But there are more wonders coming
All new kinds of shows
With acid seas rising
To kiss coastal mountains
And big cyclones pounding
And firestorms devouring
And we’ll lose track of counting
As the corpses keep mounting
The one-storey fibro house sits on the edge of the bush on Gundungurra and Dharug country in the lower Blue Mountains. A tall, gnarled angophora stands in the front yard like a guard and directly across the road is the local Rural Fire Service (RFS) station.
We move in swiftly: within days of getting the keys from the real estate, it already feels like a lived-in home. By we I mean myself, my partner, Madhavi, and two of our best friends, Jen and Jazz. We were all tired of the city, its noise and speed. We wanted a life that was quieter. Slower. And we’ve found it here.
From the nearby lookout we can see most of the southern side of the Blue Mountains National Park. Its valleys, creeks, gorges and ridges. The view is vast and awesome. Every morning there’s a steady stream of sulphur-crested cockatoos flying north and every evening they make the return journey south. I wonder where they go and what they do.
The wildflowers in bloom in the bush surrounding the lookout perfume the air. They are so abundant they are like a miniature fireworks display. There are explosions of colour everywhere—yellow, magenta, sapphire, pink, cream, violet.
As the days get hotter, the flowers dry up and drop to the ground, and the angophoras begin shedding their thick red bark, adding to the already abounding fuel load.
I smell smoke. Wherever it is coming from is close. It’s exactly a month since we moved in.
The RFS’s Fires Near Me app tells me a fire has just ignited at Woodford, around 15 kilometres west of our home. It is at emergency level. Huge blazes have been burning across New South Wales for weeks now but this is the first time the threat has felt real. The flames are no longer just on the news; now they’re just over the horizon.
A strong westerly wind is blowing, bending the tops of trees and ripping leaves off branches. Neighbours are loading up their cars with valuables and bundling pets into baskets in case they need to evacuate in a hurry. Our landlord comes around with an extra garden hose for the tap in our front yard. ‘In case you want to stay and defend,’ he says. He warns us that in wind like this, the fire could be here by the morning.
The flames are no longer just on the news; now they’re just over the horizon.
As the plume of smoke in the distance thickens, a light rain suddenly starts spitting. It stops after a minute or two, like a sinister joke.
I struggle to sleep. Early the next morning a fire truck pulls into the station across the road. Five firies step out, their faces and clothes streaked with ash and charcoal.
I walk over to inquire about the situation. One of them tells me they battled the fire throughout the night and managed to get it under control.
‘Nothing to worry about,’ he says reassuringly. ‘At least for now.’
Today, the greater Sydney, greater Hunter and Illawarra/Shoalhaven regions are facing catastrophic fire conditions. It’s the first time ever that catastrophic conditions have been forecast for Sydney. Everyone in the Blue Mountains is instructed to leave as a precaution. It’s not even officially summer.
I’m interstate, frightened for the others at home. In the morning before they go to work in Sydney, they pack up our valuables, load them into the car, and drive it to Penrith station for the day where it will be safe if a fire does ignite near our home. I spend the day constantly checking the news and the RFS’s Fires Near Me app for any updates.
By the end of the day, 70 fires are burning across New South Wales. Half are out of control and nine are at emergency level. None threaten our home but with the crisis rapidly escalating, it feels like our good fortune will expire soon.
According to Deputy Prime Minister, Michael McCormack, the crisis has nothing to do with climate change. Anyone who says it does are, in his mind, ‘inner-city raving lunatics’.
The community meeting is so full that there is not enough room for everyone to fit inside the Faulconbridge RFS shed, a short drive from our home. People standing outside strain their necks to hear what’s being said.
The brigade’s captain explains that the Gospers Mountain mega blaze that ignited deep in Wollemi National Park more than two months ago has now moved into the Grose Valley and is burning towards several townships in the lower and middle sections of the mountains. He is especially worried about this coming Saturday: the forecast is for forty-plus temperatures, low humidity, and strong and gusty westerly winds. He warns that ember attacks are likely up to 13 kilometres ahead of the actual firefront.
Pointing to the station’s only two fire trucks parked outside, the captain warns the hundreds of locals gathered not to expect one at their house if the fire threatens. He says he wishes there were more resources and could guarantee everybody’s safety. ‘But we have to work with what we have.’
Then someone in the crowd yells out, ‘Yeah, but at least we’re getting a new football stadium!’
Saturday. It is so hot by midday that it is unbearable to be outside for more than a few minutes. We close all of the windows and curtains to try and keep the heat and smoke at bay, and switch on the radio. I try to read to relax but cannot focus on the words on the page: no matter how hard I try to distract myself, all I can think about is the fires. I close my book and lay down on the floor in the living room.
Blackened leaves rain down like confetti. I haven’t seen blue sky in weeks.
