Facing a future of fire, drought, and rising oceans, Australians will have to weigh the choice between getting out early or staying to fight.
When tiny flakes of white ash started falling like warm snow from a sky sullen with smoke, we left. We had lived for weeks with the threat of two huge bushfires hanging over our small Australian town, advancing inexorably toward us from the north and the south. My hometown of Blackheath, perched at the top of the Blue Mountains, surrounded by stunning but drought-parched Australian wilderness, was in the center of this flaming pincer.
The kids had just come home from their final day of school in December when our neighbor messaged to say there were concerns that the northern fire, which had already burned through nearly 2,000 square miles of national park, would hit Blackheath that night. Fire authorities had warned of dire conditions in the following few days: high temperatures, low humidity, and wind.
So we fled east down the mountains, heading for the coast and the relative safety of Sydney, nearly 60 miles away. We returned five days later to our scorched land, the house untouched thanks to the courageous actions of neighbors and firefighters.
Australians pride themselves on being battlers, on facing down terrible odds and triumphing against whatever this land of droughts and flooding rains—and bushfires—can throw at us. Yet one of the most defining moments in modern Australian nationhood was actually a retreat. In one of the greatest military-campaign failures of World War I, the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps—the ANZACs—staged an ingenious escape from the shores of Gallipoli in 1915 after a bitter, futile eight-month battle with Ottoman forces.
“This is our Gallipoli; this is our bushfire Gallipoli,” says David Bowman, a professor of environmental-change biology at the University of Tasmania. He’s talking about the bushfires that began in the spring of September 2019, that have burned in every state and territory, that have claimed at least 24 lives, that have destroyed nearly 1,800 homes, and that have turned more than 8.4 million hectares of land into lifeless charcoal. They have led to one of the largest peacetime evacuations in Australia’s history, as fire authorities in two states instructed tens of thousands of holidaymakers and residents to remove themselves from the path of several flaming juggernauts. In an echo of the Gallipoli retreat, thousands had to be rescued from beaches by the Australian navy and air force. In the face of these unprecedented fires, Australians appear to be listening less to the inner voice of the Aussie battler, and instead heeding the pleas and warnings of fire authorities.
Eleven years ago, the mind-set of bushfire response was different. Before the devastating Black Saturday bushfires in the southeastern state of Victoria, which killed 173 people over two cataclysmic days in 2009, the accepted wisdom on bushfires was “stay and defend, or leave early.” After Black Saturday, a new category of bushfire warning was introduced, labeled “Code Red” in Victoria, and “Catastrophic” in New South Wales. The unambiguous message of the new warning was “for your survival, leaving early is the only option.”
It appears the message is cutting through, says Richard Thornton, CEO of the Bushfire and Natural Hazards Cooperative Research Centre. “With the magnitude of these fires, and particularly with the fires that occurred in the Blue Mountains and Mallacoota—in heavily populated areas—that we didn’t end up with a Black Saturday–type fatality list is a sign that something is different in these fires.”
But what happens after the fires have passed through, and Australians return to either their intact homes or smoking ruins, dead cattle, a blackened moonscape where crops once grew? The lucky ones give thanks and get on with their life. The unlucky ones grieve, rage, shake their fist at Fate—and defiantly rebuild on the same ground. The battler spirit triumphs again, but for how long?
As the country suffers through one of its worst droughts on record, and heat waves shatter temperature records not once but twice within the same summer week, some are asking whether Australians can afford to keep returning to the same parched, scorched landscapes that they have occupied not just since the European invasion two and a half centuries ago, but for tens of thousands of years before that. Even before climate change, survival—particularly of agriculture—in some parts of Australia was precarious. Farmers were so often rescued from the very edge of disaster by long-overdue rains that arrived just in time. Now the effects of climate change are making that scenario even less likely, and this bushfire season and drought are but a herald of things to come…