Postcard from Melbourne, Australia

Everything that was already burning was burning even more, everywhere you looked was burning.

This was how the local fire brigade captain from the NSW town of Balmoral told it on Boxing Day. Watching the news, listening to the radio, getting updates online it seemed the whole continent was burning. It’s been on fire for two months in some places. What the hell is happening? Climate change, obviously, but not obvious to everyone. The Prime Minister is yet to fully acknowledge the climate crisis. The increase in global temperature and the localised droughts have meant that areas never before burnt are now too dry to resist fire. Climate change doesn’t cause bushfires but it exacerbates the conditions in which they occur. It makes them more likely and extends the fire season. An ‘older, gentler climate no longer exists’ writes fire expert Cormac Farrell in The Guardian today.

Since April, ex-fire chiefs from across Australia have tried to meet with Prime Minister Morrison to discuss the impact of climate change. The fire chiefs wanted to chart a national co-ordinated plan to deal with the increasing emergencies caused by global heating. Morrison is a Holy Roller who believes, like many in his cabinet, that global heating is god’s will and therefore there is little that can be done. When in Opposition, Morrison brought a lump of coal into parliament, held it aloft and pronounced coal as ‘the future.’ Meanwhile, this former marketing man turned Prime Minister, the man who created the tourism campaign familiar to the UK as: Where the bloody hell are you? spent most of the week before Christmas trying to evade this very question. After denials from his own office, it emerged that he was was actually in Hawaii, on a family holiday and had no intention of returning early to helm the national crisis. There is no Plan A in Australia to deal with this. Morrison’s absence and unseemly forced return signified that there is also no Plan B.

It is now post-Christmas and 41 degrees celsius in Melbourne and I’m sweating even with the fan on. I need to park myself near the air con and feel guilty about it. Like my sister’s cat, I’m dazed and confused by the heat, the high winds, the new colours on the heat charts – magenta/purple – because the old colours are no longer adequate to the situation. With the highest fire level descriptor ‘catastrophic’ evoked every day somewhere in Australia, what comes next? ‘Cataclysmic’, quips my brother who texts me to say that he dived into the pool late last night and it was so hot, he was ‘sweating under water.’

My sister co-owns a place with friends in East Gippsland in the middle of a state forest. The house is encircled by fires which started over a month ago. We watch daily, often hourly, updates of fire conditions. The fires have burnt over 200,000 hectares already. The fires are so intense they cause their own weather – firestorms and lightning strikes – the clouds resemble a nuclear explosion. The fires are not yet under control.

I open the front door in inner-city Melbourne and am hit with a blast furnace. The heat and wind seem predatory and insistent, pressing up against the limits of the national grid and our capacity to understand what has become the ‘new normal.’ After three decades of living in Scotland, each time I come back I’m constantly comparing Australia to what it was like when I was a child and a teenager and a young adult. And this time, emphatically, summer is already very different. As a kid, I remember bushfires in the Dandenongs and the heat haze of Total Fire Ban days. I remember water restrictions. That was summer. I don’t remember consistent temperatures over 40 degrees that have no consistency. In the past, there was always a build-up to the very hot days in Melbourne, you knew what was coming, then it would arrive and be relieved by a thunderstorm and a sharp drop in temperature, always known as the Cool Change. But now? Yesterday we were at the beach in Lorne, down the Great Ocean Road and it was a very pleasant 23 degrees. A few kilometres away thousands of people were being evacuated and a local music festival cancelled in anticipation of today’s fire risk. There was little temperature build-up to today’s plus 40 temperatures and high winds. My brother-in-law has just announced that a storm is close. But the Cool Change has not arrived. In fact, the longed-for drop in temperatures bring with it a change of wind direction which can be even more catastrophic and increase the scale of the fires. There is no release.

The news is a nightly horror show of devastation and exhausted firefighters – many of whom are volunteers and have not been at their regular jobs in weeks. We sit there wondering why there is no co-ordinated action from the federal government, leaving emergency fire and flood management mainly to the individual states. We wonder how long a volunteer fire force can be enough to contain a nation ablaze for months on end. These catastrophic fires and weather events do not follow state boundaries. As Australian firefighters share vital resources with Californian firefighters, and with the extension of the fire season on both continents there is now a shortage of vital equipment.

For the First Nation peoples in Central Australia in poor housing and with all the water gone, for many farmers and those living off-grid, this summer is already calamitous. And the fire season proper has not even started.

