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Dear Australia, elegy for a summer of loss

Over the summer, Amy Coopes spent long hours on Twitter sharing bushfire news, especially for her local community of Albury and surrounds, on Wiradjuri Country in southern NSW.

Her tweets also conveyed an angry frustration with the inadequacy of federal and state government responses to the bushfire health crisis, as well as to the climate health crisis more broadly.

In the #LongRead below, published as part of our ongoing contribution to the global collaboration, Covering Climate Now, Coopes urges readers to rise to the challenges facing us, not only this summer, but in the years ahead as the impact of the climate crisis becomes even more evident.


Amy Coopes writes:

For months leading into this bleakest of summers, all anyone out this way could talk about was the dry. It crunched underfoot, was carried on the furnace-blast of a breeze, dust and dry leaves rattling down the wide avenues and riverbanks of the one-mighty Murray River like a premonition of loss.

It was written in the furrowed brows of farmers poring over district forecasts like they were scripture – ethereal in their promise of deliverance or damnation. Dry as the bones, pronounced, beneath the hides of animals starving and stunned; landscape bleached as a fossil.

Flying into Sydney in early December, as the fires ringing the city had just started to burn in earnest, I had a sense of something momentous and profound unfolding, though it still seemed like a distant crisis, one that was happening elsewhere, to other people.

The smoke was so thick every aircraft coming in was instructed to land with full instrumentation, so we spent 40 minutes in a holding pattern over enormous firefronts, swinging lazy circles over great billowing plumes of ember and soot.

Walking across the tarmac from the turboprop, I glanced back over my shoulder at the blood orange sun, ash sprinkling from the amber sky.

Flying into Sydney on 6 December, 2019

Speaking at an event that evening, I joked that back home we had no water but the air was clean. Go West, where the skies are blue. I left the stash of P2 masks I’d picked up, only half-seriously, on my way to the airport, with a friend who said she was taking an Uber to meetings a block away because her asthma was so bad she couldn’t walk more than a few hundred metres.

Even as I was going through the motions, paying lip service to the Anthropocene, it still seemed surreal, somehow. I got on the plane and flew back over the Great Dividing Range, vast eucalypt tracts fizzing smoke, descending once again into the arid, but breathable, air of home.

There was a certain sense of foreboding in the hills in the lead-up to Christmas, as though the kindling landscape was holding its breath. The smoke swirled in from hundreds of kilometres north and settled for the festive season. We ate under grey skies, the house shuttered and our heads aching from the fumes, nights punctuated by the kind of toddler asthma attacks that leave you wired until dawn. What if he stops breathing?

Hard-earned pennies were pinched and scraped to install an air purifier in his room, and in the nursery too. We didn’t need to leave our beds to know what kind of day it would be; the ochre and rust of another hazy sunrise spilling through the blinds heralded more of the same. Asphyxia. Inertia. Well before it visited itself upon us, the taste was everywhere. Death.

A new year

New Year brought conflagration. The text messages began rolling in. Are you ok? Sure, why wouldn’t we be? Turn on the news.

It’s a gut-churning thing to see the names of places you love, those territories of the self and heart, suddenly headlines in a story of unspeakable horror. A tornado of flame, generated by infernos of such ferocity they create their own weather, rolling a fire truck. An unborn child who will never know their father, only his sacrifice.

As small communities, we are constellations of people and place, oriented and anchored by and to one another. Talmalmo, Jingellic, Walwa, Corryong are more than just names in a news broadcast or an emergency warning, they are home to our families, our patients, our colleagues, our friends.

For the diverse nations who live and gather along the tributaries of the Murray, the Milawa Billa, there could not be a grief more piercing than watching centuries of colonial mismanagement culminate in this ultimate desecration of country, with totem and traditional routes, sacred and spiritual places pared to ash.

We all know someone who has lost something; everything. Photos from friends of a wall of fire racing across paddocks, engulfing life as it was once known. Everything is gone. The scars on our landscape will heal, but will we?

A new decade

Instead of celebrating, we rang in the new decade listening to emergency broadcasts, refreshing the Country Fire Authority (CFA) and Rural Fire Service (RFS) feeds, and watching Australian Defence Force (ADF) water tankers flying low over our house. People gathered, muted and pale, in their yards to watch the midnight fireworks a few blocks away as the southerly swept in, acrid with ash. 

Hours before Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews called his late-night press conference to announce an unprecedented State of Disaster and wholesale evacuations of East Gippsland and the North East, we’d glanced at each other uneasily as our phones had chirped, simultaneously, with an emergency text. You need to leave were the first four words.

Surely we’ll be safe here, we said, images of what had played out in Mallacoota that week vivid in our minds. The closest bush was two kilometres away, the Fire Station on the corner. Still. The rule book appeared to have been torched. We’d been asking for years that the landlord clear the gutters, all it would take was an ember on the right sort of wind.

