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January 17, 2020
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January 17, 2020

The fires ‘down under’

Since August 2019 to now, the major international news networks have reported that acres of land in Australia have been burning. Former Catholic News Editor JUNE JOHNSTON is currently visiting family there and shares her perspective.

The date on my iPad is Monday, January 13. It is just after midnight and I am very aware that back home it’s Sunday 12.

We left home on Saturday, December 14 for Sydney to spend Christmas and bring in 2020 with our daughter, her husband and our four-year-old granddaughter. This trip had been planned long in advance and the alarming news reports about the Australian bushfires had not made me think twice about cancelling. Our daughter and her husband both assured us that we would be quite safe in the eastern suburbs of Sydney near Bondi.

The day we arrived in Sydney—December 17, there was no evidence of extreme heat or smoky skies. On December 19, things changed because the winds changed and during the day the temperature rose to 40 C. You could smell and taste the smoke. It was best to remain indoors.

Before sunset, the temperature had dropped to 23 C and the smokiness in the atmosphere gave the sun a beautiful orange halo that would have you thinking it was the moon.

Last Sunday on my way to 10 a.m. Mass, for only the second time in this Sydney suburb, I could smell smoke; it was not a hot, sunny day but a cool 20 C with cloudy skies.

The day continued in much the same way—not a day for the beach or park. We went into the city to visit the Powerhouse Museum and for the first time in almost a month of being in ‘burning Australia’ I could see people wearing masks in the street—there was no smell of smoke—to me it was just a grey, cold, damp day unlike my former experiences of any summer day in Sydney.

This however, was the kind of weather Australia has been praying for, giving a respite from heat, a sign of a beginning of the end to the drought and a cooling of the atmosphere that could help dampen the fires that still rage in Victoria and New South Wales (NSW).

Today, after a cool, cloudy start of the day the sun eventually came out and the temperature rose to 27 C. The sky was clear blue and in the late afternoon you could see people walking down to the beaches, surf boards in hand. There was no red-orange smoky halo around the sun.

 

No signs of any fires

From Christmas to New Year’s Day we holidayed at Blacksmiths by the seaside and in a small vineyard resort in the Hunter Valley. Outside of the city you really see the effects of severe drought—fields of brown, sere grass, rivers that once caused severe flooding reduced to streams. That week was hot and very dry and the dramatic bushfire reports and terrifying accounts of acres of vegetation being burnt by fires that could not be put out seemed more real than before. But it was holiday time—beaches full of families having fun, the vineyard resorts full of guests enjoying vineyard tours and wine-tasting.

Meanwhile back at home, relatives and friends use social media to express concern and anxiety about our safety. They ask: are you safe?

One Trini living here in NSW, daughter of Susan Henry, assures her Facebook family: “After a lovely Christmas with my Mom and sister’s family in Thirroul, we spent a wonderful week in Queensland on holiday….  Our view out to the ocean captured the New Year’s fireworks and we survived the 1,000 km drive up and down again!  There was no sign of any fires.”

We Johnstons enjoying our Australia holiday posted pictures of our Christmas and New Year celebrations— “no sign of any fires”.

With all the news reports and apocalyptic images of catastrophic mega-blazes, thousands of homes burnt, towns destroyed and thousands of animals like koalas and kangaroos burnt in the country you are visiting and in the very State you are present, their anxiety and concern is understandable.

 

Bushfire reality

At first, I felt irritation. Do people understand that Australia is a vast continent? It seemed to me then an exaggeration of the situation. Given the scale of the fire destruction it was incredible to me that less than 30 people had died. During the same New Year period 66 people died from severe flooding in Indonesia. One news agency headlined on Jan 10 ‘Australia is Burning. Jakarta is drowning. Welcome to 2020’.

Our visit to the Powerhouse Museum last Sunday helped crystallise my growing understanding of the Australian bushfire reality.

First: A series of newspaper clippings from The Sydney Morning Herald, October 2013: Friday, October 18. The “hundreds” of 2013 have become thousands. “About 100 fires burned across NSW…fanned by temperatures in the mid-30s and 34”. In 2019/20 the temperatures are 35-40 C. “This reminds me of what happened in Melbourne a couple years ago…it was the impossible fire to fight.” The 2013 reporting would seem to indicate an October start to the fire season. In 2019 it started in August.

Friday, October 25, 2013: Extreme Fire danger days on the rise. “Climate change is increasing the probability of extreme bushfire conditions” …. South-eastern Australia is experiencing a long-term drying trend…”

The more things change, the more they remain exactly the same. In the case of climate change, the worse things become.

Second: The creative space ‘What Matters’. Here my granddaughter joined other children at craft tables to cut, colour, make posters—do artwork on what matters. One of the pieces of artwork spoke loudly to me “Children should not have needless anxiety over climate change”. The statement of the designers of this space: “To respect and acknowledge the First Nations People of the land on which we walk. To love and care for our sacred earth, flora and fauna. To live simply so others may simply live. We cherish this earth and it inspires everything we do—physically, creatively and spiritually.”

Third: The aboriginal exhibit. “Our past, present and future is all in the land, from creation time to future time—all at once.”

I leave the final words to Archbishop Mark Coleridge, president of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference: “This has been Australia at its best…” He also calls for “insistent prayer for those stricken by drought and fire, for those who have lost their lives in the fires and their families, for rain to quench the parched land and extinguish the fires, and for urgent action to care for our common home in order to prevent such calamities in the future….A genuinely Catholic response to a crisis of this magnitude must draw strength from prayer, which inspires concrete and compassionate action.”

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