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Climate Changed Me

My name is Peg Fraser. I’m a historian and an Australian Red Cross volunteer, and this is my story.

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. 

 

2019 was also the start of a summer that rewrote the book on bushfire. Up until that fire season, bushfires pretty much played by the rules: they were larger or smaller, more or less extreme, more or less fatal, but they occupied a necessary and reasonably predictable niche in the Australian ecosystem. Black Saturday, the most fatal fire in our history, pushed the envelope of what a catastrophic fire could do to people and the environment, but it didn’t break the envelope. The summer of 2019/20 did.

Stretching for nine months and burning across all six states and both territories, the bushfires that season tore through 24,000,000 hectares, burned environments considered fire-proof, destroyed more than 3000 homes, forced the evacuation of tens of thousands of people, and wiped out billions of native animals and destroyed their habitat. The extent of the destruction eclipsed the Black Saturday fire and it was only through the superhuman efforts of emergency services personnel and local residents – and an extraordinary amount of luck – that the death toll was held to thirty-three. It was also the first time that climate change was unequivocally linked with bushfire. As a nation we could no longer pretend that this was normal. 

Kangaroo Island.

Here in South Australia fires had started burning in October, but the worst day was December 20, when more than 200 bushfires were ablaze. A major fire started in the Adelaide Hills and burned through townships, vineyards and forests, killing one person. Fires started the same day on Kangaroo Island off the coast of South Australia, took eleven days to contain and killed two people. It incinerated Flinders Chase National Park, one of our most important ecological sites, and it’s still not clear whether threatened species unique to the island will recover. 

We were lucky that the fire in the Hills came only within fifteen kilometres of our place but our whole community was distressed. We knew this area; we knew people who had evacuated, getting stuck in long lines of cars on narrow country roads, or who had prepared to fight the fire with a water tank and hose on the back of a ute, or who took refuge in their houses and hoped it would pass them by. And then I realised that it wasn’t enough for us to take care of ourselves. We are all involved and we are all responsible. 

We had to be part of a bigger effort, and so I joined the Australian Red Cross.

I’m an Emergency Services volunteer, which means I can be called to work at an emergency relief centre, visit affected residents in their homes, attend public meetings, help with bushfire education or do a number of other jobs. It’s been nearly two years since the 2019/20 bushfires, but we are still talking to people in fire-affected areas who have struggled to return to ‘normal’, who sleep badly, who are anxious when they smell smoke, who worry about the next fire season, or about the future of the children. I tell the survivors of the 2019/20 bushfires what I’ve learned from the survivors of Black Saturday: that recovery can take a long time and no one can give you a road map or a schedule, but they can give you love and support. And the more support you have, the better you will recover.

This is important work, and I’m proud to be working with the Australian Red Cross, but in the face of accelerating climate change I often feel that I am doing too little, too late. When I read some of the other stories in this book, about people who have been displaced, lost their families and their homelands to climate change, and think of the agonising slowness of world leaders  to make significant changes, I realise that the 2019/20 bushfires  were just the beginning of Australia’s story of climate-induced disaster. Heat, drought, sea level rise and severe storms as well as bushfire will all take their toll on our country, so I’ve become involved in a new Red Cross initiative. Climate Ready Communities works with local government to help residents envision, plan and develop local projects to adapt to climate change in their own communities.

These are small steps and won’t bring about the kind of change we need at the global level. But what we are doing is helping to build community and individual resilience and in the years to come, community resilience will be one of the most important resources – maybe the most important resource – for surviving climate change. We are all involved and we are all responsible.

 

Read more stories from people around the world about how climate has changed them.