Where would we go, if it came to it? Should we pack a bag? If we had to leave everything behind, what would be essential to take? We laughed at ourselves as we had these conversations – the river would be safe, if we could drive. The Showground, if we had to walk. We found the passports.

There were other matters to consider, as thousands of people from surrounding villages and communities streamed into town, towing caravans, horse floats, trailers crammed with all things practical and precious. The supermarkets began selling out of water, servos between here and more distant towns ran out of petrol. It seemed prepper paranoid, but we agreed I should go out and fill up the car and do a massive shop. Just in case.

Venturing out into the eerie still of the morning at sunrise, it could have been winter, a mephitic fug enveloping the town like mist. By the time I came out of the supermarket, where the water shelves were stripped bare and the aisles were hazy, the smoke had rolled in so thick they had disabled the automatic doors and taped a sign over the glass. Auto doors closed due to smoke. Please use side doors. Above the blood bank the sun rose, sanguinous; soporific.

Myer Centrepoint, central Albury on 3 January, 2020
Central Albury, 3 January, 2020

The sports stadium down the street opened to evacuees, along with the showground. I’d never seen so many people in town, their apprehension as palpable as the baking heat.

The outpouring of support for displaced and dispossessed families and for firefighters was astonishing. Within hours of the RFS issuing their daily list of required items for affected communities and crews, it would be filled.

Traffic was banked up for kilometres along the bush blocks adjoining the RFS HQ, an operation of military precision marshalling locals and their stocked boots to the driveway to unload. Dozens of volunteers sorted goods onto pallets and into shipping containers for distribution to outlying communities where people were without power, water or food. Some had lost the roof over their heads, their world reduced to ash.

A ute sat in the RFS driveway, its tray overflowing with fruit and vegetables, a pallet stacked with eskies dropped off by Environment Minister Sussan Ley alongside.

We handed over half a dozen shopping bags, and a drawing by our three-year-old son for the fireys. A burly volunteer crouched down to shake his hand and pinned it up, pride of place, on the noticeboard. As we prepared to leave, a pensioner pulled up in a clapped out Commodore, a plastic bag full of odds and ends proffered from the passenger seat. It isn’t much, I’m sorry. I blinked away tears.

Breaking

The day of the firestorm, 4 January, we hit a record-breaking 46 degrees Celsius in town. Clumsy with foreboding, I stepped awkwardly off our back deck and broke my ankle, lying dazed and thirsty in the heat. While the worst of the winds swept across the firegrounds I was in hospital, nauseous with morphine and still gripping the “green whistle”, though it had long since been sucked empty.

By sunrise, I was sober, but the air outside was so toxic that, propped up in bed with towels stuffed around the doors and windows, I still had to wear a mask. Our ten-month-old was so hoarse and distressed I gave her Ventolin; she isn’t asthmatic.

The PM2.5 reading (something I had only a passing acquaintance with before this summer) climbed steadily throughout the day to almost 3,000 – 15 times the level considered hazardous – before the local monitoring station went offline for the best part of a day. It seemed symbolic of the cataclysm that had unfolded in the surrounding towns and valleys, where the skies were a filthy orange and visibility reduced to metres at best.

Days stretched into another week of wheezing confinement, while the Prime Minister bleated on about Australia being the best country in the world to raise kids. I cried when, during one of those impromptu toddler confidences, my son told me that one day he’d be older than me. I cried because I wonder if he will.

To live to be my age, he will have to make it to 2055, when climate change will have rendered much of the planet inhospitable to human life, driven mass extinctions of almost every kind of species, and unleashed civil unrest over resources like food and water on a scale at which there is no precedent in human history.

Moreso than the anxiety or political fury of this summer, I have been gripped by an insurmountable grief for my children and the life I took for granted which they will never be able to share.

In a matter of days, 9 January, there was another evacuation order, more fires. Several straddling state borders joined up to become a ‘megablaze’, terminology I’d never had need for before this grim new decade. Millions of hectares of pristine national park went up, places as familiar to me as laboured breath. The roof of Australia aflame, the Alps snowy at the height of summer, with ash.

As ever-increasing tracts of Mount Buffalo burned we could, on a rare clear evening, see the great fungating shadow of a pyrocumulonimbus cloud looming over the horizon, a sign that what raged below was so intense it was generating its own weather.

Defining images

There are many images that will come to define this summer: smog settling so thick over Sydney Harbour its iconic landmarks were obscured, the starved and scorched koalas of Kangaroo Island, a masked schoolkid steering a tinny offshore as Mallacoota was devoured by an avaricious inferno, Scott Morrison hanging a shaka on the Waikiki waterfront.

But if you’ve lived in a fire zone, the pyroCb or cumulonimbus flammagenitus will stay with you forever, as a harbinger of the Anthropocene. Ignis aurum probat.

