Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site


Bushfire divisions etched in sand

  • 15 January 2020


Over the New Year I was holidaying at Gerroa on the Southern New South Wales coast. Though safe the town was relatively close to the fires. It was an edgy time: in a season dominated by fires and the suffering they brought to people and to nature, it seemed a little self-indulgent to be relaxing by the sea.

The Gerroa beach, part of a national park, runs broad and curving as far as the eye can see. Each morning the sun rose red as a tomato and disappeared behind the acrid smoke for the rest of the day. Each rising tide dumped on the shore black clumps of charred twigs, leaves, ashes and the remains of native flora and fauna. Each receding tide drew the black ash back into the sea only to throw it back again with the change of tide.

Later, as the sea withdrew, each wave left behind a curling black line. The lines crossed one another. As a result, at low tide the long white beach became a map in which territories were separated from one another.

That image reflected the reality of the fires and the changing ways in which they were perceived. They were always more than localised events. They affected relationships that spread far beyond the fire.

These included changes to things that we take for granted: the light of the sun, transparency of the air, colour of beaches and the arrival of birds driven outside their normal habitat. The fires also affected social relationships. Communications in the form both of movement of people and goods and of electronic contact with families, medical centres and fire authorities, were disrupted. So was the commercial activity so important to the livelihood of coastal towns along the coast.

At the same time, however, the fires deepened people's relationships to one another and to the natural world. People distant from the fires came to see their destructive violence, the heroism of those fighting the fires, the human reality of being stripped of home and family history. The ABC News channel became a gateway to empathy with people in their grief and courage.

The fires also elicited a generous response as distant farmers brought feed to farms and a host of appeals began for donations to support people in their recovery. The fires also brought home to Australians the wider connections between the fires, high temperature and drought in which fire flourished, and the