It seems obvious to me that Australia is one of the places where the climate emergency is already acute. But where is the leadership to deal with it? Australia was one of the nations which recently scuppered the Madrid climate summit. It’s no coincidence that nations which have had out-of-control fires this year are those with climate change sceptics in power – Trump in America, Bolsinaro in Brazil, Morrison in Australia. Yet there is a complacency in government and in the population at large in Australia which confounds me. The Greens have little traction here, although that may change after a summer like this. What will it take to shake up comfortable, well-off, white Australia? When the leafy middle-classes can no longer get to work, when their children can no longer breathe the air, when the water runs out? When the tourists can no longer see the Opera House through toxic haze? That’s already happening. When the air-conditioning is no longer adequate and the SUV’s run out of fuel? Where is the investment in solar, wind, geothermal? Why is the recycling in Melbourne worse than it was a decade ago?

Where the bloody hell are you? I’m in Morrison’s Australia and it is terrifying. It bears no relation to the new tourist advert with Kylie. The marsupials are dying, the wine harvests are threatened, the tourists are being evacuated, a haze continues over Melbourne, the hospitals are on high alert and the Western suburbs are currently without power. The edge of a suburb near where I grew up is ablaze. Three days over 40 degrees this month – the first time in over 100 years. The new normal. ‘The Prime Minister is testing the theory that the best way to resolve a crisis is to be as far away from it as possible’, says Julie Bishop, former Foreign Minister in Morrison’s Liberal( Tory) government.
Just now a thunderstorm; the temperature has dropped five degrees. Is this the Cool Change?

But the day is not yet over and the long summer of climate crisis is just beginning.


Comments (15)

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  1. Mark Bevis says:

    Yes, was just watching the videos from Mallacoota, the sky black at 8am then turned red, with 49*C temperature and 80kmh winds.
    4000 people retired out to sea in their boats. Luckily the sea was calm. A mini-Dunkirk.


  2. Doug says:

    I lived and worked in two of the Victorian areas worst affected. Friends are evacuees. Friends houses are still standing.. for now. And the Australian Government’s response is belated, grudging and piecemeal. The new normal is a government planning to sit on a waterfront Sydney balcony and watch fireworks. It’s hard to know who has the worse government, US, UK or Oz.

  3. Dougie Harrison says:

    Meaghan, many thanks for this. It certainly brings the current reality of the Australian summer vividly to life… something many folks in Scotland may find a wee bit hard to grasp. One thing Scotland is not usually short of is water!

    A decade ago, I spent the summer in the Southern Highlands of NSW. The area round Bowral seems lush and green, but I very quickly learned that even there, water management is an issue. I was instructed never to flush the toilet when I had only urinated, only when I crapped. I quickly learned when washing dishes, NEVER to empty the dishwater down the drain, but to carry the basin into the garden to water the vegetables. Such minor practices are normality for millions of Australians, but did not come naturally to a Scot, as I’m sure you’ll understand. But even the careful water management of sensible folk cannie cope with the extent of the climate change human profligacy is visiting upon us, with different consequences in different parts of the world. And the incredible stupidity of some political leaders.

    So thank you for sharing this with Bella readers, so we have a better understanding of what is happening in this Australian summer.

    It means I’ll be working even harder for the Scottish Green Party than I have managed so far.

    1. Allan McDonald says:

      Yes Dougie, I learned this phrase only a few months ago – “If it’s yellow let it mellow, if it’s brown flush it down”.
      I’ve been here in Queensland for 30 years!

    2. Alastair McIntosh says:

      A fine response, Dougie, to a beautifully written piece. Beauty and appreciation matter in these times.

  4. Shona says:

    It’s hard to see, harder to comprehend even though living in the uk it’s hard to imagine how big Aus is. Hoping you have rain soon, hoping theirs no more lives lost and you’re government starts helping people who are going to need help. There’s stories of people doing what they can to help the poor animals who’ve managed to survive these awful days. Lots of people thinking & hoping for change for you all .

  5. Jean Brown says:

    Thank you Meaghan for your superb description of what Australia is facing at the moment. I think your Prime Minister is an absolute idiot, what the hell is he thinking about??? I cannot believe he even thought he deserved a holiday in Hawaii when his country needed him. My heart breaks when I watch those brave firefighters trying to keep the flames down, but more fires burning all the time. I have family in Manly and even tho they assure me they are safe I still worry. I also have friends in other areas not so safe. We complain, here in Scotland about our weather so much, I don’t think I will again when I see news flashes of what is happening in your beautiful country today. I do not have any religious beliefs, but somehow I send my prayers to everyone over there. My special thoughts always go to those poor firefighters who have lost their lives trying to help others. Children are left without dads, some have lost husbands, brothers and so on. I hope this ends very soon, although the outlook isn’t too good.

