some were volunteer firies trying to save their neighbours’ homes. Today there are 28 people missing in Victoria. Over Christmas, the number of houses destroyed passed one thousand. Tens of thousands of people have been evacuated. The New Zealanders can see smoke. Last week more than a thousand people stood on the beach at Malua Bay, hemmed in, waiting for the signal to move into the water.
I won’t tell you how the nineteen died because, if you already know, you already know, and if you don’t know, well, I don’t want to write it down.
2019 was Australia’s hottest year on record.
Something to listen to
If you want to listen to a Swede sing about falling in love in Melbourne while fire burns the state down around him, this one’s for you.
Good luck out there.