In 2005, the CSIRO predicted that climate change would lead to catastrophic fires in south-eastern Australia by 2020. But rather than treating the climate crisis as “a question of science and how we prepare”, as journalist Bronwyn Adcock writes in Currowan: The story of a fire and a community during Australia’s worst summer, the Coalition politicised and trivialised it. In April 2019, following the brutal heatwave of the year before, retired emergency services leaders warned the government that it needed to prepare urgently for climate crisis-related extreme weather events. Prime Minister Scott Morrison refused to meet with them. By November, fires were burning across the land. Morrison assured a nation on edge that everything was under control. Tweeting a photo of himself with Australian cricketer Steve Smith, he told fire-affected communities that the cricketers would give them “something to cheer for”.
The mega-fires that followed across Australia were hellish in every sense. By February 2020 they had scorched an area three times the size of Tasmania, destroying 3500 homes and incinerating billions of animals. They killed more than 30 people directly and hundreds more from smoke pollution. On the NSW south coast, where Adcock lives, the Currowan mega-fire ripped through 5000 square kilometres of land. Her own home was badly damaged in the blaze. The charred landscape will eventually heal, a scientist told Adcock, but she won’t see it in her lifetime.
Currowan is one of the epicormic shoots that have grown from this blackened landscape alongside Danielle Celermajer’s Summertime, Jonica Newby’s Beyond Climate Grief, Greg Mullins’ Firestorm, and the ABC TV show Fires. Like the others, Currowan presents harrowing stories of terror, courage, tenacity, community and unbearable loss. But Adcock also coolly documents the missteps, miscommunication, chaos and inadequate planning at multiple levels. Our firefighting methods and resources are not up to the task of fighting the mega-fires of the Anthropocene.
If firefighters made mistakes, they were still on the ground tirelessly saving the lives and properties of others while risking their own. In contrast, Adcock argues the federal government was mainly concerned with saving its own skin. It prevaricated about the country’s level of preparedness in the lead-up, misleadingly blamed arsonists in the aftermath, and refused throughout to acknowledge the role played by climate change. Yet fire, Adcock writes, is behaving “in ways we don’t yet fully understand”. This is no time for culture wars. She warns: “if we fail to adjust, it will be at our peril”. Someone has got to hold the hose.
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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 16, 2021 as "Currowan, Bronwyn Adcock".
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