To be an Australian means knowing that the land you love could kill you. Indiscriminately. For the craic, if it feels like it.
Habits like kicking up toilet seats in parks and service stations to check for spiders are formed over a lifetime and hard to get rid of. Without thinking, I’ve even nudged up the seat at the Shelbourne with a heel more than once, checking for a tell-tale hairy leg or eight. I check boots before I put them on for the same reason. It’s bred into us.
We’re taught at school how to spot riptides and currents. Even on our most famous stretch of tourist-packed sand, you’re not safe. Just ask Sydney locals about the dark but aptly named “Backpacker Express” that runs out the back of Bondi. We know not to swim against it, you’ll tire out, swallow water and die. Better off waiting for it to have its way with you, then spit you out.
Our acceptance of the extreme is probably what gives us our reputation as international “mad b****rds”. At least that’s what most Irish taxi drivers tell me when they recognise my accent. A lifestyle of drinking, fighting and acting with wilful disregard for self-preservation doesn’t seem like a big deal when most summers half the country is on fire and the other half is in flood.
Our First Nations people handed down a healthy fear and respect of the land through generations. They tried to instruct white Australians, but sometimes as a nation we forget and the country rises up in floods, droughts and fires to put manners on us.
Australia as a country might have been colonised but its environment could not be.
I underestimated how bad it would be this year. We get cycles of bad bushfire seasons. Growing up as a fireman’s daughter I waved dad off for more than one Christmas. He’d return after Boxing Day, smelling of smoke, exhausted and with a Barbie dollhouse still to assemble.
When he called to say my aunt was evacuating, I was concerned for her cattle, the house, my cousin’s study notes in it. Ten years earlier the same aunt and I were evacuated from a different fire. We had to buy underwear at service stations, and ate pizza at relatives’ houses.
My grandmother made a bolt for the house in her Toyota before the roads closed, racing the fire front to rescue precious belongings. We have seen this all before, so I wasn’t overly worried.
Surviving fire relies on making a decision. The right one. Quickly, and then sticking to it. People die in cars because they’ve left their run too late. If you choose to leave, leave early.
Choosing what to take and what to save seems to depend on how much time you have to decide. My grandmother left antiques to pack her bags with family photos.
When I reported from evacuation centres as a rookie journalist I was always fascinated with what people deemed worth saving, the bits they couldn’t live without. Their lives in a car boot. When they didn’t have time, they seemed to grab practical things – sturdy boots, towels to soak in water to breathe through smoke, pots to fill with water for the dogs to drink.
One evacuee from Green Wattle Creek this year tells me he had left expensive TVs behind. “A lot of that can be reordered online, even things like marriage certificates, so you take photos, things the kids did in school, things that can’t be replaced . . . We had warning this year. In 2013 we didn’t. It was just grab what you could and go.”
The day after I land, the same Green Wattle fire kills two volunteer firefighters: Geoffrey Keaton and Andrew O’Dwyer, both young dads. A branch hits their truck, causing it to roll. I go out into the smoke-filled backyard with the ash-covered pool and cry for strangers.
When I was a kid, a neurotic one, I would make sure to say “I love you” to my dad as he left the house for work, so if something happened that would be the last thing I had said to him. Twenty-nine years later, I still have the habit.
In regional Australia, communities form volunteer brigades to work alongside professional ones. It’s too vast to have every inch covered by stations, so locals step up instead. My uncle has served for 29 years, longer than he’s been an Australian citizen (and from what I can tell from family photos, he’s had a mullet for most of it). He was battling the same blaze that killed the two men when his own house came under threat.
“Your aunt and I always go out on different trucks. We have two brothers in our brigade and the same applies to them. Just in case the worst happens,” he says.
When I ask if he is frustrated about pundits arguing about climate change while he’s been off work fighting fires for months, he says: “It needs to be debated but the bush mentality is to get in and get the job done, and worry about the stuff afterwards.”
We’ve been in nearly three years of consistent drought. “I’ve never seen anything like this fire. What makes it different [is] that we were unable to use tactical burns because of how dry it’s been. We fight fire with fire and because of the weather we’re losing control of burns we’ve lit, so we have to put them out and start over; that’s what people need to understand.”
