Emergency warnings

Not long ago, I complained, with such unfailing consistency, about the insensitive intensity of Canberra’s sun. It was less than three months ago, but feels like an eternity already.

When I first encountered the ferocity of the spring sun, I was aghast. Having grown up in a tropical country where it was almost always 30 degrees Celsius during the day, even the coldest time of the year hovered in the late 20s.

I couldn’t imagine what the summer would bring. That’s why Canberra’s 35-degree dry, dry heat drained me from sanity.

However, Like any other person, I learnt tactics to survive the heat. I bought sunscreens and stayed indoors more. I felt reasonably prepared for summer.

Spring sprang, and then before it settled, a hot flash blew it away, replacing it with a heatwave. It was just before the beginning of summer when we first heard instances of bushland going up in flames. And then overnight, one after the other fires swept down national parks, homes, and livelihoods.

Well before the fire season had started, we had more uncontrollable fires than we could comprehend. Numbers made no sense as newscasters spelled out the thousands of hectares of greenery, now scorched. Native Australian wilderness and wildlife went from safe, to endangered, to probably extinct. Not even hope survived.

More than 4000 people spent the first of January in the ocean, the only safe place from the advancing fires. Like a freshly laid bedspread, smoke blanketed the air, ash the ground.

No one could bring themselves to say Happy New Year. Happiness seemed so unrealistic.

In the days that followed, the heat rose from the late 30s to 40s. More than half of Kangaroo Island burnt. Victoria declared a state of disaster. NSW declared a state of emergency, and the ACT, a state of alert. But then, when the Bureau of Meteorology predicted thunderstorms, some of us were thrilled. But most were alarmed. And they were right, too— those storms brought lightning that started more fires. No rain.

The country faced the hottest and driest year ever since record-keeping began. Rapid wind currents fuelled fires all over.

And then one day, Canberra, Sydney, and Melbourne had hailstorms. Gigantic balls of ice pelted down from the sky, shattering thousands of car windshields, permanently maiming perfectly good vehicles. Temperatures dropped to less than 20 degrees in a day. Two days later, we soared back to the 40s.

When it seemed like the summer would never end, the city came down in rains. For two days in a row, Canberra has had steady and mild rains, seeping through dry cracks, kissing dusty leaves, and brushing aside soot that had settled on garden patches. Sydney and Melbourne, however, has had far more damaging rains, with flash flooding affecting train routes and landslides uprooting some railway tracks entirely.

Here’re the top news in Canberra in the last seven days:

  • A fire that’s still active, even after burning through 87000+ hectares (870 square km)
  • The spread of Coronavirus
  • More rains recorded in the weekend than the last two years combined
  • Flash flooding across various cities
  • A small earthquake in Western Australia
  • A major cyclone with wind speeds over 200km/hour in Western Australia

Could there be a clearer indication of climate emergency?

Changing times

Bushfire sunset, Canberra
Bushfire sunset, Canberra

Change is a constant;
orange becomes the normal,
and worry, a friend.

Recipe: do nothing

  • Fires burning in the east coast of Australia
  • Fires burning near Canberra

World burns, chokes, suffers;
that’s climate change in action,
at our inaction.

Thanksgiving

Street art in Canberra, commemorating volunteer firefighters
Street art in Canberra, commemorating volunteer firefighters

Wilder than bushfire
spreading across the nation,
heartfelt gratitude.

The times

When Dickens began “it was the best of times, it was the worst of times”, he must’ve imagined something worse. If that’s even imaginable.

When Frost said he held with those who favoured fire as the cause of world’s end, he must’ve envisioned something more gruesome. If that’s even possible.

For over the past few months, this country has been ablaze.

When Australian winter gave way to spring, as it does every year, gently sliding away into the darkness where it hibernates until next June, summer barged in, as the uninvited plus one of your second cousin twice removed. What should’ve been the sweet celebration of blossoming season, of wattles dancing on sidewalks, of white gum trees waving as you ride past, quickly turned sour in the scorching heat. Overnight it went from whiskey weather to ice-cold rieslings, leaving no chance for temperate rosés.

Dark clouds retreated, much further than they’d ever before. Sunshine glistened on afternoon beverages, shooting hopeful rainbows through clinking glasses, as if wishing for a pot of rain at its end. Magic.

As Floriade ended on a heatwave, summer thrusted herself on stage well before spring had had a chance to take a bow. It was all so sudden. No one had the energy to mourn for spring. Half the country was on fire already.

For summer, in all her glory, with all her vitamins, had brought with her along with the cancerous touch, a flame thrower. And she didn’t hesitate to use it. Day after day, the nation awoke to news of decreasing houses, wildlife, and vegetation. Stranded on highways, truck drivers slept in their vehicles, comfortably and safely parked in traffic that remained unmoving for weeks. In their carriers, food rot and fuel sat. Full and useless.

Volunteers strode into flames, rasping, gasping, metaphorically bleeding as they hosed down beloved backyard branches—plants they’d once lovingly pruned and cared for. They didn’t care anymore. When our love burns and turns against us, hatred and distain drives us to extinguish it. It becomes a disease. When dry and angry leaves scorched their roofs, dogs, and horses, people retaliated, brandishing a gush of precious water, desperate to contain the disaster. This wasn’t a barbecue. It wasn’t as easy as turning a knob or pulling a log off. This was bush fire, and we were nature’s BBQ.

Humans ran. Birds fled. Koalas slept on, most never to wake again. Gum trees leaked as they shot up in blazes, taking with them the sweet smell of comfort, of home, of Australia. Native plants, insects, and animals watched as death leapt at them, future doomed to destination unknown.

Tourism suffered. Economy hurt. Politicians spoke.

People… rose.

Baked beans, cereal, milk, and bread; soaps, shampoo, sanitary napkins, and tooth paste; clothes, and millions in money shipped off from unharmed areas to protective shelters. Donations and fund raisers rained as people’s hearts overflowed with the moisture this land had been deprived of.

It’s the worst of our times. Also the best. I wonder if Dickens knew.