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The summer holidays that never were

The summer holidays that never were

by Victoria Brookman

Down the back, in a gently sloping part of our yard, sits our fairy tree, a magical grevillea adored by kids and fairy wrens alike. A “prize tree” my brother-in-law called it. It’s always been a bit wonky but that was part of its charm. We planted some seaside daisies next to it for the fairies, and later zinnias and bunny ear succulents.The past few months, however, the tree has been struggling. The ground was so dry for so long that it began to uproot itself in search of water. The bucket watering we were restricted to by law could not save it, its roots exposing themselves more and more each day in search of that elusive deep drink. Leaves still green and healthy, it reaches ever closer towards the ground. Nature’s magic, it seems, is deserting us. Three weeks into a new school term and a week after our local mega fires were finally extinguished by a weekend of dramatic flooding rains, I’m finally taking stock. I’m wondering what the hell happened to summer. I’m wondering what the hell just happened full stop. Like many, the school summer holidays of my youth involved spending lots of time outdoors – by the water, at the beach, gently roasting in the sun (against everyone’s advice)… But my kids’ summer this year couldn’t have been more different: holed up inside our small weatherboard cottage in the Mountains, they watched a lot of TV, and gazed out the window at the trees getting singed and the grass growing brown and crunchy in the dry, dry heat.If it wasn’t a million degrees outside, it was hazardously smoky. If it wasn’t hazardously smoky there were dust storms. Even when there weren’t visible dust storm events, I found the kids’ toys, play equipment and our family car covered in a fine layer of topsoil, blown in on strong westerlies from the dry, deforested agricultural areas.But it was worse than just being hot and dusty and smoky. We live in the Blue Mountains, so we spent the summer on high alert, watching as the fires grew ever closer on either side of the highway, threatening to swallow our community whole.

Om nom nom. The binoculars mark us in Springwood. The blue circles are our “watchzone” perimeters of various sizes so we’d know how far away the front was. Our flammable antagonists were the Ruined Castle Fire (near Katoomba), the Grose Valley Fire to the North (born from the Gospers Mountain fire) and the cheeky Erskine Creek Fire to the South (spotted over from the Green Wattle Creek Fire). Summer was staying indoors. Summer was the strange, heavy smell of smoke lingering in our dry washing. Summer was the sound of my asthma spacer clicking back and forth, the condition now requiring constant medication after eight years of pleasant dormancy. Summer was driving around with our valuables in the back of the car.That’s not to say summer was all monotonous and boring. No, on the contrary! There were some crazy exciting moments! Like when I was listening to the RFS scanner late at night and I heard them say that the Darling Causeway had “gone to shit” (it really had!), or when they discussed whether or not the fire was crowning ten k’s away from my house. The video of the flames licking up escarpments in the Upper Mountains was a doozie. I scored a few packets of P2 dust masks from my mum at Christmas! There was the constant stream of charred, blackened leaves falling on our dying lawn. Then there was the moment my in-laws, holidaying down the South Coast, received a message telling them to shelter in place because it was “too late to leave”. When the volunteer firefighters, young fathers and a father-to-be, died fighting the fires, and when that fire fighting tanker plane crashed into a koala sanctuary in a horrible fireball, killing everyone on board. There are also the birds with burnt feathers in our area, and the estimated billion animals that have been wiped out. And what about the moment when my friend and local MP Trish Doyle’s firefighter son’s truck was overrun by fire and he had to send her a message saying he didn’t think he was gonna make it? When we bundled our three small kids into the car as white ash fell around us like snow? When I stepped outside my front door and saw this at the end of my street:

Cool and normal! Erskine Creek Fire flare up, February 2, 2020. Then there was our collective Happy New Year, when we watched pictures pour in of blood red skies on the glorious South Coast, of kids steering dinghies in dust masks and families huddled beneath piers and sheltered on beaches as flames advanced.

