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Bushfire divisions etched in sand



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.

Black streaks on sand (Credit: Jose A. Bernat Bacete)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 necessity to address climate change seriously and to deal with its effects.


"All this requires a reflective and universal view in a political world that thinks in terms of small actions to defend small defended territories."


That was the first phase. As the initial shock was handled, this breadth of vision and unity in responding to the fires became fragmented. The boundary lines separating divergent interests and priorities were marked on the sand. The world was divided into those regarded as virtuous and vicious, as unimportant and of central importance.

As a result things that were part of a whole were separated and presented as competitive. Their importance relative to one another was neglected. Responsibility for the fires was variously assigned to climate change, drought, arson, and the neglect of preventative burning of forests as if these were disconnected and unrelated. The responses advocated to the fires became also correspondingly narrow.

Territories were also marked out by special interests seeking support in the response to the fires: the forestry industry, workers, the insurance industry, small businesses, for example. Some territories were notably neglected: the plants and animals killed and species potentially eradicated as a result of fire, for example.

All these things are important, but when they are seen in isolation and as competitive and not as part of a map whose complex hierarchy of relationships needs to be recognised, they will not address the factors that lead to fires. The recurrence of fires can be guaranteed. Preventative burning may help reduce the effects of future fires but it must be consistent with nurturing the diversity of flora and fauna.

And, like all other partial steps, it will be affected by the effects of climate change and must be set within a comprehensive plan to address and minimise them. The location of houses, the allocation of water, protection of river systems, the support given to particular forms of farming, must all be reviewed in the light of the effects of climate change.

All this requires a reflective and universal view in a political world that thinks in terms of small actions to defend small defended territories. The Prime Minister's emphasis on resilience and adaptation is not encouraging in that light. Both qualities are important, particularly in caring for people during a time of change. But as a response to the world revealed in the fires, they represent business as usual when the ineffectuality of that business has been exposed.



Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street

Main image: Stock photo (Credit: Jose A. Bernat Bacete)

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, bushfires, climate change



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Existing comments

What you are saying to me, Fr Andrew, is that biodiversity is essential to the essential functioning and survival of that vast and most magnificent artwork that a believer calls God's Creation. On the reverse side of that coin you have described the devastation that comes to diverse creation when greed rules human hearts and minds. This is one of the great if not the greatest of tragedies of our times. I wonder what the creator thinks when he looks at what we have done to the priceless birthday present he gave to each of us as a token of his love.

john frawley | 15 January 2020  

I live just south of the NSW coastal settlement of Lake Conjola which has been devastated by a fire burning out of control for a number of weeks. I will write about what this means to myself as a long-time local because amidst this carnage it is the personal story which matters. Since November locals have lived in close proximity to a fire which grew larger despite heroic efforts to limit it, locals have lived with a weather pattern which worsened the fire and locals have lived with the emotional toll of uncertainty and anxiety. Now our worst fears have been realised: people have died, homes have been lost, wildlife eradicated and flora burnt to a crisp. We can talk of resilience and strength in the face of adversity and people are showing these characteristics in spades. The fire, though, is burned into our consciousness and we are changed. And it is in our weakness that we can look each other in the eye and say: I'm hurting and I know you are too. The start of maturity.

Pam | 15 January 2020  

If I read you correctly, Andy, what you are saying is that, after the incredible bravery, heroism and generosity of supposedly 'ordinary people' we take for granted most of the time, our politicians do not have the vision to see the whole picture, plan accordingly and take the country forward. Whether you 'like' Boris Johnson or not, he seems to have united most of Britain (except Scotland and Northern Ireland, which are special cases) to get on with Brexit. There does seem to be a lot of hope in Britain to move on. Some politicians here, like Bridget Mackenzie, do seem to have some vision. Anthony Albanese has been quite impressive. Provided he speaks more slowly and drops the 'Albo' nonsense so people see he does have some gravitas, he may well become a great Prime Minister. He needs to dissociate from the looniness of some Greens, past and present, who probably cost Labor the election. Morrison, with his faults, is a lot better than his two most recent predecessors as Coalition PM. I think things are improving in Australian politics. They need to.

Edward Fido | 15 January 2020  

What an amazing insight into beach n bushfires Should be compulsory reading for RFS n State Leaders Excellent

Nancye Cullen | 16 January 2020  

Thank you for expressing what is in my heart. God must weep. Power and greed have ruled our world and it doesn’t change. Politicians seem to be only caring of their position and pocket.

Toni Byrne | 16 January 2020  

Thank you, Andy, for this thoughtful and thought-provoking lens on what is happening here at Gerroa and across so many other parts of Australia.

Leoni Degenhardt | 16 January 2020  

Planners really need to rethink the current situation of population centres surrounded by dense vegetation. Perhaps there should be 20km buffer zones and future houses built from thick walled rammed earth like termite nests, orientated correctly to minimize the expected rising temperatures. That could produce homes at far less cost than present and allow people greater access to housing?

Elmer Fud | 16 January 2020  

Father Hamilton’s thoughtful meditation on the social impact of the fires is superb. Recommended reading for all policy makers and politicians.

Tony Kevin | 16 January 2020  

Thank you Andrew. Thank you for the inclusive view of the mystic, which sees everything as interconnected - has the wide, all embracing, far-seeing vision. The view that discerns the inherent, eternal, relationships - the unseen web that binds together the atom, the human, the flying fox, the surging of the waves, the agony of the burnt earth, and the motherly pain God endures in observing our destructive behaviours and their consequences. We pray that our leaders might be graced with the all-seeing eye and the heart that aches for and with the suffering people, animals, insects, forests and the earth upon which we stand... If the eye sees and the heart aches healing and restoration will become a priority...

Pirrial Clift | 16 January 2020  

Since my teens I have pondered Edith Cavell's words, "patriotism is not enough". It seems she wished to say that true love of one's country has to exclude exceptionalism and certainly hatred of the rest. In the context of the denigration of climate science -whose political ascendancy I personally regard as a crime against humanity - I would like to paraphrase Cavell's words. Sovereignty is not enough. I must not prefer my country's narrow material interests above all the rest, because my country cannot exist save in the context of the life of the entire planet.

Fred Green | 16 January 2020  

Thanks Andrew, A heart felt response. When I taught Religious Studies to Secondary and Senior school students, I coined the phrase "Stewardship" to describe our relationship to God's creation. I used to tell my students that at life's end when you face your creator God you will be asked; "How well did you take care of my creation?". I wonder in my retirement, as a climatologist (my 'real vocation'?) how are we are going to explain our greed and misuse of God's creation? These fires are a response to the drought and record heat brought about by our collective unthinking use of fossil fuels over the two centuries since the so called Industrial Revolution. We should have collective guilt as all of us by our lifestyle of unfettered consumerism are responsible. It is a bit rich to expect the rest of humankind who have not benefited from this luxury to pay the price . We the 'developed economies' have to make the sacrifice and make it now! Gavin O'Brien, FRMetS.

Gavin O'Brien | 16 January 2020  

After the sports grants affair I take back what I said about Bridget Mackenzie having vision.

Edward Fido | 20 January 2020  

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