© 2022

My Home: On Fire



Australia is bearing the early brunt of climate change. Last Summer saw the country on fire, the first catastrophic fire day in the history of the fire forecasting system; what followed were unprecedented environmental and financial consequences that are only expected to get more extreme, and more frequent. In the year from the first reported flames on Gosper’s Mountain to the first anniversary of the beginning of Black Summer in October of 2020, nothing has been done to halt the consequences of environmental disaster – subsequently having direct consequences on the mental health of young people.

This past October, as Sydney slowly returned to its COVID normality, a stark reality that felt like eons ago was remembered. The ignition of the Gospers Mountain mega-fire, which is largely considered to be the beginning of Black Summer, the summer on fire that shifted realities and caused enormous and long-lasting aftereffects. The smoke settled in February 2020, the last of the fires under control, though the houses that had been burnt to the ground remain as ashes. The drought that accelerated the fires has not left, and as the winter heads up to the northern hemisphere and the Summer returns, anxiety as to what this Summer will look like heats up.

Climate anxiety, which is understood as anxiety related to climate disasters and climate change is not new, though it is a phenomenon increasingly present.  Its my sleepless nights as temperatures rise, making sure my parents clean the barbeque so excess oil doesn’t burn the house down, dry grasses that were once a normal sight now bringing a quick intake of breath, making sure there’s a hose nearby, increased worry at the forecast of a storm.

I live within the immediate vicinity of 7 fire stations; the community and rural up my street, the depot down the road, the fire brigades water station closer to the river, another rural station near the national park, the metropolitan station closer to town, and the local headquarters beside a train station. Such an extremely condensed array of stations act as a reminder each time I drive past of the myriad of climate issues my local area is vulnerable to.

Almost 20 years later, the fires that burnt through last Summer only avoided repeating this devastation by a sudden wind change. The anxiety of checking my phone with each new fire update – NSW Fire & Rescue developed an app that notifies you of each fire – and while I ended the Summer by turning notifications off, it took me a while to switch from checking the distance and the wind back to scrolling through Instagram stories.

In 2002, the Black Christmas fires crossed bridges, burnt down houses and whilst I was still a toddler and can’t recall the events, each time I drove by with someone new they told me exactly where they were when the fires decimated the national park that surrounds my house.

Now as the heat increases, I fear that summer has turned into a constant over-awareness of the dryness of the air.

Only 9 months out of the 20 years that I have been alive has there been no drought, the millennium droughts short hiatus a reminder that many places in this country come extremely close to running out of water.

Though we spent our time inside this year, much of my home state of New South Wales rained and is now considered 90% drought free. As I write this, the heat reaches over 40° Celsius for the first time this spring, the wind rages with a terrifying fury, and I am overly aware that climate change hits hard, it hits often and the earth is far more powerful than we are.

My sister is 5 years old, each year she’s been alive there have been unprecedented heat waves, new extreme weather events and greater disasters that threaten everything. It is during these past 5 years, as I have been increasingly aware of the threats of climate change, that the issues have been brought to the centre-stage of Australian political discourse.

Although we have faced the brunt of this environmental force, our neighbours across the Tasman have declared a climate emergency, while we have stood idly by and new coal mines and logging farms have been our only response.

I started this piece filled with anger about the Australian government’s inability to act on climate issues (they’ve approved a mine that will doubtlessly harm the Great Barrier Reef, allowing the logging of hundreds of acres of land destroying sacred and protected Indigenous sites, while only setting aside the equivalent of a football field for animal protection). Yet this anger was quickly replaced by fear, the looming summer no longer representing the freedom and tranquillity it once did.

As COVID-19 slowly diminishes from eyesight, the new threat looms overhead. The constant talk of isolation and pandemic replaced by news of K’gari aflame. Queensland’s most iconic sand island, Fraser Island, a World Heritage listed site has been aflame for over a month, and is expected to remain so for another six weeks. While the newest disaster in the hellscape of 2020 was clouded by the news cycle, images of bushland on fire and firefighters discussing the issues of fire reduction made their way around. As Australia got closer to a ‘COVID normal’, the next threat of 2020 reminded us of a future that we have built for ourselves, and that politicians have cemented into the threads of our lives. And that terrifies me.

In 2018, Sydney saw a hail storm classified as ‘catastrophic’, that destroyed enormous amounts of property. In the northern end of Greater Sydney, where I have lived most of my life, these storms left hundreds without suitable accommodation as hail the size of golf balls torpedoed into their homes. While my house faced minor damage, it still took 2 years for the damage to be repaired, and as Sydney returned to the ‘apocalyptic storms’ of Spring, this hail returns. The aftermath of the 2018 storm pushed the suburbs where I live into chaos, leaving elderly residents without homes, schools in an unsuitable state and everyone revising their climate disaster plans; where does an entire city evacuate if this is to happen again, especially if social distancing must be considered?

Where do we go as our homes get smashed to bits by an angry earth who is too far gone to feel remorse?

I live near a beach (a place where it’s rumoured Usain Bolt bought a holiday home), and these beaches batter the land which is by no means new, but as luxury homes get built on the sides of cliffs, these homes get closer to the sea. An island nation, hugged by a rugged ocean, shrinks as the ocean takes more of the land.  Six percent of Australians live within three kilometres of the ocean, a statistic that rises each year as more expensive beachside homes are erected in view of the waves. However these homes are built for a stable and reliable climate, “But the climate system is no longer stable. Sea levels are rising and so are the risks,” while the homes of millionaires is hardly the biggest concern, this trend extends to other structures in the near future. Australia is a coastal country, 85% of Australians live within 50 kilometres of the ocean. Most major cities situated on the coast foreshadow another series of disasters as Australia rallies against a climate that has already shown strength unparalleled.

Climate change is an inherently global issue, yet the last few years have shown how it is also a deeply personal issue, one that I think about each time I check the weather, or plan a trip into the city. I remain privileged as I have not had any enormous disruptions in my life as a result, yet the likelihood of it remaining that way diminish with each season, the heat rising, the ocean growing, the storms intensifying bringing a greater threat to normality. It is this that keeps me awake, waking up in the early hours of each morning to check if my days plans remain feasible as the fires rage across the country, will the roads remain open, the smoke allow me to drive safely? The greater threat is how countries that do not have the economic power of Australia will fare, although we struggle to act on climate change we do in fact have the financial resources to do so. For many of our island neighbours in the Pacific this remains a questionable possibility.

As oceans rise and hope falls, heart rates quicken and seasons intensify, what will the future bring?

Issy Golding is a Sydney based writer, journalist and caramel slice enthusiast. She writes mainly on Australian politics, gender issues and surrealist poetry. She loves hanging out with her dogs by the beach and walking through independent bookstores.


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