In all we left our house because of the fire danger three times in six weeks. It was our fire plan to leave on catastrophic days, the kind of fire conditions that they say no houses are built to withstand should a front threaten. The kind of days where the volunteer firefighters tell us you may not get a knock on the door to say it’s time to evacuate. Living on a ridgeline with one road in and one road out, and with the three small kids, it was safer for us not to be home on those days. I never realised how much it would ache to be away from the community when it was facing such danger. A weird, heart-wrenching kind of guilt as they waited in the belly of the beast.When you live in the Blue Mountains you accept a certain level of fire danger. It comes with the territory when you live in a national park the size of Luxembourg, and I’m pretty sure we have the best RFS brigades in the world as a result. But this year it was unlike anything I’d seen before. The warnings were starker, the forecasts brutal. We spent days preparing the property for bad conditions. Neighbours blocked their downpipes and filled their gutters with water. We all left buckets of water out on the lawn, partly for the thirsty animals and partly to put out spot fires. We all checked in on each other, discussed fire plans, who was home and who wasn’t on the bad days. For my part, I tried to be jokingly philosophical about the prospect of losing everything – oh well, we’d get a nice new house! Or oh well, it’d save us from having to Kondo all our stuff, wouldn’t it? Ha ha. But that third time we evacuated, as I lay in bed at my mother-in-law’s house, cuddling my kids and watching the red angry fire front advancing up the Kings Tableland via the satellite hotspots, I started to freak out.

They grow up so fast. While we did evacuate as a precaution three times, most of the time we were home. To stave off (or perhaps truly embrace) the madness I became a fire watch nerd.I’ve now accumulated a bunch of firewatching apps and technical resources: Fires Near Me, radio scanners, wind forecasts, dry lightning trackers (fun fact of the summer: when fires are large enough they create their own dangerous weather systems!), air support flight trackers, satellite hotspot maps, air quality sensors (tip: it’s probably hazardous outside) and of course the good old Bureau of Meteorology.

Thanks, I hate it. We also have an excellent firewatching Facebook group up here, which, due to the inefficiencies in the official RFS app, was often a vital tool to keep our community up to date on where flare ups, new ignitions and fire fronts were. And our Mayor Mark Greenhill was tireless in his efforts to give us all the latest information as it came to hand. All this made me feel closer to my fellow Mountain-dwellers than ever before. I’m a relative newbie to this region, but the solidarity and cohesiveness that came alive when the fires were threatening was marvellous to see. But while I try to embrace those warm and fuzzy feelings, when I reflect on this summer, I mostly just feel angry. While our country burned and our volunteer fire fighters died, the Prime Minister was casually sipping cocktails in Hawaii. And when he came back, did he stand up and use the fires as an excuse to start acting like a decent human being and heed the warnings of scientists on climate change? Did he put on his big boy pants and ACT to mitigate climate change? Of course not! As far as I can tell, it’s just business as usual. Sure we’re facing unprecedented threat from fires, but their response is to try to stay safe from them instead of doing our part to halt the climate apocalypse. I suppose that seems rational when you can just whisk your family off to Hawaii for a holiday when it suits you. Whatever you do, don’t upset the mega corporations.

Clown There were times, I’ll be honest, when the air outside was so toxic and I had such bad cabin fever from being stuck inside with three young kids, that I had brief fantasies of skipping the country, perhaps claiming climate change refugee status somewhere cold with with clean air.I mean Penrith, where we do our shopping, was 48.9 degrees. FORTY-EIGHT POINT NINE DEGREES. Literally the hottest place on Earth that day.

ScoMo is undoubtedly hoping that collective amnesia sets in (again) by the time the next election rolls around in two years. The citizens of this country continue to vote for governments that allow corporate greed to stifle any meaningful action on climate change, year after year after year, and now that iconic Australian summer we all loved is dead. D-e-a-d. Lock up ya windows. Summer is cancelled. When the flooding rains came last weekend, the fairy tree couldn’t handle it. It fell further and further from the earth, it’s long shallow roots trying desperately to keep their cool. Its main branch, which had once stretched high above the back fence, now sits a mere twenty centimetres from the ground. Its roots are taut, pulled between two worlds – life and death – in the midst of all these battles. Fire vs flood, cloud vs star, climate vs man.

The fairy tree falling out of the ground. First published in suburbannerves.com and republished here with permission Victoria Brookman is a mum, a writer, an activist, a trainer and a doctoral candidate.

She lives and works in the Blue Mountains region, west of Sydney – aka Darug and Gundungurra country.

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