This is the second time I’ve been part of a climate emergency. The first was in 2017 when the town of Lismore in Widjabul country in northern New South Wales was hit by catastrophic floods. It was a flood that couldn’t happen.
Lismore is no stranger to floods, the colonisers having built the town on a floodplain at the confluence of two rivers which, unusually, then flow inland. But floods of similar size in 1954 and 1974 were preceded by prolonged periods of wet weather, a La Niña event, and a cyclone much further north disintegrating as it travelled south. The 2017 floods had only one cause: a massive dump of rain over 24 hours caused by a cyclone that had crossed the coast 1200km away. In an 18-hour period, Lismore received 325mm of rain, with much bigger falls in the wider catchment area. Terania Creek, famously the site of successful environmental protests in the 1970s, and which was threatened by the catastrophic bushfires in Nightcap National Park received over 620mm in a 24-hour period.
In the same way that Lismore shouldn’t flood because of a day’s rain, the Nightcap forest north of Nimbin where I live, about 40 minutes from the regional centre of Lismore, shouldn’t burn. It’s thought the current fire was started by a lightning strike. When I lived on the edge of Nightcap fifteen years ago, the idea of it burning from a lightning strike was as likely as a sponge being ignited by a match. But when I showed up there last weekend to do a volunteer patrol of the burned zone, I was sent looking for reigniting bush, smouldering logs, trees, stumps – all the hot detritus a fire leaves behind – in what was once a lush, often sodden landscape that used to receive well over two metres of rain a year. As one local put it to me as we sat in the ash on Saturday night drinking bottled water, the joke about living around the Nightcap forests is that you generally can’t get a fire to light even when you want one.
Nightcap is one of the wettest places in Australia. And if the Nightcap forests can burn then anywhere can burn. And probably will. The Nightcap fire is not an ordinary bushfire, just as Lismore in 2017 was not an ordinary flood. It is climate catastrophe happening here and now. As I write the Nightcap fire has been stopped on the very edge of two multiple occupancies – the 130+ household Tuntable Falls Co-Op and the much smaller Siddha Farm – by the frankly heroic efforts of under-resourced local firefighters aided by teams of untrained volunteers, but is still heading east and north across the ranges. At one point it looked as though the fire was going to go right through those communities and then head down the mountain toward Nimbin.
It’s difficult to describe to the rest of Australia, most of whom live in cities, what it’s like watching a climate disaster unfold right before your eyes. On 29 March 2017, I went home after work under threatening but unexceptional skies, and on 31 March, the street outside my workplace in Lismore CBD was two metres deep in flood water, the river below my office having risen eleven metres in a day. By 2 April, the water had subsided and the CBD was utterly shut down, with no food or water being available. By the third day of April, sodden rubbish was being piled three and four metres high in the streets. It was like the aftermath of a battle, and Lismore has still not recovered.
Two years later and it’s hard to imagine it has ever rained here at all. The smoke from the burning old-growth forests of Nightcap is heavy, omnipresent, and unbelievably thick. It smells stale and acrid and scratches at the back of the throat hour after hour. The wind never seems to stop, even at night, and the wind’s continual hissing, the dense pall of smoke, the eerie light, the relentless dry heat, give an apocalyptic cast to our lives. It’s like being continually caught up in a state of dissociation. Ancient forests are burning, people are fleeing for their lives, everyone is scared, but the phone companies still send phone bills, I have to be at work by 8am, I forgot to buy milk, the tyre repair company that fixed my car last week send me texts asking cheerily ‘How did we do?’, and the supermarket still plays muzak and ditties about how delightful it is to shop at Woolworths. Right now, the wind is blowing outside my window and I never imagined the sound of a stiff breeze in spring or summer could be such a terrifying sound.
We are just leaving the pre-Apocalypse of course and about to the enter what might be called the Apocalypse Proper. What’s happening in rural areas like northern NSW is just the beginning and places like Lismore and Nimbin will wear the terror and the damage first, as climate change makes our towns and villages unliveable. Media coverage of climate change often focuses on what rising sea levels will do to cities. But by the time the rising seas do their stuff to urban Australia, the rest of the continent may well be ashes.
