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The small seaside town of Mallacoota, Victoria, during the Australian bushfires on December 30, 2019.
Courtesy of Jonathan Vea

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What it’s like to live through the Australian bushfires

From leveled homes to volunteer relief: six Australians on the devastating impact of the fire crisis.

For much of January, it’s been impossible to turn on the news without seeing bright red images from Australia of trees engulfed in flames, families being evacuated, and people in face masks braving thick walls of smoke. Videos of kangaroos looking for refuge on neighborhood lawns have gone viral, while images of koalas drinking out of rescue workers’ water bottles (perhaps dangerously) have tugged at heartstrings far and wide.

Yet even as the Australian wildfires continue to be vast and devastating, it remains difficult to comprehend their full impact.

Since the fires started in September, at least 27 million acres in the country have burned, 29 people have died, and an estimated 1.25 billion animals have been lost. On Thursday, several dangerous fires were still burning in New South Wales state and on the outskirts of Canberra, Australia’s capital city.

Across Australia, communities have been formed and torched, shifted and brought closer together in the midst of danger and the unknown. But what has it been like to live through one of the most extreme fire disasters of our time? Six Australians shared their experiences with Vox.

“A crowd of us watched in a numbed silence as houses exploded”

On December 30, our family of four — my partner and our kids aged 14 and 12 — had just arrived in the small beachside town of Mallacoota, a popular holiday vacation spot. We knew bushfires were affecting other communities about 60 kilometers away, but we believed we were fine.

While out fishing, a couple of hours from shore, a work colleague also holidaying in Mallacoota called. “Mate, this is serious,” he said. “That fire is heading here and we’re getting out now.” With a single road into and out of town through heavily wooded terrain, we realized our window of opportunity to get out was closing.

It was a painfully slow trip back to Mallacoota on the hired fishing boat. Our discussions about options grew a little heated. The likelihood of being cut off and trapped in Mallacoota was high, but the consequences of being caught in a firestorm while driving out were more significant.

Bushfires left several people marooned in Mallacoota, Australia.
Courtesy of Jonathan Vea

When we got back to our Airbnb, we packed up everything. We believed the safest option was to move swiftly to the town’s wharf. We found an ideal spot by the water’s edge with a low rock wall and parked the car. To protect ourselves from hot embers flying through the air, we wrapped ourselves in woolen blankets. Others nearby did the same. In the event of a firestorm, our final escape option was to jump in the water, shielding ourselves behind the rock wall.

We waited on the water’s edge all night. The smoke was dense. Even though we were wearing swimming goggles, our eyes stung. Our throats were raw. To help us breathe, we used medical masks and a torn-up sarong wrapped around our faces.

The next morning, a Mordor-like darkness settled over us. Hours later, it was replaced by red light, the firestorm hitting the outskirts of town. We heard loud, sharp explosions in the distance and realized they were gas bottles exploding. As they started to increase, we knew more houses were being hit. Across the water, we saw 30-meter flames jump from one section of bushland to others. A crowd of us, both locals and tourists, watched in a numbed silence as houses exploded. Many of those who had lost homes and animals were middle-aged sea changers who, just a day before, were enjoying their near-retirement. Now they were watching their hopes disappear.

Once Mallacoota’s firestorm had passed, we looked around the town. Small fires were still burning. Many houses were completely flattened but some stayed intact. Strangely, there never seemed to be a half-burnt house — it was either completely destroyed or still standing. Our lovely little weatherboard Airbnb holiday home had also burnt to the ground.

Over the coming days, we became accustomed to a war-zone-like atmosphere. Volunteer firefighting trucks continued to race around town suppressing spot fires. But there was an easygoing selflessness between people marooned in Mallacoota. Despite their personal tragedies, local workers and shop owners focused on the needs of others. The local IGA grocery store kept open, running their generator, feeding the community, and restocking their shelves as soon as the immediate danger passed. The pizza and coffee shop kept going right through, stabilizing community morale. The staff of the Mallacoota’s only hotel cooked meals for teams of firefighters, provided accommodations for many in need, and kept the bar open to help many settle their nerves.

Over those dark, smoky hours on the shorefront, we had made a little community built out of small kindnesses. When you’re cold and you haven’t eaten in a day, it means a lot when a complete stranger hands you a warm coffee or cold pizza. And when you can do that for someone else, that generosity quickly becomes infectious.

