In Australia, searching for common ground amid scorched earth

Why We Wrote This

The destruction from the country’s bushfires has wrought a collective anguish that cuts across ideological lines. For the moment, at least, the unfolding catastrophe holds potential to act as a unifying force.

Martin Kuz/The Christian Science Monitor
Owner David Bruggeman works in the Wingello Village Store in New South Wales, Australia, on Jan. 13, 2020. The shop, which doubles as a post office and cafe, survived virtually unscathed when a fire struck Wingello on Jan. 4, razing a dozen homes.

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Normally, a trip to the cafe atop Australia’s Cambewarra Mountain affords visitors a sweeping view of the Kangaroo Valley below, along with homemade jam on scones. But this summer, as hundreds of fires sweep the state, gray smoke shrouds the view, and a burning stench chokes the air.

The toll of the fires is hard to fathom: 28 people killed, an estimated 1 billion animals dead, some 26 million acres burned, and $3 billion lost in tourist revenue – including here at the mountain lookout.

Michaela Packer, who runs the cafe, believes the disaster will catalyze a discussion on climate change. Thanks largely to fossil fuels, Australia’s economy hasn’t seen a recession for nearly 30 years – making environmental policy a fraught topic, especially under Prime Minister Scott Morrison. 

“We can’t keep thinking about left and right, liberal and conservative,” she says. “We don’t have any choice anymore. Look around us.” A trio of parrots perches nearby, the radiance of their feathers dulled by the ashen light. 

Ms. Packer isn’t alone. For now, the fires have wrought a collective anguish that cuts across ideological lines, provoking soul-searching about Australia’s road ahead, and how environmental and energy policy will shape it.

May King sat inside the Wingello Village Store a block from the charred remains of the home where she had lived since 1998. Four days into the new year, a massive bushfire ripped through this small town, a two-hour drive from Sydney, forcing its 600 residents and the local fire brigade to flee. The blast of flames leveled a dozen houses, blackened the landscape, and delivered what she calls “the reality of climate change.”

“The fires we’re having in Australia this year – it’s unprecedented,” says Ms. King, a retired home decorator and former member of the area’s government council. Her century-old Victorian residence had belonged to the country’s registry of historical homes. “What does that tell us? The climate is changing. There’s no doubt about it.”

The store’s owner, David Bruggeman, listened as she talked. His shop serves as cafe, grocery, post office, and gathering spot, and when he and his wife and their seven children drove away as the inferno charged toward town, he expected to return to a building reduced to ashes.

The business and the family’s nearby home survived almost unscathed, and a week later, as customers flowed in and out of the store, he spoke of “the miracle of Wingello.”

“We didn’t have a single person die. That’s extraordinary,” he says. Mr. Bruggeman, a climate change skeptic, asserts that forest overgrowth and three years of drought explain the bushfires that so far this summer have claimed 28 lives, more than 3,000 homes, and some 26 million acres across the continent.

“We always go through periods of drought and periods of flooding,” he says. “It isn’t unusual. It’s Australia.”

Yet as their opinions diverge on climate change, Ms. King and Mr. Bruggeman share a conviction that the country needs fresh policies – and less dissension – to limit the devastation from bushfires in coming years. They agree that, without political compromise, Australia’s people and its wildlife will face a perennial apocalypse. 

Martin Kuz/The Christian Science Monitor
A bushfire ripped through Morton National Park on Jan. 4, 2020, near the town of Kangaroo Valley in New South Wales, Australia. A half-dozen homes in the area were destroyed in the blaze.

“We can’t keep doing what we’ve been doing,” Ms. King says. Mr. Bruggeman seconds the sentiment. “We have to work together instead of pointing fingers at each other,” he says.

The magnitude of destruction – hundreds of fires since September have killed an estimated 1 billion animals – has wrought a collective anguish that cuts across ideological lines and provoked soul-searching about the country’s dependence on coal to power its economy. For the moment, at least, the unfolding catastrophe holds potential to act as an annealing force, drawing residents together irrespective of their positions on global warming as they search for common ground amid the scorched earth. 