We listen to the radio all day for news of any new fires nearby or updates on the ones that are already burning. Our valuables are still packed in boxes in the garage from weeks before so we can leave in a hurry if we need to.
Late in the afternoon, claustrophobia and madness setting in, I go outside. It is still unbearably hot. The sky is a menacing orange and the smoke is so thick that it feels like I am swimming in it. I realise I haven’t seen blue sky in weeks. Blackened leaves rain down like confetti. I catch one and crush it between my fingers, then go back inside.
We do what we can to help the firies. We bake them cookies and deliver boxes of ice-creams. We make a sign thanking them for their efforts and stick it to our front fence in the hope it will lift their spirits every time they leave, and every time they return. Other locals do the same. But our efforts feel futile.
Madhavi and I walk down to the lookout at dusk. The wind is blowing the toxic smoke away from us and for the first time since the fires here began more than a month ago, we can see flames in the distance. We can see them to the south, to the west and to the north. We’re encircled by fire. As night falls the sky glows orange like an aurora. Every so often the flames flare up as they crown another tree or consume another house. It is a sight so terrifying yet also so beautiful.
A group of firies are sitting outside the station when we return home. We walk over to see how they’re going. They have just come back from the fireground and are covered in sweat, dirt and ash; there’s another crew still out battling a nearby blaze. They tell us that they expect the fires to reach here within a fortnight if there is no significant rain.
One of them says he’s going home to see his wife and kids. I ask how long it’s been since he last saw them.
He wipes the sweat from his brow. ‘Couldn’t tell you. Three, maybe four, days.’
Every so often the flames flare up as they crown another tree or consume another house. It is a sight so terrifying yet also so beautiful.
The flag outside the station is at half-mast the next morning: overnight two firies from another brigade died when the fire truck they were in rolled after it was struck by a falling tree. Three of their colleagues were severely injured in the accident.
As Madhavi and I leave to drive to the train station, we see one man standing by himself outside the station. He’s well-built, bald, and in shock. Madhavi recognises him as Pete: she had met him a few days earlier when she delivered ice-creams to the station. He smiles and waves when he sees us, and we walk over to say hello. He and Madhavi hug. He has only just returned from the fireground. I introduce myself and hug him too. ‘Sorry—I’m a bit sweaty,’ he says. ‘I haven’t changed my clothes yet.’
I gesture to the flagpole but cannot find the words to console him. Tears well in his eyes and fall down his cheeks. He wipes them away with the back of his hand. Madhavi and I hug him together. He holds us tightly. ‘Thank you,’ he says when we release each other. ‘And for the ice-creams the other day too. They were a life-saver.’
Madhavi and I say goodbye and return to the car. As we drive away, he stands on the side of the road blowing us kisses until we disappear around the corner.
The smoke is the worst it has been so far on the day of our Christmas party. We push forward with the original plan of setting up in the backyard rather than inside. We lay rugs down on the tinder-dry grass and drape sheets over the Hills Hoist for some shade. Friends start arriving and beers and bottles of wine are opened. I begin to relax, comforted by the love I’m surrounded by, but then a terrifying thought crosses my mind: what if a fire ignites somewhere close now? What would we all do?
We all walk down to the lookout after lunch and Kris Kringle. The vast landscape is barely visible through the grey-brown haze. It’s unusually quiet; there are barely any birds singing. The sun is a blood-red dot in the sky. Together we watch it slowly sink into the horizon as ash falls like snow.
The sun is a blood-red dot in the sky. Together we watch it slowly sink into the horizon as ash falls like snow.
The rain comes before the flames. Over three days, some 400 millimetres has fallen across the greater Sydney area, causing widespread flooding. The creek near where we live, home to giant eels and platypuses, has transformed from a near-stagnant stream, barely waist-deep at its deepest points, into a raging, six-plus-metre high torrent that is tearing trees out of the ground and bending steel poles in half. Huge waterfalls are tumbling over the walls of the nearby gorge.
After the deluge, the RFS announces that all of the fires burning across New South Wales have now been contained. Within a few weeks, all of the fires burning across Australia have either been contained or extinguished.
More than 18 million hectares of the continent have burned—including 80 per cent of the greater Blue Mountains region—and at least 1 billion animals and 34 people have died. Many endangered species have been pushed to extinction.
I’m sitting at the lookout. One disaster has just ended but another is just beginning, forcing the world into lockdown. The sky is clear, blue and marvellous now and the late afternoon sun is bathing the bush in rich golden light. Everything feels fresh after the rains, washed clean of the thick layer of soot and ash that built up over the past few months. There is at least ten centimetres of new growth on the gum trees and the wattles and grevilleas are flowering once more. The stream of sulphur-crested cockatoos are flying south as per usual.
Looking out over the bush, I begin to cry—for everything that has been lost forever, and for everything that has survived.