Three days later, the Royal Australian Navy evacuated our family from Mallacoota. The evacuation was calm and well-planned. Though the ship was cramped, basic, and cold, the Australian Defence Force staff did their absolute best to make things as comfortable as possible for everyone, especially the pets. We felt lucky to be out of the elements. We knew families were still out there in other towns, sheltering on beaches in the open. Others inland were facing even greater uncertainty.

Stepping off the vessel in Melbourne, we felt grimy, tired, and stunk of smoke. Lines of service buses and support welcomed us. We were truly grateful.

Jonathan Vea, environmental planner, Darwin, Northern Territory

“We had no idea what to expect on our journey, but we knew we had to help”

When our team, Sikh Volunteers Australia, found out that the bushfires were getting out of control in East Gippsland, we headed out in a van fully loaded with groceries, utensils, and cooking appliances. We had no idea what to expect on our journey, but we knew we had to help.

On the way down, team members tried calling phone numbers on the websites of local councils and VicEmergency. We eventually got in contact with Neighbourhood House Bairnsdale and were informed that a major relief center was being set up at Bairnsdale City Oval for the people evacuated from the affected region.

It was there that Sikh Volunteers Australia parked and ran our free food van from December 30 to January 14. For 16 days, we woke up at 4:30 am to prepare and serve breakfast by 6:30. While one team was serving at the relief center, a second team would start preparation of lunch and dinner. The food distribution would go on like this until 9:30 pm or even 11. We often got to bed around midnight.

Help from locals, the Sikh community, and many others was abundant. People donated groceries and fresh veggies from their gardens so we could make stuffed potato bread with masala tea, veggie sandwiches, vegetable curries, pasta, and soups.

During these 16 days of volunteering, our service team also came across a lot of heart-touching stories. There was a family living in the East Gippsland area since 1798 that had lost their home. There was a nurse who came by just to thank us without knowing that her own family was struck with disaster and staying at the relief center. Every day, our team met people who had lost their livestock and valuables, who were completely grief-stricken.

But in those 16 days, we were also overwhelmed with the love, affection, and gratitude of the brave people in the community. We witnessed the strong will of Australians, the united spirit of Australian culture. In order to support people in bushfire-affected areas, we hope people visit these areas even after the relief work is finished. Let the people know in these areas that we haven’t forgotten about them. They are not isolated or left by themselves to restructure their hometowns. All of Australia supports them, shoulder to shoulder, and with God’s grace, we will construct again from the ashes.

—Sikh Volunteers Australia, Devon Meadows, Victoria

“We received a text message from our neighbor that her house, along with ours and many others, were gone”

Our Mallacoota holiday was broken the moment when our neighbor informed us that the impending fire could not be stopped. With our only firefighting resource being three garden hoses supplied by town water (which historically fails in a crisis) and a house full of guests not used to this type of situation, we decided to follow government recommendations and evacuate early.

We sent four of our guests into a hired vehicle toward Melbourne first. With four remaining adults and three dogs, and only a small pickup truck to get to our farm 500 kilometers away, we loaded only our essential traveling bags. We didn’t take any family possessions because, in our hearts, we truly didn’t think our house — built by my father with the help of my grandfather in the early 1970s — would burn.

By 8 am, we were heading out of a town humming with anxious people and fire engines. As we left, I couldn’t help but wonder: Was it the right decision? Should we be staying to defend our property, or was that as foolish an option as the authorities would have us believe? Could I help others? Would I be putting the lives of my partner and friends at risk by leaving or staying? Was I acting cowardly?

Neil Ward’s truck was gutted by bushfires in Mallacoota, Australia.
Courtesy of Neil Ward

Throughout my career in natural resource management, I have attended quite a few large fires, saved houses, and have even been stranded in front of a fire, but never had I felt such confusion as trying to resolve what seemed the sensible thing to do when my gut feeling was to stay and defend. Now I live with the knowledge that while all of my family and crew were evacuated safely, and we avoided being stranded on the beach with thousands of other tourists and residents, some people who stayed not only saved their homes but were instrumental in saving others.

