An American in Australia

In the Northern Territory of Australia, the world’s most fire prone land, there are rumors of flying arsonists. People have reported observing Black Kites and other birds of prey flying above the active front of a bushfire where unstable atmospheric conditions, dried vegetation, and high winds meet to produce the most dangerous conditions.

The raptors dart down toward crisp yellow grass, snatching and then dropping the lit stalks onto dry grass to propel the bushfire forward from its natural front. This hunting technique displaces living things, such as the spotted quoll, from their homes, making them easy prey

Two thousand miles south, in the Australian state of Victoria, people are reporting a class of even more unlikely arsonists: teenage girls.

On December 21st, the Saturday before Christmas, I was doing all of my shopping in a Myer department store in the capital city of Melbourne. The 2019 bushfire season in New South Wales and Victoria had been active for five months, since August, the Southern Hemisphere’s last month of winter.

A placid middle-aged man rang up the themed Lego sets I placed next to a purple and green placard that read “Please donate to the Bushfire Appeal.” These appeals, or donation drives, have become a ubiquitous part of shopping in Australia over the last few months. When I put gas in my car the attendant asks if I would like make the amount even to support the Country Fire Authority, or CFA, Victoria’s statewide network of volunteer and career firefighters. Gallons of milk have been renamed “Drought Relief Milk” (why do milk containers always have to bear bad news?), ensuring that even the most casual trip to the grocery store contains the potential for existential panic.

The cashier read me the total and asked if I would like to round up to the nearest dollar for the fires. I didn’t have the courage to refuse, although the more I learn about the current Liberal government’s mismanagement of the crisis I am led to conclude Australian citizens should not be cast upon at every exchange of money to subsidize this disaster like some horrific GoFundMe.

“You know about the fires, right?” The Myer cashier asks.

He was wearing a Santa hat with a golden bell on the end, and huddled on top of the box that contained the Jurassic Park Lego set I had purchased for my nephew. I told him my partner was a firefighter. When I met my partner twelve years ago, I was primed by years of t-shirted propaganda with silhouetted firefighters labelled as heroes, and I was enamored with the prospect of dating an Australian firefighter. Now, I obsessively update government fire maps and refuse to read articles about the dead firefighters.

“Oh, so he must really know about the fires then, how they started?” The cashier continued.

The bell on his hat rings as he talks.

“What do you mean?” I ask.

“Haven’t you heard?” He answers while he flings open a paper bag (plastic bags have been banned in Victoria).

“All these fires, they were started by teenage girls, so they can blame them on climate change.”

The Drought Relief Milk, banned plastic bags, and rumored roving gangs of teenaged arsonists are all the result of the prismatic shattering of the Australian psyche caused by the undeniable meeting of reality and delusion. Since the fires started in August, the country’s Prime Minister, Scott Morrison (or in true Aussie fashion, just ScoMo to both his supporters and critics) has invoked plastic usage and arsonists to deflect from critical questions about his party’s inadequate climate crisis policies. The 2019-2020 Bushfire season is the first reality test for ScoMo’s delusional policies.

Last year, 22 emergency services leaders sought a meeting with the Prime Minister to discuss perceived weaknesses in the Federal government’s disaster policies. ScoMo declined. Meanwhile, police and firefighting agencies have attributed just one percent of ignition of the fires to arsonists as ScoMo promises to launch a Royal Commission into the supposed arsonist problem.

The bushfires are the burning truth lashing at the delusions of climate denial still held by the Liberal party. ScoMo’s government and those who voted for it appear to be unable to let go of the fallacy that Australia has always faced fires of this magnitude, and therefore no significant policy change needs to occur.  Instead, walls of milk gallons that sit on humming metal shelves are more capable of telling Australians the truth: we need a lasting relief from the effects of human caused climate change.

I evacuated from our small coastal town due to disastrous fire conditions. Weather forecasts predicted a preposterously high temperature of 114 degrees with winds travelling more than 40 miles per hour straight down the red center of the Australian outback. The days between Christmas and New Year’s Eve are normally a languid stretch of time revered by Australians, set aside for barbecues and watching “the cricket.” Instead, thousands of people were told to leave their homes. The lucky ones have somewhere to go while the rest stay filling bathtubs and garbage containers with water.

Those who stay will try to defend. The “stay and defend” strategy is controversial: In December, a father and son perished while trying to save their farm. They will not be the last father and son pair to lose their lives trying to defeat scorching radiant heat and flying embers this summer. I have always known what I will do when faced with the decision to leave or defend: get out. I’m from the Midwestern U.S., where the smell of fire is only associated with 4-H camp and bonfire parties. Now I try to mentally separate the instant nostalgia I feel as I step outside day after day and smell the whole country on fire.

There are worries that two fire complexes may cross the Victoria and New South Wales state boundary to become one monolithic fire from hell. I felt doom as I joined a caravan of people leaving to seek refuge. We passed whimsical signs depicting pastel seabirds stomping on cigarettes with speech bubbles proclaiming all Surf Coast beaches are smoke free as a monster cloud of smoke obscures the sun. Hardware stores throughout the Eastern coast of Australia sold out of P2 masks despite constant warnings from health officials that there is no way to filter smoke from the air.

Under normal conditions, fires in Australia are distinguishable events with clear beginnings and ends, such as the Ash Wednesday fires of 1983, or the Black Saturday fires of 2009.

The present fires have now been burning for almost six months.

The embers and active fronts have ashed 12 million acres of land, killed an estimated one billion animals and 29 people. ScoMo and other elected officials make daily media appearances pleading with us to keep the politics out of this, and look toward recovery. I reluctantly continue to donate to every bushfire appeal while purchasing a cup of coffee or buying a loaf of bread.

On December 30th, I was driving down the winding Great Ocean Road, a two-lane highway carved into the coast of the Southern Ocean, with my two dogs. I had not seen my partner in over a week. He had been stationed at remote airbases throughout rural Victoria waiting for streaks of dry lightning to ignite stretches of pale green stubby grass countryside that has not had significant rain in years. Sometimes he calls me from the base and I have to yell caged and coded questions about the fires. The hours he spends in a helicopter radioing to aircraft where to drop loads of water dyed red with phosphorus on the crackling heat are affecting his hearing. I ask him when he will be home, and what they are worried about today, but most of all I want to ask: what will be left?

Featured image: Bilpin, Australia on December 19, 2019, SS Studio Photography, Shutterstock