The Rural Fire Service commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons is at pains to point out that this year’s crisis is not due to a lack of funding.
“We are enjoying record budgets, we have got more money today than we have ever had before in the history of the organisation . . . I wish this story would stop floating around, it does nothing to serve the cause,” he told a packed press conference.
A volunteer on the ground backs up his claim, telling me: “There’s no issue with funding. The problem is manpower. In the gig economy, people can’t get the time off. Most hazard reduction burns happen Monday to Friday because of the weather conditions, and people aren’t available. We’re fast becoming a force of retirees and the unemployed.”
I don’t know how to tell this to well-meaning friends in Ireland trying to donate cash to fight the blaze, so I redirect them to the Red Cross. I hope someone explained it better to Leonardo DiCaprio with his kind $3 million cheque.
Drought is also how I came to know one of my best mates. His wedding in drought territory is one of the reasons I am home in Australia.
Ben comes from a four-generation farming family. He decided cyclical droughts and all the heartbreak that comes with being an Aussie farmer were not for him, so he went to university instead and moved in with me.
He met Katherine and for my university years they became less a couple and more an institution. We raised baby lambs when the landlord said we couldn’t have pets, drank moonshine made from ethanol and upset many neighbours.
So I am committed to head through the drought and fires to watch them sign a form officially declaring what we’ve all known for years: that they would end up together. There is one road through two fire fronts.
Before the journey, my ex-boyfriend sends me increasingly concerning text messages. I do not know if he is more concerned about being overrun by fires or by being trapped with a talkative ex-girlfriend in the car for hours if the highway closes. He’s more comfortable in dealing with fire than with women who have unresolved anger.
The ex has been covering the fires for a big Sydney newspaper. During the journey he tells me about the people with no insurance, sifting through ashes looking for wedding rings. We listen to ABC emergency radio the whole way. It’s the worst day for the fires so far, with temperatures set to hit 45 degrees. Hot winds are coming in from the west. A region the length of Galway to Dublin is being evacuated.
We see spots of rain about the three-hour mark. “You see that,” he says excitedly. “It’s a fire storm, the heat from the fires creates a mini thunderstorm. You think it’s going to rain but it’s the hope that kills you.”
The wedding is pushed back to 5pm because of the heat. We arrive at the farm, which is so big it’s known by name, not address. On the gate, a sign tells us a farmer who believes in climate change lives here.
I change into my dress, which already smells of smoke. My bare feet are already black with dust. The couple have attached sprinklers to mist guests waiting for the ceremony to start. Everyone is happy to be here because it’s the type of wedding where you know the couple are going to make it in the long run.
As Kat comes up the aisle, a cool southeasterly wind blows in, and rain starts. It just might be the first time a bride doesn’t mind rain on her wedding day. The caterer cancelled three days before the wedding, so a new one was found. Canapes go around instead of a sit-down dinner, leaving more time for dancing.
People have their shoes off by 8pm, belting out Abba hits and doing drunken Marilyn Monroe impressions in front of industrial-sized fans that are keeping the dancefloor cool. It is a wedding that makes me want to get married, the first and only time that’s happened.
Filled with smoke
The next day, the town is filled with smoke. The sky looks overcast but it’s just the sun struggling to get through it. We leave hangover-cure breakfast early, hoping to beat road closures. We stop at a petrol station at the tip of one of the blazes. A firefighter tries to pay for fuel and a block of Dairy Milk but is waved away by the owner.
“That’s the thing people need to know: Australians pull together, jump in and help out. Wherever they’re from. At the brigade shed, people had already started dropping us beer. And we needed it that day,” says my uncle. “I feel pretty lucky to live here when that happens.”
I watch Sydney GAA clubs organise fundraisers, Muslim groups cook food for evacuees and former prime ministers jump on volunteer trucks.
So why do people rebuild, despite the fires? Why do we come back? For the same reason I cry with homesickness when I open my suitcase and it smells of eucalyptus and smoke. It’s the same answer found in the Dorothea Mackellar poem Australians are taught to recite monotonously at school assemblies:
“I love a sunburnt country . . .
Her beauty and her terror
The wide brown land for me!”