Last Christmas, during the midst of a 40+ degree ten day long heatwave, I remember sitting in my lounge room, trying to be okay with permanently sweat-damp hair and the ever-present perspiration beads that were forming on my brow and nose quicker than I could wipe them clear.
I had my laptop open with the windows set at facebook and the Country Fire Authority website. I flicked between the two pages, watching people update their statuses on one web page, and checking the updates for bushfires that were threatening to consume my community on the other.
I was witnessing the two extremes that were occurring simultaneously in the different hemispheres; Mother Nature giving us all a reality check on the realisation of her immense and contradictory power. On one side of the planet, in Canada and Northern America, I read stories of boiling hot tea being thrown outside and freezing immediately in an arc shape upon reaching the outside air, frozen tree branches snapping from the sheer cold, even one of my Canadian friends had her eyeballs freeze while waiting for public transport. The pictures were even more compelling; like frighteningly beautiful scenes from the apocalyptic blockbuster movie Day After Tomorrow, I saw ocean waves frozen as they were about to break over a bridge and house roofs looming out of immense snow drifts like titanic-sized icebergs while the children inside waved from their window … like not-so-happy snaps of an impending ice age.
While the chaos of the polar vortex caused devastation in the Northern Hemisphere, in my part of the world, the Southern Hemisphere, it was never more obvious that we really do experience completely opposite but bizarrely similar weather extremes. Both the intense cold in the North and the intense heat and bushfires in the South were helping to propagate the future of our planet despite the fact that both had left behind it a wake of apocalyptic style devastation. In the Northern Hemisphere, Canadian and American scientists spouted evidence that the -40 temperatures were helping to kill off introduced biological pests and in the Southern Hemisphere, Australian environmentalists were quietly reveling over the 40+ degree heatwaves and resulting bushfires because our natives need the extreme heat and smoky water from bushfires to germinate seeds. Mother Nature has her own special way of making us feel very, very insignificant.
While the Icestorm consumed my Northern Hemisphere brothers and sisters, in the Southern Hemisphere, particularly the Upper Yarra Valley, Victoria, Australia, my Christmas tradition of preparing for bushfires had very obviously hit … and hit hard.
It is an odd thing to have to tell your five children, aged from 12 to 6, to go into their rooms and pack a single backpack of things that they couldn’t bear to lose if a bushfire burnt down our whole house. It is even stranger to see what they actually pack. I usually have to explain to them every year that a PlayStation 3 or a One Direction CD can be replaced, so only pack things that you absolutely, couldn’t bear to lose. I think they understand … and then, I don’t really think they do. The finality of the devastation caused by a bushfire eludes them, as it does most of us who live through the dread of it every Summer.
Until you stare one dead in the eye.
It is an odd thing to have to walk around your house, looking at all of your beautiful, precious things, seeing irreplaceable family photographs and a long list of items that tell your family’s ‘firsts’; baby clothes that you’ve kept from the early days, crazy kid paintings from primary school, a glitter-covered, messy and lovingly created Mothers Day card. It is odd when you realise that you could potentially be saying goodbye to all of it as soon as you shut the front door to evacuate. It is even stranger to be okay with never seeing any of it again.
Enter the logistical nightmare of relocating a ferret, two cats, a dog, a mouse, a blue tongue lizard, five children and two adults, along with seven precious ‘bug out’ backpacks and safety supplies of woolen blankets, torches and bottled water for an indefinite amount of time.
Welcome to Summer in the Upper Yarra Valley, Victoria, Australia.
Each Summer, usually after Christmas, a single suitcase is shuttled down to my Mother’s house. She lives an hour away from my town, in the middle of suburbia and a place highly unlikely to be hit by bushfires. My suitcase contains most of those firsts; one item of baby clothing from each child, a few precious child school artworks, a hard drive containing digital photographs, videos and a copy of important identifications. Every Summer I repack and unpack it, trying to be satisfied with the fact that if my house did burn down, this suitcase would be all I would have to show for the past 37 years.
Normally I am right on it. Normally, that suitcase is on my Mother’s doorstep before the temperatures even look like they are going to reach 25 degrees celcius. But, this year I became complacent and it wasn’t even packed when we received the first ‘Watch and Act’ bushfire warning. Now the suitcase sits permanently in the boot of my car and the childrens’ bug out backpacks have taken up residence behind their bedroom doors, ready and waiting.
Since Black Saturday, which occurred in February 2009, Australia’s worst bushfire disaster in history, which claimed 173 lives and 2029 homes in towns as close to my home as 24 kilometres. Just to give some perspective, a bushfire as intense and uncontrolled as the Black Saturday bushfires would cover 24 kilometres of bushland in less than ten minutes. This does not give a family long to leave…and heartbreakingly, this is what happened to 173 people.
I didn’t live through Black Saturday as I was living down by the beach at the time. I moved up to the Yarra Valley a few months later after the face of the bush changed forever. But I see the scars of Black Saturday written across the faces of my community every Summer.
We all watch glued to CFA (Country Fire Authority) updates on the internet, scan the wind websites for changes and try to predict if one of the twenty fires in our area will turn its fury towards us, we share fire warnings on facebook, sending our love to those who we know are surrounded by fires and won’t be able to get out. Our partners stay up through the night watching the updates, reading the app information, deciding whether to wake their families
This is our reality.
Photo Credits – Scott Duff Photography & BlackSaturdayBushfires.com