Ten days into the decade, the alerts sounded uncomfortably close to home. A grass fire on the Beechworth-Wodonga road – a route we would have travelled more times than you could count – was suddenly racing out of control towards the semi-rural outskirts of Wodonga, our sister city, home to some 40,000 people, just across the Murray River.

As quickly as it had started, fuelled by a wild southerly change with lightning and 100km/h winds, the blaze was declared emergency level. You are in danger. Act now to protect yourself. It is too late to leave. The safest option is to take shelter indoors immediately.

Those in the area who could evacuate made their way into town to shelter at The Cube performance space; others hosed down their roofs and gutters, watching anxiously as water bombing aircraft flew sorties overhead, trying to contain the advancing flames.

Defence crews were mobilised as the blaze spotted towards a string of barracks and bases where hundreds of unfortunate people displaced earlier in the week had taken refuge. In the next valley, residents of a relatively new development known as White Box Rise were urged to get out.

In among the frantic messages from loved ones as we again hit the headlines was a text from friends who had just bought in White Box and had been scheduled to return from Melbourne that week from their Christmas holiday with their newborn baby. We’d convinced them to delay due to the smoke. This is the other side of our hill, they captioned a screenshot of the emergency alert. Sweet Jesus. Our house.

As night fell, the winds eased, and a smattering of rain brought some much-needed reprieve. Evacuees were, in waves, permitted to return home. There was a nagging, contradictory sense that the gun was never really loaded, but we’d dodged a bullet nonetheless.

Golden words

Reams have already been written about this grim summer; an unwelcome but imperative clarion call to the millions of us sleepwalking toward the abyss.

Just two months ago I sat in a climate-themed medical conference where they discussed the need for field hospitals, colocation of emergency triage and primary care, new ways of doing business when the climate rendered business-as-usual obsolete. The fires were burning, even then, and Professor David Bowman warned us that this was a season like no other.

Yet it all seemed so abstract; so rhetorical. The climate emergency was something that was happening elsewhere, to other people. Until it wasn’t.

Daniel Andrews has described this as a summer of firsts; there’s been so many now they seem to have lost impact as time goes on.

But there are snapshots of this season I won’t forget. Toddlers receiving commendations for bravery on behalf of fathers who will miss a lifetime of milestones. Stepping onto the tarmac under that ominous, orange sky, the scarcest smattering of ash on the breeze. Evacuation sirens; smoke so dense it cancels out the sun. The fear in my son’s eyes as he struggled to catch a breath. Thousands upon thousands of livestock charred and scattered by the road; millions upon millions of native animals – likely entire species – incinerated.

We need new words for collective grief of this scale.

There are political observations to be made, and urgent agendas to be advanced if – and indeed, it feels so precariously like an if – we wish to survive. Already, the goalposts have shifted to ‘the new normal’; summers spent indoors lest the air chokes us all, Christmas under slate and noxious skies, evacuation orders covering ever-larger concentric circles until, at last, there is nothing left to burn and nowhere left to run.

If we are to take anything from this season of solastalgia, it must be the immense grace and goodwill, courage and conviction that abides in our communities and comes to the fore when it’s needed most.

As our climate becomes more hostile, perhaps the single greatest risk is that, in tandem, so do we. The learned helplessness of neoliberalism not only invites us to believe that we, as individuals, are powerless, it depends on it.

But we’ve seen something else entirely forged in these long months: leadership from the grassroots, the ability of communities to rally around one another not thanks to political action but in spite of it.

Ignis aurum probat, miseria fores viros. As gold is tempered by fire, so strong men are tempered by suffering.

Collectively, our strength is infinite. Now, more than ever, we must live as testament to that.

• Amy Coopes is a Croakey editor, journalist and medical student. Follow on Twitter at @coopesdetat.

Amy Coopes, photographed on 6 January, 2020

This article is published as part of Croakey’s ongoing contribution to the Covering Climate Now initiative, an unprecedented collaboration that involved more than 300 media outlets around the world in the leadup to a Climate Action Summit at the United Nations General Assembly in New York on 23 September. It is co-founded by The Nation and the Columbia Journalism Review (CJR), in partnership with The Guardian.  


This article was funded via our Patreon fundraising campaign. Thank you to all contributors.

If you value our coverage of climate and health, please consider supporting our Patreon fundraising campaign, so we can provide regular, in-depth coverage of the health impacts of the climate crisis, taking a local, national and global approach. All funds raised will go to a dedicated fund to pay writers and editors to put a sustained focus on the health impacts of climate change. Please help us to produce stories that will inform the health sector, policy makers, communities, families and others about how best to respond to this public health crisis. See Croakey’s archive of climate and health coverage.

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Comments 3

  1. Neale says:

    Beautifully written!

  2. Jackie says:

    Very evocative, felt I was there.

  3. Jim says:

    I struggle with the idea of ‘the furnace-blast of a breeze’

    A breeze is cool. A breeze is light, not a blast.

    Sorry, couldn’t help myself!

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