“I don’t really believe in climate change, but this has made me more aware of how life is so fragile,” says Helen Brearly, a mother of seven whose Cape Cod-style house withstood the fire. Flames reached the base of the exterior before somehow dying out, prompting Wingello’s fire captain to wonder if she doused her home in “God juice” before escaping town. “We’re all so fortunate to be alive. That makes you think about what we can do about the future.”

“This could be our last shot”

Wingello borders Morton National Park in the southeastern state of New South Wales, where much of the devastation has occurred. As the eponymous Morton fire advanced on the town two weeks ago, thick smoke blotted out the setting sun.

Joel and Josh Patterson stood in their backyard under a darkened sky that rained black leaves. The brothers heard a rumble similar to the freight trains that pass through town a few times an hour on tracks about a block from their house.

“But we knew the trains had been stopped because of the fire danger,” says Josh, who works as a landscaper and helps Joel repair and rent out carnival rides. “That’s when we realized we were hearing the fire tearing through the forest.” 

Martin Kuz/The Christian Science Monitor
Joel Patterson discusses a fire that swept through the town of Wingello in New South Wales, Australia, on Jan. 13, 2020, two weeks after the blaze. His house was spared, but a pickup truck and work shed on his property were destroyed.

The Wingello natives came home a couple of days later to find their house still standing; the blaze incinerated a work shed and a pickup truck. Their efforts to keep the property clear of the fuel that nourishes fires – dead grass, parched brush – spared them greater losses. For the two men, both in their 20s, the effects of global warming appear as obvious as the changed color of the land.

“It used to rain a lot more and it was a lot more green here when we were growing up,” Joel says. “This isn’t something that just happened overnight. You can’t deny it’s happening. You can see the impact all around us.”

Australia endured its hottest and driest year on record in 2019, and a bushfire season that scientists describe as the worst in the country’s history – at only its midway point – has singed the image of Prime Minister Scott Morrison.

The country has avoided a recession since the early 1990s largely on the strength of its exports of coal, liquefied natural gas, and iron ore. The prosperity has obscured coal’s dark side as one of the world’s largest sources of greenhouse gases and boosted the electoral fortunes of conservative lawmakers in general and Mr. Morrison in particular.

But the onset of the bushfires has magnified public scrutiny of his allegiance to mining interests and Australia’s economic reliance on fossil fuels. Over the past several weeks, Mr. Morrison has filled the role of national piñata, flogged for his handling of the crisis and his government’s climate policies. His sinking approval ratings have dragged down support for the Liberal-National Coalition, the alliance of conservative parties he leads, even as he has pledged $2 billion (Australian; U.S.$1.4 billion) in relief and recovery aid.

In recent days, Mr. Morrison, who absorbed criticism for vacationing in Hawaii last month as the fires raged, has tried to contain the political damage. He offered a mea culpa for his response to the disaster and backed the country’s science minister after she warned against further delays in enacting climate solutions.

Chris Pryor regards the bushfires as a reckoning for the country that she hopes will change behavior, if not personal beliefs. She lives in Kangaroo Valley, 40 miles from Wingello, and her home and a half-dozen others in the tourist town of 900 residents fell to the flames two weeks ago. She escaped with her two cats, a laptop computer, and a photo of her parents and grandmother.

Her cashier job at The Nostalgia Factory, a gift shop along the town’s main street, provides a degree of stability as she copes with life’s sudden disorder. She suggests that the visceral public reaction to the toll of the fires presents a chance for Mr. Morrison and his allies to embrace new climate policies without risking their political futures.

“There have been a lot of people sitting on the fence about what to do. This is a chance for them to move off,” says Ms. Pryor, who runs a volunteer group dedicated to protecting a declining species of wallabies. “This could be our last shot, and sitting on the fence isn’t helping anything.”

A group of former state fire chiefs faulted Mr. Morrison in November for ignoring their warnings that climate change could increase the scale and intensity of bushfires. The chiefs, who claimed the prime minister refused to meet with them to discuss the looming crisis, want federal and state officials to devote more funding to “hazard reduction” – methods for thinning forests, including prescribed burns – to clear away the dense underbrush feeding the fires.

