From the ashes of Australia's wildfires

| 11th March 2020
Wildfire
Margi Prideaux
'With little more than an overnight bag, our phones and laptops, Geoff and I found ourselves standing with ash on our faces, smoke in our hair, and in a new world shifted on its axis.'

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The fires that recently ripped across Kangaroo Island’s precious landscape are unprecedented.

Yes, wildfires are an ancient presence in Australia - but we’ve experienced monster fires that burn too hot and are impossible to contain in this drier, hotter season.

Even the oldest souls within our community here on the island gravely shake their heads and whisper ‘never before’.

Fires

On 20 December 2019 the second fire for the island’s season—Duncan—was started by dry lightning on a neighbouring farm, not more than 8km from our home. It spread quickly into the commercial pine and blue gum plantations and onwards into native bushland.

My husband Geoff joined the fire crews on the fire ground that first day. By the second day, I manned radios in the fire station. Sixteen-hour around-the-clock shifts became our lives, day and night without pause, as we stood alongside our community and volunteers from across the country battling an emergency that raged for another two weeks.

Seasonal celebrations were put on hold, and people stretched themselves to new limits to meet the challenge threatening our homes, our farms, and the wildlife we share this land with. Finally, on 1 January 2020, that fire was held behind containment lines, 50m from our farmhouse door. 

The ordeal was far from over. Lightning had struck again on December 30 in the jewel of the island—Flinders Chase National Park—to the southwest of our farm. This third fire for the island’s season—Ravine—quickly built into an inferno reaching the island’s north and south coasts at the same time.

Firefighters and earthmovers risked their lives to build breaks to halt the fire front but, on 3 January, Ravine broke through these containments and after forming a pyrocumulonimbus cloud sent a firestorm north eastward across the island at deadly speed, incinerating farms, livestock and infrastructure, lighting decades old plantations like candles, and overrunning vast ecosystems and their wildlife. Our farm and our home were caught in this destruction.

Devastation 

A weather station positioned centrally between the island’s north and south coasts registered temperatures of 428°C with 140km winds before it stopped transmitting—the fire was still some kilometres away.

Aluminium, which melts at 660°C, pooled across shed floors. 32,000 farm animals were killed or mortally wounded. 830 beehives were destroyed. Countless wild birds were killed in mid-flight.

Stunned and confused wildlife, had nowhere to hide.  Tragically, two people, a father and his son—firefighters—lost their lives as they made their way home, unaware of the speed of threat.

Never has Kangaroo Island experienced this phenomenon. But, never has Kangaroo Island been so dry, and the relative humidity been so low, so early in the season. This fire, and the devastation it caused is a direct result of climate change.  

By 4 January Ravine dropped back to a lethal crawl that continued across the island, burning eastward for another two harrowing weeks, taking more homes, farms, and wildlife in its path. When finally declared contained, but still active, it had burnt more than 211,000ha of agricultural land, plantations, and native woodlands—an area more than twice the size of the 2019 California wildfires.

At least 89 homes were reduced to ash and 296 farm buildings destroyed, many with tools and equipment collected over farming generations. Our community was left shattered like exploding glass.

Community

With little more than an overnight bag, our phones and laptops, Geoff and I found ourselves standing with ash on our faces, smoke in our hair, and in a new world shifted on its axis.

Climate change had created an ecological disaster so big the army had to be called in. Farmers, already exhausted after weeks of firefighting, were forced to destroy many surviving animals to relieve their pain. Their sheep and cattle were buried in hastily dug trenches. Wildlife carcasses lined the side of the roads. 

Seven weeks later, with dark smoke-filled skies now returned to blue, we are collectively struggling to make sense of this event; as a community, and as individuals.

We are in new, and uncharted, territory. It is not bad luck. It is not even willful poor planning. The fire’s ferocity took us by surprise because we didn’t accept how quickly and to what extent a warming Earth would disturb weather, people and animals—we believed climate-related events would strike somewhere else, sometime else, someone else.

Even though we were ‘climate change aware’, we failed to act—and our ignorance impacted not only human lives, livelihoods, and homes but set in motion a biological annihilation. Now a profound silence cloaks our natural landscape. 

Voice

We and our community are suddenly awake. Now we see how we must live differently; how we must radically change the direction of our country. It is we who have experienced the beginning of the climate change curve and we cannot bequest this hell to future generations.

In these early weeks I have made personal decisions. 

Local communities, like my own, must have a stronger voice in national and international environmental affairs, and I am redoubling my determination to ensure this happens. Decisions may be global, but results are felt by locals.

We can no longer homogenise the vast tapestry of knowledge, wisdom, and commitment into a few threads. The neutralised conservation model is not working even when things go well, and I have witnessed the devastating impact when things go catastrophically wrong. If our local community had agency, and if indigenous wisdom had been employed, it is likely the Ravine Fire would not have been as devastating as it was. 

I will be an advocate for integrating humans into conservation efforts. ‘Half Earth’ is attractive and easy to sell, but it won’t work. There is simply not enough wilderness left to buffer our folly, and I now understand the climate we are gifting to the future will erase what remains too quickly.

Nature

We must drop our pretence of being separate from the might and power of nature and learn to live within its means. We don’t need more deliberation. We don’t need more plans. We know what needs to be done. 

Although I have been a professional wildlife negotiator for decades, I cannot, in conscience, commit to constant national and international air travel when I know the decisions taken by so many international meetings can be developed through remote means, if there is a will to do so.

I have sat this week, with my head in my hands, and wept with shame about my emission contribution to the tragedy on my doorstep through 25 years of international flights. I feel the weight of the two human and millions of wildlife souls that have perished in these fires. 

I will be standing beside my husband in our small, scalded vineyard—saved by the giant plantation trees that shielded the firestorm’s might—caring for this sole loadstone from which we will rebuild our lives, while governments across the world continue to obfuscate and dodge, and while the global community continues to march towards climate annihilation.

Dawn

We will look towards the eastern horizon, as our political class gathers, praying they will step forward with integrity.

And, as the sun sets in the west of our farm, we’ll talk about our dreams of a new dawn, perhaps next year, when we can once again hear birds sing.

When that day comes, we will be standing in a new landscape, with some wildlife forever gone. Ours will be a new perspective. Climate change is now embedded in the texture of our lives. 

Until that first, precious, birdsong we will be dedicated to rebuilding our community, and I will continue to write.

This Author 

Margi Prideaux is an author, international wildlife negotiator, academic, and Country Fire Service volunteer. 

Image: Anne McLean.

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