That night and the next morning saw the weather acting savagely and heard constant warnings of the fire approaching Mallacoota. We sat helplessly glued to the Emergency+ app, watching the fire’s progress. First reports came in of an individual house burning in the town, then another, and another. Then it seemed the fire front swept in on both the northern part of town and the far southwestern corner, where our house was located. We waited and hoped. There wasn’t much else. Around 2:30 pm, we received a text message from our neighbor who had reliable news that her house, along with ours and many others in the same street, was gone. The hope evaporated.

With a weird numbness, we phoned our boys and told them the sad news. The rest of the afternoon and evening, which was New Year’s Eve, vanished in an avalanche of phone calls and text messages regarding the fate of our house, neighbors, and friends. The depth of concern and commiserations were a tangible reminder of how important that house had been for so many of our friends and family, as a place of escape and sanctuary, laughter, warmth, revitalization and relaxation, an almost spiritual-like home base. Gone.

Three weeks later, despite multiple road closures and long detours, police checkpoints and traffic controls, we have been able to return to Mallacoota. As we made the journey through hundreds of kilometers of blackened bushland, we were immersed in the reality of the extreme weather associated with a warming and changing climate. Between the mountains and the coast, from endless burnt forest to emerald green pastures and back to ash-covered moonscapes, we experienced temperatures of 37°C accompanied by howling hot winds that filled the sky with ash, burnt leaves, and bark. Smoke from nearby bushfires mixed with dust blown off overgrazed paddocks. Then further down the road, it was back to green fields and fruit still on the trees.

What we had witnessed on our journey was a good preparation for what we knew would be a difficult visit. Yet our breath was still taken away at the sight of the destruction to our neighborhood. A scene that we generally associate with bomb attacks or the worst cyclone was laid before us. At our driveway, the sight of our truck completely gutted and distorted, and with its chassis laying on the ground, was immediate proof of the finality of the destruction. At first glance, all that remained where our house once stood was the iron roof, split and awkwardly draped and twisted over bent steel uprights. The walls and contents were completely swallowed by the fire.

After a moment or two, we gathered ourselves and began to recognize the remains of our family home. Among the ash and debris, we found the most unlikely assortment of distorted household items: melted window glass laying in puddles stuck to tiles, forks and spoons welded together, delicate feathers of ash that were once books, light fittings hollow and black, rocks in the garden split and singed from the heat, and nothing that would adorn a table or serve a useful purpose again.

As the rain stopped, we ended up with a handful of items salvaged that could help remind us of what was lost. A long walk along the empty beach and a nude swim in the beautiful green ocean began the process of washing away the ash, dust, and tears — of mending our hearts and helping us to begin the rebuilding of our new family home.

—Neil Ward, natural resources and conservation manager, Chiltern and Mallacoota, Victoria

“My kids are destined to spend another day indoors going stir-crazy”

When you wake, even before you’re properly awake, the first thing you smell is the smoke. This is despite the fact the vents in the house are closed; the smoke still gets inside.

In my living room, my three sons — ages 4, 2, and 5 months — are playing on the rug. They are destined to spend another day indoors going stir-crazy. We can’t let them go outside — with Air Quality Index (AQI) readings of 5,000, the air is 25 times what is considered hazardous (AQI 200).

We live in Canberra, Australia’s capital city, which for weeks now has had the undesirable distinction of being the city with the world’s worst air. Positioned about 100 miles inland, Canberra is cursed to be in a valley that naturally traps smoke. The winds do the rest, with westerlies during the day tending to bring clearer air, while shore winds in the evenings blow smoke from east coast firegrounds into the city. Like a noxious tide going in and out, it’s a perfect atmospheric storm that has left Canberrans on edge.

Smoke from the bushfires has made Canberra, Australia, “the city with the world’s worst air.”
Courtesy of Peter Papathanasiou

My mom, who lost her husband in 2016, continues to live in her own home of 60 years and is fiercely proud to do so. But she is also 89 years old and struggling, her lungs the most vulnerable of all. I go to check on her and take our air purifier. She tells me she’s been unable to sleep again, her eyes red and stinging, her throat burning, her voice hoarse. Department stores across the city have sold all their purifiers, while hardware stores have sold out of filter masks that offer protection from the ultra-fine bushfire particles in the air that lodge in the lungs and make breathing difficult.

