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Facing the fires

As the fires were still raging in the NSW south coast, architect and urbanist Don Albert had first-hand view of two shattered communities when he heeded the invitation to tourists to come to the area.

Tuross Lake 23 January 2020, Photo: Don Albert

The struggle to reconcile the complexity of the physical and political landscape will be big challenges, he says.

“Come to the South Coast NOW please”, the adverts said, meaning ‘”we need your tourist dollars, now!”. With this licence I nestled myself into a rented Commodore for a week’s road trip from Sydney southwards, to visit the affected towns and get a better understanding of the emergency gripping New South Wales.

The brief: to see first-hand how fire affected communities, emergency services and government were faring in their response to the fires, and to get an inkling of the long-term spatial prognosis for these settlements in the age of climate change.

My first stop was at a service station in Nowra, 160 kilometres south of Sydney. When I opened the car door, the glass was too hot to touch. I hadn’t realised it while driving, but the outside air had risen to 47 degrees Celsius and combined with the wind had become a blast furnace.

A policeman happened to be walking by, and I asked him if everything was okay out there?

“She’ll be alright”, he said. Bowing my head against a hail of eucalyptus leaves and twigs I wasn’t convinced, but so far I had not heard or seen any fire warnings so on I pressed.

The next sign things were not going to plan was when motoring through the vast stretch of forest south of Batemans Bay – incinerated by the massive Currowan Fire – five fire trucks and an equal number of police cars raced past me heading south, sirens blaring. This couldn’t be good, but the road was still open…sun shining, sort of.

And so it began, my own descent into the hell that many holidaymakers experienced for themselves during the festive season. With each kilometre travelled the sky shifted from a pale haze, to smoky-pink, to peach, then to an apocalyptic orange until it reached a brazenly baroque fury of turbo-charged mayhem coming from the west.

After the town of Moruya, just as I was battling to understand why there might be two setting suns glowing behind the hills, I realised that I was caught directly between two bushfires barrelling towards the Princes Highway. Moments later a roadblock diverted me to the normally stunning lagoon town of Tuross Heads.

The motel was full, and the owners kindly pointed me to the caravan park, which was also full, and they in turn suggested I register at the evacuation centre at the Country Club.  In the space of minutes I had gone from being an “invited tourist” to an evacuee.

From tourist to evacuee

I parked in a lucky spot near the entrance and after registering my details proceeded upstairs into what otherwise might have looked like a bingo night in full swing.

After discussing the variety of circumstances that fellow evacuees found themselves in – from the nervous Sydney Airbnb couple, to the retiree residents who seemed resigned with the situation, I was comforted by the general stoicism. I went down to bathe in the freezing Pacific. Like the culture wars stoked by this season’s bushfires, all hell roared overhead.

Later I decided to take refuge in the boot of the car, and so curled up with the windows ajar, eagerly awaiting the arrival of a predicted southerly squall that would diminish the danger. It came at 11pm.

The next day I drove back to the roadblock hoping it was going to be open. It was, but only in the direction of Bateman’s Bay, so I returned north to Mogo, a gold-rush heritage town of 300 people that had been devastated on the morning of New Year’s Eve.

House destroyed in Mogo, New Years Eve 2019, photo: Don Albert

Along with the heartbreaking damage to the natural world, and the affected Yuin people who have lost homes and their sacred sites, the destruction of Mogo’s tourist shops along the Princes Highway is probably what is top of mind to anyone who followed the fires in the media after New Year’s Day.

Whole swathes of the townscape on the western side of the highway were reduced to mere flakes of corrugated iron, leaving only a handful of charred totems to curse the sky.

The historic timber church, the home of Peter and Vanessa Williams’ Mogo Painting and Pottery Gallery, was similarly destroyed, as well as several homes, some of which were of solid brick construction. In all, over 500 homes have been reduced to ash in the region.

I asked the owner of a furniture store why he believed his shop was spared? “I had been spraying the grass in front for weeks in advance, and I kept the building wet during the fire. I also think it had something to do with the new fibre-cement boards I had on the back of the building. My building isn’t suspended above the ground like those other ones were”, he said, pointing to the string of adjacent shops that were lost.

