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Black Smoke: Living Through Bushfires

How fire inscribes trauma into both lives and landscapes.

The sun goes down on this place

For what could be the last time and

Car boots are open

Filling up with remnants of life 

A snapshot of what matters here, now

Neighbours are on driveways  

Packing like they’re going on holiday;

Shipping their memories to safety 

I found those words in the notes app on my phone. I wrote them at 12:11am on the 12th November 2019, clearly unable to sleep ahead of the day of ‘catastrophic’ fire danger ahead. It was all over the news—predictions of a doomsday inferno that could burn down our world. We had packed the things we wanted to save into boxes and gave ourselves up to the wind and the heat. In the end, the fire didn’t come on that day in November, but we lived out of those boxes for the next two months as we endured the worst fire season I’ve experienced in my lifetime. 

I live in the Blue Mountains, on Darug and Gundungurra land, west of Sydney. This past summer was the third time in my life that my house narrowly escaped being burnt down. There wasn’t a shade of colour left anywhere in the world. The green had been ripped from the trees and the grass. The sky was suffocating, brown with smoke, mirroring the colour of the earth. Everything was ash and dust. The only colour left to us was the light that would filter through the smoke as the sun set in a searing orange. A warning sign. 

Blackened eucalypt leaves parachuted into our yard for weeks. Like tiny soldiers evacuating a burning town, they screamed at us to get out. We had had no rain and the land was ready to burn; asking us to burn. She asked us—quietly at first, then furiously—if we would get out of the way so that she could alight. We obeyed.

We evacuated our house three times in the space of two weeks over the Christmas and New Year period. December didn’t have any festivity to offer us, just 45 degree days with winds that had the power to incinerate us given a spark. The danger on those days was so high that if the bush had caught alight even 20 or 30 kilometres away from us, we wouldn’t have had time to get out before it was tearing through the houses on our street. Even amidst such fear, there was still some strange shame in evacuating. It felt like giving up, like not even fighting back. 

We couldn’t stay and defend our house though—not after last time. In 2013, on a Thursday afternoon while I was at school, a fire started a suburb away from us and tore through the lower Blue Mountains in the space of one afternoon. The phone towers were unresponsive—we couldn’t contact anyone, we didn’t know if our families were safe, the roads were closed and sirens cried well into the night. I remember going to my grandparents’ house to get them to safety, and looking out their window to see that their back fence was on fire. Everything, everywhere was alight.

My dad stayed to defend our house that day in 2013. It was early October, much earlier than we would’ve thought to start preparing a fire survival plan. Given no warning and no preparation, he faced a fire front that came quite literally to our doorstep. With our fire pump and the help of firefighters, he saved my house and both of our neighbours’ houses from burning down. The road to our house was closed overnight as the earth continued to smoulder, so my mum and I weren’t able to go and see if it was still standing. Worse than that, we didn’t hear from my dad until the morning after the fire. We spent the whole night not knowing if he had died fighting the flames. 

My dad and our house pulled through that fire remarkably well, at least on the surface. We were the lucky ones: every second house on my street was gone. We had no power for weeks afterwards —  we had to use candles as a light source and I was scared that their flames would eat me alive. The smell of smoke was stuck in every piece of clothing for months—a gutting, inescapable reminder of what had happened. Our whole community was ash and so many people I knew were left with absolutely nothing.  

Eventually the bush regrew, houses were rebuilt, and our lives were no longer charred by fire. There was so much relief in the return to some semblance of normality that we didn’t think to go back and confront the traumas that we had faced. Why would we want to bring it up again right as the land was starting to heal? Leaves were starting to grow back and so we tried to as well, not realising how this would shape the way we’d respond to fire seasons in the future.

And so 2019 came and brought with it all the trauma that we had experienced six years prior. We knew the conditions would be particularly bad this summer. The advice from the RFS was to decide early on whether to  stay and defend your house or to evacuate. Putting together our fire survival plan made me sick to my stomach. My parents too, I’m sure. We couldn’t watch it happen again. We weren’t going to stay.

