Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site

This is not about the fires



This is not about the fires. I walk to work, anxious. It's a new year. I always get the jitters the first day back. Smoke fills the street. I'm thankful that my asthma isn't triggered by smoke, though I know there are people who have never had breathing problems before suddenly needing Ventolin. When I go into my office, I open my work email, and read more about swathes of homes burnt. I need to write something, about something. 

Smoke covers east Gippsland following devastating bushfires. (Photo by Chris Hopkins/Getty Images)This is not about the fires. I sit in the car with my mother. It's a Maccas run. As I wait in the carpark for my iced coffee and frappe to arrive, I listen to the radio. I briefly feel like a cut scene in a war movie, where a family huddles over a radio for updates. Someone on the ABC says things like: 'Extreme fire danger.' 'Evacuate now.' 'Too late to evacuate. Do not expect assistance.'

We drive home, listening to a young man talk about evacuating Mallacoota. He describes how he was stranded on the beach, the fires raging behind him. Eventually my mum turns the radio off, and tells me not to tell anyone, but my aunt is in Mallacoota. I go inside, google 'cfa donations' and transfer $50 to the Mallacoota brigade.

This is not about the fires. I walk into a liquor store, to buy wine for a party. Unintentionally, I strike up a conversation with the woman working the counter. She's a grandmother, and she's taking care of her grandson at the moment. Her son is with her daughter-in-law and granddaughter in hospital. Then she says something about the smoke in the air and how east Gippsland is burning.

Another woman in the store says she is from there and has evacuated. 'What can we do,' the counter woman says, 'except pray for rain.' I can feel every muscle in my face when I smile and reply, 'And donate, if you can.'

This is not about the fires. On TV, I watch Lizzo charm everyone and laugh in that way she does. Dance to her music late that night and another night, when I go out with my friends. I am bitter that I missed tickets to one of her shows. When I get home, on the evening news, I see her in a hi-vis vest at a Victorian foodbank.

This is not about the fires. I log onto Twitter. I want to tweet something lighthearted, something funny I thought of, until I realise I haven't tweeted in a while. Surely, I should have tweeted something about the fires. But I haven't. What can I possibly say that hasn't already been said? That isn't trite? Practically everyone I know is tweeting and retweeting #authorsforfireys. I like and retweet as well. Bid what I can. Switch over to Facebook, watch an actor I didn't realise was Australian repeat the refrain: 'This is climate change.'


"How can I take up space right now? How do I care about anything else when the smell of burnt eucalyptus lingers on my clothes?"


This is not about the fires. My dog I've had for 14 years dies, and I decide to spend two days in bed. I look online and see that more than a billion Australian animals have died in the fires. Guilt spirals on top of guilt. How gauche, to feel this private grief, when there is such public grief already.

My brother comes over to comfort me and brings a box of chocolates. I'm eating them when he hands me his phone, shows me the statement of support Australian NBA players made, asking fans to donate. 'That's nice,' I say. That's the other resounding statement I hear: 'How can we help?' And we will, of course, even knowing there's a limit to how much we can do.

This is not about the fires. I think about writing something on the Oscars or a review about a book I've read or a tribute to my dog or literally anything lighter, please. But when I sit down to write them, they go nowhere. How can I take up space right now? How do I care about anything else when the smell of burnt eucalyptus lingers on my clothes? 

While the world burns, the world continues to turn. It seems unfair that these two things should be true at the same time. It is unfair that I am safe and relatively comfortable, and so many others are not. That we — our landscape, our psyches, our taken-for-granted truths — will never be the same again, and the only thing left is to figure out how to come to terms with that.

This is not about the fires, except that it is.



Neve MahoneyNeve Mahoney is Assistant Editor of Eureka Street and a student at RMIT university. She has also contributed to Australian Catholics and The Big Issue.

Main image: Smoke covers east Gippsland following devastating bushfires. (Photo by Chris Hopkins/Getty Images)

Topic tags: Neve Mahoney, bushfires



submit a comment

Existing comments

the nonsense of a billion animals dead is a claim made by one person running a vague algorithm, there is no evidence there have ever been that many animals on the entire continent let alone on the 1% that has been burnt. People have to stop peddling this silly stuff.

Marilyn | 22 January 2020  

Neve, you took us on a human interest story laced with a bit of personal crisis. The world has great capacity for writers; you shouldn't need to feel anything is frivolous or inappropriate content because other catastrophes are clogging the airways or headlines. There are always people who either avoid or are oblivious to what seems to be relevant; they're happy to consume lighter articles about celebrity divorces or "puppy saves toddler" good news...it's their choice. What I thought was impolite was to use a Headline which ultimately conflicted with the content. I hark back to the tabloid Truth which headlined with "B27 bomber found on Moon"; today we call it click-bait. I appreciate as a writer you'll stare at a whitespace until words come and yet the final result might wander from where it set out to arrive...guilt trips often stop all stations but there's no getting off until the end; thanks for a nice ride but this wasn't the destination on the ticket.