It’s stressful for all involved and has put a strain on our small city. The streets are deserted. Public pools and major tourist attractions closed. Sporting events have been postponed. Businesses and government departments sent their workers home. The national airline stopped all flights. The postal service halted all deliveries. Petrol stations sold out of fuel, supermarkets sold out of bottled water, and bank ATMs were emptied of cash. It’s the stuff of the apocalypse. Only time will tell how our long-term health is impacted.

When I return home from my mother’s house one morning, my kids are enjoying their breakfast. They do not understand the climate emergency that is currently unfolding, the doom that lies ahead. But they will one day. Hopefully by then, it’s not too late for them to have a future.

—Peter Papathanasiou, author of Little One and Son of Mine, Canberra

“As a climate activist, I am not surprised. As a wife of a volunteer firefighter, I worry.”

As a climate scientist, I’m not surprised by the bushfires. What I am is exhausted. I am tired of repeating again and again about how climate change is already here and that we are to blame. What will it take for everyone to finally realize this, and by then will it be too late?

As a wife of a volunteer firefighter, I worry. When is the next call? How long will he be gone? Is he safe? This season he has only been out once, for which I feel grateful yet selfish. Many of his peers have been battling fires tirelessly for months. Away from their families, away from their income, trying to control the untamable. They are running on the smell of an oily rag, doing all they can to save life, property, and our precious bushland. Their resources are already so scarce; some firefighters have crowdsourced their own equipment. What will be required to protect us from the bushfires of the future?

As a mom of two young girls, I’m also in despair. This is not the world I wanted for my kids, nor for their peers. Wearing masks because of poor air quality thanks to smoke from wildfires will be normal for them. They won’t be able to enjoy the great outdoors as much as we do now — it will just be too hot to leave the house in summer. I shudder to think about the impacts bushfires under 2°C or even 3°C of warming, which is expected by the end of this century, will have on their lives. They are too little to understand all this now, but I’m not looking forward to future conversations, where I’ll have to explain why we left them a world in poorer condition than what we inherited.

As an Australian, I’m shattered. The fires have changed Australia forever. The wrath of climate change is no longer on the horizon. It’s here.

Sarah Perkins-Kirkpatrick, climate scientist and senior lecturer at the Climate Change Research Centre, UNSW Sydney, Sydney

“I was determined to find a displaced family nearby who could stay at my lodge”

Over the past four months, we Sydneysiders have slowly gotten used to the blanket of smoke we’ve been living under. We’re used to seeing people walking around with masks, of fire footage dominating the news. We’re used to seeing politicians point fingers and shift blame. But one thing I could never get used to is how this has devastated individuals and communities — and how it has also brought us together.

Volunteering at a Christmas party for the homeless, I encountered a man crying in the corner of the room. I sat and listened to the raw emotion as he described how the fires have robbed him of his life’s work. How has a man like this found himself homeless? I couldn’t get him out of my mind. Watching the news suddenly felt different. I imagined his fear, others’ fear, their loss. I was flooded with empathy yet felt powerless at the same time.

Firemen prepare as a bushfire approaches homes in the town of Bargo, Australia, on December 21, 2019.
David Gray/Getty Images

I have a vineyard with a lodge in the Hunter Valley. I no longer cared about the grapes we lost due to a combination of drought and smoke taint. I was determined to find a displaced family nearby who could stay at my lodge. I posted the offer on social media, and soon friends flooded the post, wanting to offer their homes to victims of the fires too. Before I knew it, I had a list of accommodation options and began organizing those in need with a place to stay. It makes me feel proud to be part of a community that bands together in times of need. Everyone wants to help, but they just can’t always figure out how.

Last week, I met with a man whom I placed in one of the homes. He told me how the surrounding fires felt like they’re closing in. The smoke made it near impossible to breathe, forcing him and his family to evacuate and flee. At the time, he had his mother staying with him and his two sons. I can’t even begin to imagine the fear and anxiety that gripped this family. Sadly, he will not be the last person to tell such a story.

Fire season is far from over. Let’s keep helping. Let’s donate generously. Let’s offer support to these families, the rescue workers, and the hardworking organizations trying to save countless animals in distress. Let’s spread the links, stories, and social media posts that highlight those in need. I urge you to become part of the army of helpers in our community. You’ll really enjoy the experience.

—Richie Harkham, winemaker, speaker, and philanthropist, Hunter Valley, New South Wales

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