In the view of Tess Duffy, deputy captain of Wingello’s volunteer fire brigade, the hazy spectacle of the bushfires offers a clear rationale for Australia to change its approach to forest management. She explains her sense of urgency with a nod toward her 4-month-old son, who fidgeted in her arms.

“It’s time for the people in Canberra to put aside political differences,” she says, referring to the country’s capital. “They need to get their act together.”

The prospects for cooperation

A cafe called The Lookout lures visitors to the top of Cambewarra Mountain to savor homemade jam on scones and a sweeping vista of the Kangaroo Valley below. But business has plunged 75% this summer as gray smoke shrouds the view and a burning stench chokes the air.

Michaela Packer runs the cafe, and as she copes with the drop in revenue, she chooses to believe the fires will catalyze a national discussion on global warming solutions. “There are people still refusing to accept it’s a disaster. But climate change is at our doorstep, and I think this is the wake-up call we really need,” she says.

Outside on the deck, a trio of parrots perched on a bird feeder, the radiance of their green, blue, and red feathers dulled by the ashen light. “We can’t keep thinking about left and right, liberal and conservative,” she adds. “We don’t have any choice anymore. Look around us.”

Australia’s tourism council estimates the bushfires will cost businesses A$4.5 billion (U.S.$3 billion) as droves of travelers stay away. The blow to the country’s bottom line, coupled with the ravaging of its natural bounty cherished by natives and visitors alike, could serve to unify voters as Australia confronts the prospect of longer, more destructive fire seasons.

At the Parkhaven, a midrange, 30-room hotel in the town of Nowra near the South Coast, manager Jackie Rea has seen tourism traffic fall by 90% compared with last summer. Emergency workers aiding towns in the area have helped her recoup a portion of the losses, booking blocks of rooms for a few days at a time. Yet their last-minute cancellations when duty takes them elsewhere have left the hotel three-fourths empty on occasion.

Ms. Rea, who refuses to charge them cancellation fees, cares little for partisan sniping. “Some people see a need for blame, so they go after Scott Morrison. But that doesn’t get anything done,” she says. “The reality is, all of us have been affected, and all of us have to be part of the answer.”

Moderate members of Mr. Morrison’s coalition sounded a similar theme of cooperation earlier this week as lawmakers prepare to consider new climate policy proposals when Parliament reconvenes next month. The debate will play out as bushfires continue to disfigure the landscape, hollow out communities, and smear the skies with ash.

On a recent evening in the coastal town of Conjola Park, where a blaze razed more than 50 homes on New Year’s Eve, a funereal silence prevailed as the streets remained dark and deserted.

Marissa Pinto and her partner fled their rental home overlooking the sea on the day of the fire. The house survived but the couple decided to move out, and they had stopped by to load up belongings in a minivan. Ms. Pinto voiced a plea as they and their 5-year-old son prepared to restart their lives elsewhere.

“As a member of a community that has been completely obliterated by fire,” she says, “I can only hope that our politicians finally do the right thing.” She gazed at a pile of rubble across the street that once had been a home. “What more is it going to take?”

Reporters on the Job

Correspondent Martin Kuz gives the inside scoop

The harsh tang of wildfire smoke hit me as the doors slid open at the Sydney Airport in early January. I walked into the morning haze and for a moment wondered if, instead of flying to Australia, I had time-traveled back to California circa 2018. Two years ago, as massive fires burned in the state’s northern half, smoke turned the skies gray and acrid above Sacramento, where I live. One whiff of Sydney’s air evoked those pungent memories. Almost by muscle reflex, I held my breath.

The bushfires savaging Australia are orders of magnitude larger than the infernos that ravaged California. But the sights and smells of the destruction wrought by fires 7,500 miles and two years apart bear little difference, and here as there, now as then, veteran firefighters I met shared the same reaction: These are the biggest blazes they’ve ever faced.

Three days after I arrived Down Under, a soothing rain fell along the southeastern coastline, delivering a brief respite from the smoke. I breathed deeply of the fleeting gift of fresh air.

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