Back in 2009, I was working at Museum Victoria in Melbourne, helping migrant groups tell their stories through exhibitions and publications. That was the year of Victoria’s Black Saturday: on 7 February wildfires killed 173 people, destroyed over 2000 homes and affected 78 communities throughout the state. It remains Australia’s most fatal bushfire.
The museum soon set up the Victorian Bushfires Collection and I was one of three curators assigned to gather objects and oral histories that demonstrated the power of the fires and the impact on people’s lives. We worked like crazy for a year setting up the collection, and then I was supposed to go back to my regular job.
I couldn’t. I had had no idea previously what it would be like to survive a major catastrophe and to try to rebuild your life, and I had made some pretty foolish assumptions about the process of recovery. I had learned a lot but I knew I needed to learn much more, so I continued interviewing people and writing about their experiences during the bushfires, not just what had happened to them on the day but also how it affected their lives for years after.
I heard stories of courage and determination and resilience and gratitude, but also anger, despair, community division and ongoing difficulties.
I eventually completed a PhD and wrote a book called Black Saturday: Not the end of the story (Monash University Publishing, 2018). In my interviews I asked people about the effect of climate change, but there is little in the book about climate change. Part of this is because at the time I was conducting interviews, the narrators were caught up in intense efforts to re-establish their physical, social, financial and emotional wellbeing, and you can understand how these difficult personal challenges occupied most of their thoughts and most of our conversations. And it was partly because, when I did ask narrators for their thoughts on climate change, it made many people uncomfortable. Climate change had become a politically polarised debate and most of them deferred the question, deeming the issue either too big to deal with or overshadowed by their immediate problems. I didn’t pursue these conversations; now I wish that I had.
In 2019 my husband and I moved back to the Adelaide Hills in South Australia. It is a beautiful place, green and lush for many months of the year, but it is also a high-risk bushfire zone. That lush growth dries out in the scathing heat of summer and becomes perfect fuel for bushfire. There have always been bushfires here but with climate change we are seeing more days of extreme heat and catastrophic fire danger every summer. When we first lived here thirty-odd years ago, we would have three or four days each summer of total fire ban; in 2019 we had three catastrophic days – the highest danger rating, when a fire that starts will be quickly out of control – before New Year.
I’ve learned enough from bushfire survivors to know that my husband and I are not capable of facing a major bushfire. So at the start of the fire season we prepare our property, pack a ‘go bag’, work out evacuation routes (and what to do if they are blocked) and how to manage the animals. On days of extreme fire danger we stay close to home, fill the car with petrol, close up the house and monitor the emergency channels for the message to evacuate. On catastrophic days, we don’t wait for a message. We wet down the house and garden, call the neighbours, bid farewell to the chickens and leave, hoping that it will all be waiting for us when we return. It’s tedious and tiring and stressful, and sometimes it feels like a waste of time, but we’re not going to ‘wait and see’. I’ve heard too many stories of people who waited to see and barely escaped the fire – or did not escape at all.