Indeed the businesses that vanished were built on suspended timber floors that ameliorated the level change between the main road and the river bank a few meters below: a fire trap if the wind is blowing the wrong way, which it did on New Year’s Eve.

Being the invited tourist, I decided to patronise a shop specialising in gifts, kitchenware and so forth as I happened to need a new chef’s knife.

“Sorry the power is out! We can’t process it. Come back later…” Said the owners. This lead to a discussion about the cause of these bushfires and ways forward.

“I am not one of those ‘denialists’ but…”

“I am not one of those ‘denialists’ but, we’ve been here for 40 years and seen it all before. Climate change is real, but these fires are not caused by that…It’s just the way Australia has always been,” he argued.

Given the context I wasn’t going to relay the overwhelming scientific evidence to the contrary, nor the statements of 23 former and current fire chiefs, nor the ordinary emergency volunteers pointing the blame squarely at human induced climate change, nor the anguish of local First Nations people who have reportedly “never known fires like this”, so I bid the shop-owners farewell with a promise to return when the power was up.

My next stop was at a community recovery “BBQ” hosted at Mogo’s Boomerang Meeting Place – an advertised gathering convened by the Eurobodalla Shire Council and various NSW government departments including Health, Disaster Welfare, Mental Health and Housing.

Red Cross staff were also present, and didn’t take well to my probes about the Daily Telegraph’s reporting on the allegedly truncated distribution of publicly donated bushfire funds, which I sympathised with as surely some kind of misunderstanding?’.

The sun beat down hard and I took turns in sheltering under the makeshift stands, treading as carefully as I could.

After a few clipped conversations with various officials, a mantra emerged: There is no rush; it’s all about sympathy at this stage, and, “being there” for the victims.

Recovery needs to be at the speed the victims dictate.

And mostly: Now is not the time to ask big picture questions; in the initial recovery stages, compassion and mental support for the victims is critical.

According to professors David Forbes and Lisa Gibbs of the University of Melbourne, who have studied the response to the Black Saturday fires, bushfire trauma includes not only the primary effects of loss of life and property, but the secondary impacts on jobs, local services, social networks, and reduced opportunities for social gatherings, “because the church, community hall or sports club may be gone.”

According to their Beyond Bushfires Report of 2016, these distressing effects can produce serious and long term personal issues.

It is with an understanding of these secondary impacts that government has an additional role to play in the immediate and long-term response, apart from appropriate financial relief.

Tourism takes the biggest hit in the wake of the bushfire crisis, photo: Don Albert

Notwithstanding first responses however, one wonders when exactly the correct time and place to engage with communities on their long-term settlement prognosis in increasingly perilous circumstances will be? When is the nation going to confront the predictions that point to many more bushfire seasons like this one?

Most tellingly, after introducing myself as an architect and writer interested in urbanism in the age of climate change, the assumption of most people I spoke with was that I would advocate to rebuild immediately.

This wasn’t the case and I had already proposed a moratorium on new construction.

Referring to a report on the rebuilding in Murrindindi Shire after the Black Saturday fires where hundreds of homes have never been rebuilt –  impacting the affordability of municipal rates  – I asked the officials about how they felt about the long term resilience of towns like Mogo. It was a premature question, of course.

All that remains of a popular pottery and art business in Mogo, photo: Don Albert

Emotions were running high in Mogo

Emotions were running high in Mogo, understandably, but I assured officials I was just there to observe the process and gauge a sense of what is possible.

By 11:00 am, none of the expected guests (mostly Yuin) had arrived and a senior Eurobodalla councillor made it clear that I wasn’t particularly welcome “as a journalist”, and that if I wanted to remain I would have to seek approval from the matron of the Boomerang Meeting Place Church, which I later did.

More off-the-record conversations followed, touching on the federal government’s inherited yet still reinforced position by which Australian states must fend for themselves with regards to bushfire management whilst having the climate change rug pulled out from underneath them (through pro-coal endorsements), not to mention the unintended “make a disaster/relieve a disaster” codependency conundrum generally.

Inside the church, survivors were discussing the donated food, clothes and other items that were heaped on tables. “They think it’s a dumping ground” an assistant said. “They brought in three stinky mattresses and we had to pay $150 to get rid of them!”

