Stratford, Australia (CNN)I’m visiting my mother in the little country town where I grew up in Gippsland, a region of Australia that’s currently on fire. That’s not very specific, so let me narrow it down: I’m in one of the south-easternmost parts of Australia that is currently on fire.
Flames are chewing up my country
Gippsland is a big area, roughly two New Jerseys. The closest fire is 50 miles away from us today, lending the sky a gray hue and the sun an orange tint. The official weather forecast is: “Mostly sunny but smoky.”
People here keep one eye on their phones, watching the online maps that show flames slowing chewing their way through half a million hectares to the north and east, but there’s no immediate danger. The local firefighters have stayed in town, in case they’re needed nearby.
But we are worried about what these fires portend. Threat of fire is a constant in this part of the world. In that sense, this is nothing new. In another, though, it is unprecedented, both in its scale and its implications for how Australians can manage a land that is increasingly beset by flood and flame.
Nearly 20% of Australia is officially categorized as desert, and 70% in total — the middle 70% — is a dusty, baked scrub that may as well be, and is, where no one lives. These areas aren’t on fire, because there’s not enough vegetation to burn.
The cities aren’t on fire, either. Australia’s major cities — all five of them — are parked by the ocean, where it’s cooler. Sydney is currently choked by smoke and Melbourne, where I live, shuffled through a hazy Christmas, but for the most part, it’s insulated.
But if you had these things, you should stay, because you could beat back the fire, or at least shelter while it passed. Whereas if you left, the bush would take back your house.
Then, in February 2009, the Black Saturday fires killed 173 people and injured nearly 500. The bush was drier; the fires were hotter; people who stayed didn’t survive. It’s now known that when the fires come, you get in your car and leave.
Firefighters in the bush are mostly volunteers. My stepfather was one of them: Occasionally he got a phone call and off he went. It is the quintessential Australian act of looking out for your mates. It’s been like this for decades, but never before have volunteers been required to fight for weeks and weeks, against fires that are too large to put out.
No one seems to be sure how this system is supposed to work under those conditions: who’s supposed to pay them, whether they’ll even accept pay, how farms and employers are supposed to operate in their absence.
What will come out of this chaos, it’s hard to say. But there will be a government assistance package, in due course, because Australians of all kinds are bound by the principle that ordinary people who have suffered a terrible ordeal deserve help. There was an assistance package last time, as well, and after the floods, and there will be one next time, after the next catastrophic weather event, of the kind that used to be called once in a century.