So this summer we evacuated, each time leaving a sign that said “We’ve left. Fire pump & water tank to the right of the house” attached to the Christmas wreath on our front door. Leaving a sign like this means that firefighters know they don’t need to search your house for bodies once the fire front has passed through. 

When you spend two months living in limbo—continually driving away from your house not knowing if you’ll be returning to nothing; trying to pick what to pack into a box to save—you are forced to let go of your tangible connection to everything. I spent endless hours  agonising over what possessions to save—how do you boil a life down to a 50 litre storage box? There are photos somewhere in my camera roll that I took of my house and my bedroom just before we evacuated. They mean nothing now, but at the time there was a good chance that they could have been all I had left of my childhood home. 

What did I put in that 50 litre storage box? Not much, in the end. Important documents, some photos of my friends, my textbooks (I still had exams to pass), a childhood toy, some of my favourite books. It feels embarrassing to admit that half of what I packed ended up being clothes; so unimportant and replaceable. But if your house burns down, you’re probably going to want some clean socks the next day. 

The thing is, you come to realise that physical possessions mean nothing. That life is the only precious commodity. You go to pack your photos and favourite books and childhood memorabilia and you realise that in the end, it just doesn’t matter. And that’s okay, because you learn to be enormously thankful for your friends and family above all else. 

By the middle of the summer, I was angry and tired. My home was surrounded by walls of fire in every direction and I was tired of hearing people in the city complain about the smoke, as if it weren’t the smell of people’s whole lives being burned down. 5.4 million hectares were burnt in NSW alone. Nearly 2500 homes were lost. 800 million animals were killed. The grief was too much to bear and we were drowning in it— every time we walked outside, every conversation we had with others—there was no way out. 

When the fire season was over, I slipped back in between the seams of my normal life. Looking around at my desk and my bed and my posters and my cupboards, they felt like a lie. I had ripped these things out of my life and to coexist with them once again felt impossible. It felt like living inside a mirage. I had made myself let go of it all in preparation of losing my home, but my home was still there and I felt like a stranger inside of it.

It’s not that we don’t expect fires when we live in the middle of the bush. Of course we do—it’s an innate part of our lives; our summer religion. We learn the patterns and the language of fire as though worshipping its laws correctly will spare us. We analyse the way fire moves and breathes under different conditions. We count down the seconds until the wind changes direction and puts us out of harm’s way for a few hours. We hack the frequencies of RFS two-way radios to hear where the latest flare up is. There are weeks and weeks of not knowing if we’ll scrape through or not, but we ultimately know that in intervals of five or ten or fifteen years, the bush has to burn. 

Fire isn’t really the enemy. Fire is unrelenting and unforgiving, but it is not the enemy. We expect fire, and we prepare for it accordingly. But we don’t expect it like this. Not at this scale, this intensity, or this frequency. Our capitalist and colonialist structures, our failure to act on climate change, and our wilful ignorance of Indigenous land and fire management principles are all contributing to fire seasons becoming more severe. This increased severity only heightens the trauma that fire inscribes into our lives, and makes us fear most of all for fire seasons to come. For now, I am still healing. I am still learning to accept that the land I live on has welcomed us back, and I am sitting with the knowledge that while my family was lucky this time, it only means we will be more vulnerable next season. I have only just unpacked that 50 litre storage box. 

We are safe in the cold months. When the fire season ended, we exhaled for the first time in months. We cried when we first saw blue skies and green land again. We learn to live with the almost-grief until it comes back next year. We hold our families tight. We thank the bush for letting us stay. 

We all fear the inevitable

Ignoring that this place is built to burn down

Regrowth and rebirth only stem from

What people deem as a loss,

But the bush begs us to be alight

She is ready and waiting

She will rise again

And so will we, I hope.

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