  6. Virginia Grant says:

    To me there seems to be no other way to explain what is being done by governments which could do something. Could this not be the evolution of our species, and the rest of the planet?
    I feel that if humans can make the planet uninhabitable for themselves soon enough then maybe other species have a chance, although perhaps it will only be the cockroaches.

  7. H V says:

    And the we have idiots and insane people of power in the world wanting nothing else then to blow the world up.

  8. Mary says:

    But it’s not all down to climate change. I read this. “Before colonization, fire was managed with cultural burning, sometimes called fire-stick farming, which prevented vegetation build-up, germinated seed pods and regenerated the trees and grasses that need fire to grow new shoots. These burns rotated through a mosaic pattern, staggering the growth of eucalyptus and enriching the soil. These burns were slow, allowing time for animals to relocate and, most importantly, they were controlled.
    That changed after 1788. When the country was forcibly settled, large swathes of managed land were cleared to make way for livestock unsuited to an Australian environment. Cloven hooves ruined and degraded the soil; eucalyptus trees, with their oily trunks and flammable leaves, were left to grow thick and unattended at the fringes of clearings, building up undergrowth as dry as paper.
    When fire came, it didn’t come as part of a managed cycle, but ripped through, uncontrolled. The author of an 1851 Argus newspaper report, bewildered, describes the fire in Biblical terms:
    “Connor’s farm, produce, and implements are utterly destroyed. On Robinson’s farm, four thousand bushels of wheat and one thousand bushels of oats, together with everything of value. From Costigan’s up to Robinson’s, this point presented nothing but black desolation. From the high range above, far as the eye could reach, the scene looked as though it had been swept by the wings of the destroying angel.””

  9. Brigid says:

    Thank you, Meaghan, for keeping us informed. I have been thinking about you and wondering whether you were still there and am aghast to find that I have had to get more than half way through today’s Guardian newspaper before finding ANY news of these devastating fires and their wider effects in Australia.

  10. Jo says:

    Thank you Meaghan.

    It’s horrifying to watch this horror unfold. It’s like a disaster movie with Morrison in the role of the token sceptic who eventually sees sense… only this is for real and he’s just not getting it! He’s truly appalling. I saw footage of some people shouting at him the other day and he just waved his hand dismissively at them. I couldn’t believe it!

    How is he still walking around? I’m surprised someone hasn’t decked him!

    You’re in my thoughts and prayers here.

  11. Lilla says:

    What a description of Australia’s catastrophic fires! How can politicians behave as if catastrophe is normal? Your question of ‘What next?’ is scary and one that is being asked in the UK and USA too, where major players are reckless with their countries’ futures.
    It must be devastating for Australians…and the poor animals. The comparison you make between how it was growing up and how it is now really brings home the changes.
    You mention recycling – here in Edinburgh when I took my plastic waste to the dump, there was no designated container for it and I was told to put it in general waste to be incinerated. Since China and India quite rightly no longer take our plastic, it seems we have decided to burn it. The guy did say the energy went to the grid but it feels so wrong.
    Thanks Meaghan for writing this piece. It helps to have your perspective. Here’s hoping for rain and lots of it.

  12. Matt says:

    1) Melbourne wasn’t burning as depicted in your title and photo, the photo is not associated with Melbourne and gives people a false sense of where the fires actually are.

    2) To put all the blame on Scott Morrisson is ridiculous. He’s only been in power for a short period of time.

    3) “3 days over 40 degrees this month – the new normal”. If you’ve studied statistics you’ll know that a one off is not “the new normal”, nor is it a trend.

    4) Firefighting is a State matter, not Federal. If you’ve lived in Melbourne for the past 5 years you’ll know that Daniel Andrews had ongoing dispute for 3 years with the CFA over restructures, of which will now be implemented later this year. It also states that there will be a professional CFA and the volunteer CFA.

    5) Around 4000 volunteer firefighters have left due to this dispute and they are thousands below the recommended number, to think that this does not hamper our firefighting efforts will be naive.

    6) You took about shaking up a “comfortable, well-off white Australia”. You’re kidding right, trying to make this a racial issue? Perhaps you are talking about the Greens living in wealthy built up concrete jungles like Brunswick and North Melbourne. I’m sure they’ve all paid up for solar power panels on their roof to save the environment??

    It’s articles like this which are not factual and portray Australia to the world as a place that is not truly reflected.

    1. Reuben Astrálaigh says:

      As an Australian, I know our governments often house coloured foreigners on flood plains, so natural disaster certainly can be a race issue.

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