One survivor made a careful selection of boxed savoury biscuits and a few choice bottled items and said goodbye. She was not staying for the barbecue.

Naturally we couldn’t discuss more than the planned events of the day, but I was asked to return the following week to flesh out my idea of a potential case study of Mogo’s recovery compared with the similarly devastated yet ultimately different farming town of Cobargo, some 30 kilometres south.

My immediate impression from talking with community members was that the Indigenous community was very open to lateral thinking about their future.

Later near Tuross Heads I was driving through smouldering parts of the highway that the last night’s fires had breached. My eyes, heart and head ached. Smoke lingered low along the entire stretch of road, and eventually filled a deep valley. When I saw hundreds of cars parked on either side of the road, I presumed it to be Cobargo.

It was the funeral of Patrick (29) and Robert (69) Salway, the father-and-son dairy farming team who died while protecting their family homestead in Wandella during the Badja Forest fire, also on new year’s eve.

RFS Volunteers join thousands of mourners at the funeral of Patrick and Robert Salway, photo: Don Albert

I had not known about the funeral, and had intended to make acquaintances in Cobargo for the purposes of the case study, but clearly, now was not the time for any of that – I would simply join the crowd, listen and bow my head too.

By all accounts, both men were an adored and integral part of their community with many stories of their good humour, ingenuity and generosity being told, always ending with the refrain “She’ll be ‘right…” as a comforting closure from both men.

There was not a dry eye in the cemetery by the time the heartfelt eulogies had ended. I cried for two men I had never met, yet deep down, coming from farming stock in South Africa myself, I knew exactly the kind of characters they must have been, and what it means to be part of a tight-knit community that is grieving one way or another.

I cried for the animals. I cried for the Australia I was coming to know, and as Amazing Grace rose up through the crowd, I felt strongly, it’s time to face another kind of music.

Smoke over the Pacific at Tuross Heads, photo: Don Albert

Time to face another kind of music

Yet with smoke and tears pouring in the valley, vigilance remained high. As the family paid their last respects and the coffins were finally lowered, an RFS team leader checked his phone receiving his team’s next instructions. Soon they were off.

This has become the new normal and as much as “she’ll be alright” is a local laconism, I am not convinced that this is the case, nor that now is the wrong time to ask big questions.

In the same way that America’s shock at its gun massacres blows over until the next attack, and in the same way that we as Australians criticise their inertia from afar, Australia too is inured to bushfires in a way that seems impenetrable from both inside and out.

In both countries people need time to heal emotionally, yet we don’t have time. In both cases there is an expectation from federal government to be there when it matters, and yet there is the questionable culture of keeping federal government at an arms length in day-to-day affairs and local planning.

Three weeks after the New Years Eve bushfires I had hoped that things would have returned to enough of a “normal” so that I could understand what happened and ponder future possibilities.

With so much fuel remaining, and another two months of summer ahead where people will sleep with one eye open, it’s impossible to broach such difficult questions without seeming impertinent, but so be it.

I didn’t get what I expected from this excursion, but I shall certainly be returning to Mogo and Cobargo to continue the conversations and case studies.

Indeed now may be too soon to be looking for clarity on how we plan for living and working at the frontier of such a perilous landscape in the age of climate change.

However, I think Mogo and Cobargo present an important dichotomy in terms of the diversity of their populations and how things might unfold in their long-term recoveries – with possible lessons for other climate-affected communities in the future.

Resilience is not just about building codes; it’s about social cohesion and a reason to stay, indeed for some, a reason to live.

Australia has had 15 royal commissions on bushfires in the past 20 years. With yet another imminent, the gaping chasms between our public and personal responsibilities for climate change and our responses to it need to be bridged once and for all.

If this isn’t done conclusively at this next opportunity, in a truly multi partisan way, the Australia we know and love will be done for.

It’s time for all of us to face the fire. Not in the ingrained, self-sacrificing way that heroes do, but in a holistic way that resolves our collective need for survival.

Fulbright Scholar Don Albert is the design principal of Sound Space Design Architects and Urban Designers and the founder of Climate Change Cities.

This article first appeared in The Fifth Estate on 13 Feb 2020, and is syndicated here by kind permission.

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