Ray | 22 January 2020  

In February 2019, Melbourne University senior lecturer in fire ecology, Kevin Tolhurst, wrote, “An event like Black Saturday (2009—173 fatalities) will occur again.” He noted that of 56 inquiries held over the years, some of the recommendations of the 1939 Royal Commission had still not been implemented. The 1939 Black Friday bushfires caused 71 deaths in Victoria, and the Royal Commission noted: “When early settlers came to what is now this State, they found for the greater part a clean forest…They were open and traversable by men, beats and wagons…(but) today, in places where our forefathers rode, driving herds and flocks before them, the wombat and wallaby are hard put to find passage through the bush. The amount of (controlled) burning which was done was ridiculously inadequate. The Commission’s officers…because of their education appears to lead them to demand that no tree or seedling be destroyed…they are averse to burning of any sort. It now agrees that burning is necessary and desirable.” But little has changed. One is reminded of Talleyrand saying of the Bourbons who returned to France in 1814: “They learned nothing and forgot nothing.”

Ross Howard | 23 January 2020  

Beautiful, poignant piece Neve, that brought tears to my eyes. Thank you, l can so relate to your sentiment.

Julie Shannon | 24 January 2020  

A glance at history reveals that Australia has had devastating bush fires many times over. It's not all about us, and now. And the current fires are not the result of a piddling 1°C rise in temperature over the last 170 or so years. The latest fires in the Australian Alps occurred on days of a mere 25°C max. What is seriously depressing and worthy of two day bed-lying is that after 57 commissions of inquiry into bush fires over the years all saying the same thing, people are talking about solving the problem with a ... commission of inquiry! Yay! Where would we be without our trusty government overlords?

HH | 24 January 2020  

Marilyn's comment is a perfect example of how quickly some people jump to deny information they aren't comfortable with. The University of Sydney estimate of animals lost in the recent NSW & Victorian bushfires is based on earlier estimates of population density of mammals, birds and reptiles in the NSW southeastern ranges, multiplied by the area of bushland burnt, and extrapolated to include the area of Victorian bushland burnt. Because the estimates were highly conservative, the actual number of animals lost is likely to be well over a billion, even before we consider frogs, insects and other invertebrates, which were not included in the estimate. While I believe some scepticism is appropriate when reading information from experts, Professor Chris Dickman's thirty plus years experience working in the ecology of Australian mammals deserves more respect than to be discarded as "silly stuff".

Ian Fraser | 24 January 2020  

Hi Neve, I . unlike some, read your article and appreciated the title. We want to talk about anything but the fires, and we find that some of our emotions at this time are not about the fires at all but about the variation in circumstances that we live in as a nation. My house is fine! My dog died, there is sadness and other unresolved grief and loss in my life that is part of it - and indeed it is not about the fires. People respond to human and animal suffering in different ways. Some Christians value prayer as they rightly should but make the mistake of seeing solutions coming from God not including them. They pray but forget to respond with human touch, compassion and blessing with what they have to give. Did they miss something in what God in human shoes did when he became one of us. This is most certainly not about the fires. Pastor Phil Haar

Phillip A Haar | 24 January 2020  

Thank you Neve. I think this was one of your best pieces. You are allowed to have private grief about the loss of your dog. A faithful companion of fourteen years.

Clare | 24 January 2020  

Thank you for your thoughts, Neve. Like Pastor Phil Haar, I too, appreciated your title and agree that some people want to avoid discussing big issues like the horrendous spate of bush fires that the nation has endured along with the pollution causing climate change and massive public health problems. However, I thought I detected a certain amount of irony in the title and that it was very much about the big issues alongside personal one. I was reminded just after the first fires that ALP politicians came out and claimed that they had an agreement with the LNP Government not to discuss climate change during the bush fire season in deference to thos seriously affected by the fires. However, these people along with the fire fighters wanted to talk about climate change and wanted to know why our political leaders had been so derelict in their duties which surely required them to instigate effective programs to control the pollution causing it. I thought it important that you mentioned your asthma problem. The pollution from the fires certainly affected the health of many in the big centres when the smoke combined with the already high levels of pollution. This surely is a reminder that we have to control all forms of pollution as it is already adversely affecting the health of millions around the world and it also means that much of our food is contaminated. Yes, the fires have meant that we will never be the same again. However, we must ensure that next time our leaders have provided us with with the most effective resources for those fighting fires and those providing essential human services. We have to be much better prepared and we have to seriously tackle the all-pervading pollution problem.

Andrew (Andy) Alcock | 24 January 2020  

Thank you Neve for this very insightful article. The heaviness of this current climate crisis we are entering needs such articles as yours. It is a terrible time for all life in the path of this unprecedented fire event. It seems the reality we are part of is too much for some and they prefer to take flight in ignoring the experts. Shame.

Tom Kingston | 24 January 2020  

Neve, your article was so beautiful. I can't thank you for reminding me of the sheer raw pain of knowing that this is real, right now and that is our new reality in Australia. But you remind me we each are linked in this grief, even if we haven't lost a loved one, our possessions or our house. We have all lost so much. Yes, grieve we must but also support one another, give generously and fight for those changes we need to address climate change.

Rose Adams | 26 January 2020  

Similar Articles

Australia Day as a day for humility

  • Andrew Hamilton
  • 21 January 2020

Australia Day would be wasted if it were devoted simply to self-congratulation. In the wake of the catastrophic fires we need to ask questions about how Indigenous Australians before settlement managed the land and how our agricultural and economic practices have contributed to the perilous situation in which we now find ourselves.


A royal commission for the land

  • Kate Galloway
  • 20 January 2020

For our society to function responsively to what is now a dynamically changing context, we urgently need differently oriented governance. This will, no doubt, be unpalatable for some — both in government and in the general public. But without re-setting how we are governed, our land and our society will suffer further destruction.