when the sky caught fire

It starts a few days ago, with perfectly preserved eucalyptus leaves twirling out of the sky, brittle and scorched. I’m not sure anyone knows how it ends.

First published at the Guardian

Today was meant to be a birthday party. Instead, I’m woken before a dawn that never really arrives; checking the app to see the fire we’ve been tracking for the last three days has made a break for it.

We are on the south coast of New South Wales and the Princes Highway is cut off. Towns are emptying out and everything about the light in the sky is wrong. I used to the think the idea of having a go-bag you could grab at a moment’s notice was a bit melodramatic but now we’re bumping down this rural laneway in bruised ochre light, not knowing when we’ll be back, and I’m glad I packed. The nightmare the people have been living all the way from Shoalhaven to Queensland has hit the south coast.The bushfires are a national catastrophe for the city and country. How are we going to live like this?Read more

Keeping an ear to the RFS radio channel when mobile reception is good, it sounds as though an extraordinary network of volunteers and gear is stretched well beyond the limit. From the estuary in Narooma under an immense plume that’s generating its own weather the timelines are hard to take in. People are losing everything. Glimpses of dear Cobargo on fire. Mallacoota and Batemans Bay under siege. People are being rescued from pools, from wherever they have been able to take shelter. Whatever they’re calling this, it stretches from Tasmania to East Gippsland to the Northern Rivers now.

There are queues at the petrol station and the shelves are starting to empty out. This quiet little holiday town is jammed with traffic with nowhere to go, and so a certain gentle fatalism has set in. We are all in the middle of something much, much bigger than any of us, and each other is all we have.

The local clubs have set up food vans outside the evacuation centre. With the power down, it’s gas barbecues outside and portable generators to run the lights in the centre. The indoor basketball courts are a village now, hundreds of people making a temporary home on mattresses on the floor. More than a thousand people have signed on as evacuees so far. I ask the Red Cross volunteer at the registration desk what the capacity of the place is. He just shrugs and says they won’t be turning anyone away.

This is what community feels like. There is nothing transactional about it; the defence of this precious, fragile part of the world is being sustained almost entirely by volunteers buttressed by public emergency services and public broadcasters.

So now, with a curtain of ash falling across the estuary and visibility falling to nothing, I feel more confident in months that this place has what it takes. We’ll get through it. In the face of the smirking vacuum that passes for national political leadership, everyone is just getting on with it. For those who ignored the warning for so long and put us all into the path of this thing, political consequences will come, for real.

But for now, keep your ear to the ABC, stay safe and look out for each other.