The Australia Fires: A Letter from Clare Press in Sydney

As bushfires continue to ravage through Australia, harrowing reports and statistics have struck us speechless at a time when we must use our voices to press for change. Clare Press searches for the right words to describe the situation and provides some hands-on ways to help: donations and actions both.

I started writing this on January 7th, five years to the day since the Paris terrorist attack on the offices of Charlie Hebdo magazine. An horrific, frightening time in the French capital, that left 17 dead and the world watching. It spawned the hashtag #jesuischarlie – in English, ‘I am Charlie’. The idea? We all were. 

That phrase echoed another, from 2001, also inspired by an act of terrorism. “Tonight, we are all Americans,” is a quote from a French news reporter during coverage of the September 11 attacks in the US. Both phrases convey solidarity, and also an answer to that lumpen, clogged-up feeling of despair familiar to us all (for whatever reasons); that feeling of no words.

No words is how I have felt, at times, watching Australia’s bushfire disaster unfold, on the news, on social media, and in the smoke-choked air that comes and goes now here with depressing regularity.

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One month ago, on December 7, smoke haze above the harbour rendered the Sydney Opera House a ghost. Yesterday in Canberra, the Australian capital, the air quality was so dodgy that pharmacies were doling out P2 masks for free. I yearn for the days when I’d never heard of a P2 mask; we all know what they are now – a mask type that filters out dangerous fine particle pollution from bushfire smoke. We obsessively check the Air Quality Index, as medical experts tell us, “If you don’t need to go outside – don’t.” What of the famously healthy Aussie lifestyle? How is it possible that, on certain days, it’s unhealthier to jog here than to loaf on the sofa? 

Over Christmas, vacation spots caught fire, trapping holidaymakers in villages and on beaches. On the NSW South Coast, people were evacuated in snail-pace car convoys led by the emergency serves. Burning trees crashed into the roads. 

In Mallacoota, Gippsland, about 400 kilometres from Melbourne, some 4000 people were trapped on the beaches as the skies turned red and the land burst aflame. Finally, Scott Morrison, the Prime Minister – a fossil fuel fanatic who once brought a lump of coal into Parliament and believes that while we’re doing it tough, no worries because “Australians will be inspired by the great feats of our cricketers” – called in the army to rescue them.

Fake news is everywhere blaming “greenies” for preventing back-burning and causing the fires, while raving right wing loonies say the same thing on the telly. It’s bollocks. As the firefighters will tell you.

There is talk of adaptation. In a warmed world, should we move the holiday period from December to April? Could we retrofit of houses and public buildings to seal in the clean air?

Yet for 25 million Australians, life – mostly – goes on as normal. Although some fires have licked the suburbs, the cities have escaped (air quality aside). The weather, as weather is wont to do, changes. On Saturday the temperature in Penrith, Western Sydney, hit 48.9 degrees. Today, it’s a pleasant 25 degrees in the city, with a 20 per cent change of rain. As I look out of my window, I see the usual green trees. There’s a nice breeze, and the birds are singing. If I didn’t know what was happening elsewhere – say on Kangaroo Island, off the South Australian coast, where residents of Vivonne Bay are currently being evacuated, “probably more than half” of the island’s koalas have been killed, and the picture of devastation has been liked to a lunar landscape – I could never imagine it. 

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Another danger: that we forget. 

For a writer, no words is confronting. No words to express the losses that lurk in the bright corners, best avoided. Because the truth is: there are indeed words if we’ve the stomach for them. Violent, terrible ones – some of which, you have read by now. Half a billion animals wiped out. A conservative estimate, according to some. Species likely pushed to the brink of extinction. An area around the size of England burned to crisp. More than 20 people dead, thousands of houses and properties lost. Those are indeed words, but they are not words that trip comfortably off the tongue or onto the page.

Mind you, they might be more palatable than the pictures. My Instagram feed is now a dangerous place, a horror show of fried kangaroos, burned lorikeets and cockatoos washed up with the tide. If I could stop crying, I might actually have seen them.

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And so to the practical. What can you do? If you have money to give, please consider donating to one of the charities that looks after wildlife and/or focuses on climate action. Of course, the Red Cross is worthy, and of course Australia’s valiant volunteer fire-fighting forces are, but Celeste Barber’s campaign has already funnelled $44 million to the latter. We’re giving more to humans, less to the environment – as usual. WIRES does essential work on the ground rescuing sick and injured animals. The work of the Climate Council is vital. The WWF has a plan to plant 2 billion trees by 2030. Greenpeace, the Bob Brown Foundation and the Australian Conservation Foundation all need our help. As do the Stop Adani and Fight for the Bight coalitions. 

Other than money, what else? We can tackle the big stuff – change our lifestyles, habits, consumption patterns, and ways of living in relation to nature. We can put Earth first because it’s our only home. We can wake the fuck up and depose unworthy leaders who do not take climate action seriously. Who put profit before people and planet. Who ignore our young people and are too lily-livered and greedy to step up and take responsibility for their future. 

The bushfire crisis is happening in real time where I live, but next time it could be closer to you. In August, the Amazon burned. In October, it was California. When it’s not fires, it’s droughts, hurricanes, floods. Down Under we pray for rain while the UK hopes it will stop. On New Year’s Eve in Jakarta, Indonesia flash floods killed 43 people, and mudslides have washed away villages. Climate change is here, and it’s happening now. We are all Australia.

Follow Clare on Instagram @mrspress