Melbourne has a population of 5 million, renowned for its vibrant inner-city culture of hipsters and coffee and cafes and football. It’s a safe, affluent, fun place. But this week there have been days when the roads were largely empty and people were indoors where the air is safe to breathe, away from the smoke haze outside that stings your eyes as you strain to view familiar, close-by landmarks. It’s strange in the city.
Friday morning you knew something was wrong when you woke to sense the smell of a campfire all around you. Of course, the fires are all around you – the close one 20km away in Yan Yean, an outer-suburb, and then many, many more as far as 200km away. Victoria is on fire. Indeed, across the borders into NSW, South Australia, Western Australia, Queensland, the Northern Territory, Tasmania and King Island – Australia is on fire. Travelling north to be with family for New Year’s Eve, on safe Melbourne highways I circumnavigated a perilous and enormous white and reddish-brown plume of smoke caused by the Yan Yean fire. Its size was mind numbing. The millennial in me instinctively wanted to photograph it, but the traffic was dense and the feeling was eerie and the Gen X in me dared not take my hands from the wheel.
You are surprised every day: one day a dense smoke haze envelops the city; the next day it’s clear; the following day there is drizzle and strong smoke smell; then hazy again. The weather report warns that after these couple of days of respite from high temperatures and strong winds that conditions will return to extreme fire danger on Saturday, in 36 hours. When I travel overseas I field out-of-proportion questions about dangerous shark-infested waters, whereas the common all evasive danger we Australians face is fire.
Annual burn-offs ahead of the fire season is our practice, as it was for the Aborigines for thousands of years before European settlement. Sadly, 2019 was too dry to safely conduct burn-offs. The fires started several months earlier than usual. I’d love to say that we’re past the worst of it, but the fact is we are not even half way through our normal bushfire season, and there is every reason to expect that it will be a more protracted season than we are accustomed to. It’s like life during wartime.
There is political fallout as far-right/populists struggle for relevance and mobilize a campaign to blame the Greens for the fires – which is a nice addition to their xenophobic racism of previous decades. The Prime Minister, Scott Morrison is a climate change sceptic and ideologue and has had to be dragged kicking and screaming this week to the climate change discussion table, albeit only to be mute once he got there. It is a policy area where he has invested heavily in moving Australia away from emissions reductions. Earlier he unwisely took holidays in Hawaii while Australia burned. In that time his office was less than transparent when queried as to his whereabouts by the Press, preferring to spin his absence. Cutting his holiday short, he returned to Australia a dejected figure and hasn’t managed to put a foot right since. His image problems were compounded on tours through devastated areas where the common folk were less than welcoming, followed by trashy marketing efforts (he has an advertising background) showing him “getting on with the job”. Two thirds of the evening news coverage is dedicated to this calamity, which leaves little time for Trump and his Middle-East exploits. We’ll catch up on world events eventually.
Nevertheless, there is a counter-balance of heartfelt human stories to the shocking. We are all too aware of the goodwill from overseas well-wishers, celebrities have become unexpected philanthropists donating millions of dollars, and the actions of ground-zero locals saving wildlife, strangers housing the homeless, migrant communities feeding the multitude, and the military evacuating townships where occupants have no sewerage, water or comfort.