I’m writing this on the morning of January 6th, 2020. I’ve woken up not to the smell of a fresh summer’s day but to that of smoke. The gravity of the bushfire disaster gripping our country becomes much easier to comprehend when one experiences even the most minor of its tangible consequences.
For Melbournians, the smoke that catches in the back of our throats began its journey in East Gippsland or Tasmania, scorching a trail of destruction through people’s towns, homes and lives. The haze that is enveloping our city, nation and neighbouring countries is a symptom of an infection that has destroyed both lives and livelihoods.
For me though, the smoke prompts more than a physical reaction; it takes me back to Black Saturday. My parents chose to stay and protect our 40-acre property and family home. For days, I didn’t and couldn’t know whether they had made it through. 11 people died along their road alone. You can’t look at a news report – or inhale a lungful of smoke – in the same way once you’ve been gripped by such terror.
Everything is a reminder. The roadblocks. The utter decimation of ecosystems and wildlife. The lack of contact and communication with loved ones. A limited governmental response.
A total state of panic.
Tragedy often brings about the best in Australians. Even now, with the true scale of the devastation relatively unknown, millions of dollars are being poured into the CFA and other bushfire relief services. Everyone is donating what they can, whether that be food, medical supplies, sanitary products or toys for kids whose Christmas presents went up in flames. The response in the last few days has been incredible, and I can attest to how grateful our fellow Australians will be.
I’m going to ask you to keep something else in mind for the near future. Right now, we are at a point where we don’t know what the fires will be like for the rest of the season. For all we know, they could last for months. We may have experienced the worst but there could be a lot more to come. What we do know is that these fires will not burn forever. The news reports will stop. The politicians will move onto other topics. But the devastation and trauma will remain. And that’s where the real work begins.
In the aftermath of Black Saturday, I took a considerable amount of time off work to help my parents through the rebuild. Smouldering roads. People’s houses reduced to rubble. Month-long coughs. Trauma. Grief. In the chaos of flames, it’s easy to forget that the pain does not burn out with the fires.
There are families that will never be free of the consequences of the last few months. They will always need help. That’s why I want to draw our attention to things we can do not only today and tomorrow but for years to come.
Your first port of call is the CFA (https://www.cfa.vic.gov.au/about/supporting-cfa). This link will take you to a page where you can choose whether to donate to the CFA directly or to the Bushfire Disaster Appeal. The Appeal is for people affected by the fires in East Gippsland, with the money directed towards providing short and long-term relief. Not all of us have a lot of money to donate, so the Appeal encourages you to consider providing material goods or emergency accommodation for those who have lost everything to the fires.
Donations to the CFA help them continue with their life-saving work. These heroes have so little to work with and do so much. Any assistance makes all the difference. Moreover, the CFA has its own Wellbeing Support Services for both firefighters and their family members; your donations can help ensure the quality of life for people who have already sacrificed so much. We know how much of an issue mental health is in this day and age. Traumatic events like these bushfires can leave lasting scars that can only be combated with professional help. Your donations can be a safeguard against PTSD.
This brings me to my final point: The Governmental response. Everyone is going to have different perspectives on Scott Morrison’s holidays and handshakes; that’s not my focus though. Regardless of what you think about climate change, it’s clear that Australia is hotter and dryer than normal. Stats don’t lie. Climate change doesn’t cause fires but it creates the conditions that render them especially severe. The Royal Commission following Black Saturday found that a failure to meet ‘burning off’ targets contributed to the severity of the fires and there is a lot of discussion being generated as to whether we did enough this year. What this suggests is that the Government didn’t treat this risk as seriously as it should have. The recommendations of the Royal Commission and other experts in recent years haven’t had the impact that they should have because our leaders have forgotten what it’s like to have their country on fire. As Australians, it’s our responsibility to ensure bushfires are never taken off the agenda.
What I want you to take away from all this pain, loss, death and chaos is this: Never forget. Burn the images into your brain. When the press stops reporting on the fires, keep caring. People will always need your help. Both to get back on their feet and to ensure that they never have to experience this horror again.
We need to learn, grow and change. Your donations, attention and generosity mean everything.