The government infrastructure to respond adequately to climate disasters just doesn’t exist, and when it does kick in, it’s already overburdened health and welfare agencies that have to drop whatever else they happen to be doing to prioritise catastrophe clean-up. Neither state nor federal bodies are doing anything to address unprecedented disaster. In a year of increasing appalling weather conditions and the known threat of catastrophic fires, Gladys Berejiklian’s government cut tens of millions of dollars from the budget of the NSW Fire services. It was an act of stupidity and contempt that is hard to fathom, not because it’s unexpected but because acts of violence against the defenceless are always hard to viscerally understand.
But the amazing thing about both climate disasters I’ve witnessed has been the community response. Currently the firefighters at Nightcap and their small army of volunteer helpers are being fed and watered by a mighty community effort coordinated by some remarkable women of the Nimbin Country Women’s Association and many other community members who are also supporting the evacuation site at Nimbin showgrounds. For a community that has experienced a lot of poverty and hardship but is used to collective activism and organised self-help, it is unsurprising. After the 2017 flood, with Lismore’s supermarkets shut down, a stream of community groups and individuals came into town and distributed food and drink to those of us involved in the massive clean-up. And as fantastic as this is, it’s also because if the Nimbin CWA didn’t step up, the firefighters would be in serious trouble.
It’s not news that two-and-a-half centuries of racist colonial-infused capitalism, and its mandate for exploitation, outright theft and transnational pillaging is entirely responsible for the unfolding cataclysm. As I was nervously kitting up for my shift, one of the locals who had been battling the fire for a week under very dangerous and frightening conditions, lifted up the bottle of water she was drinking that had been donated by Woolies and said, ‘Here we are drinking bottled water, taken from our own landscape by a multinational so it can be sold back to us, but graciously donated to us by another multinational while we sit in the middle of a disaster created by the behaviour of multinationals.’
On Monday in an op-ed about the current fire emergency in The Sydney Morning Herald, former NSW Fire and Rescue commissioner Greg Mullins wrote, ‘I’m confident that our national government, when the smoke and dust settles, will finally see the obvious and understand the word “unprecedented”. I’m sure it will then start to take decisive action.’
Greg Mullins has most likely seen a lot more climate catastrophes than I at close range, but I feel as certain as I can be about anything that even if the smoke and dust do settle – which seems unlikely at this stage given the long-range weather forecast – federal and state governments will do absolutely nothing about climate change. It’s a dispiriting thought, to say the least, and I don’t have any answers. Whatever a practical response looks like, even if there is one, in Australia it will have to be predicated on the return of country to Aboriginal people, the acknowledgment of Aboriginal sovereignty and a lot more besides. Dr Chelsea Bond once said that racism in Australia won’t end until the colonisers go home. She is probably right. Dismantling this racist, proto-fascist nightmare, creating the conditions for its demise, is the only job there is.
The first thing you understand in the midst of a disaster is that we can’t keep doing what we have always done.
As I was leaving my shift late on Saturday night, I ran into an old neighbour who was starting the 11pm to 7am shift. He told me how he’d been preparing for the fire and evacuation, when he heard a sound like a low-flying jet coming closer and closer. It was the fire, racing up the hill toward his house. If I imagine climate change having a sound, that would be it.
A million years ago in his book Revolution of Hope the psychoanalyst Erich From wrote:
There is no sense waiting for that which already exists or for that which cannot be. Those whose hope is weak settle down for comfort or for violence; those whose hope is strong see and cherish all signs of new life and are ready every moment to help the birth of that which is ready to be born.
It’s probably not much to offer you. But as the wind changes yet again, and the smoke of an incinerated ancient forest and its millions of inhabitants blows into my house, it’s all I’ve got.
Image: Controlling the burn line above Hilltop, 13 November 2019. Photo by Michael Colin Birch.