Australia’s Fires Through a Californian’s Eyes

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Susan Pulis gives water to a kangaroo that survived the fires in Waterholes, Victoria, Australia, Jan. 6, 2020. As wildfires have killed at least 24 people, destroyed more than 1,400 homes and ravaged 15 million acres, they have also inflicted a grievous toll on Australia’s renowned wildlife. (Christina Simons/The New York Times)

Thomas Fuller

c.2020 The New York Times Company

 

Driving along the southeastern Australian coast, past homes razed by fire and beside blackened forests shrouded in a milky white haze, my thoughts often drift back to California.

As the San Francisco bureau chief, I’ve covered the Wine Country fires of 2017, the devastation of Paradise in 2018 and the Kincade fire a few months ago. Last week I flew from San Francisco to Sydney to help report on the fires that have burned more than 15 million acres in Australia — an area seven times larger than what burned in California in 2018, which was the most destructive year on record in the Golden State.

Yet despite the difference in scale I’ve seen countless parallels with California.

There’s a shared feeling of helplessness, a destabilizing fear of not being able to control the vast hinterland. And a dazed recognition of the awesome power of wildfires. The aluminum wheels of cars melted into miniature rivers here, just as they have in California, a testament to the fires’ ferocious intensity.

In the small town of Mogo, Andrew Graham stood in his backyard inspecting the ruins of his home. It had been a sturdy cinder-block structure, but the fire was so fierce it shattered the walls as if it were a missile. The glass from Graham’s windows appeared to have vaporized, leaving only a few curved pieces that could have been mistaken for sea glass collected from the beach.

Graham and his wife had moved into their home on Christmas Eve. A week later, on New Year’s Eve, the firestorm came.

“I have two sets of clothes and that’s it,” he said. “I lost everything.”

Just as in California, many Australians have moved from cities into more affordable rural areas in recent years. Now Australia, like California, is counting the costs of communities pushing into the fire-prone wilderness.

Firefighters in Australia have similar observations about the infernos they are seeing. Fires are more intense than in the past; they move more quickly, even at night. And just as in the United States there are acrimonious debates between left and right over the role of climate change in creating these conditions.

There seems to be a recognition on both sides of the Pacific that the fires are seminal events that will change the relationship between man and nature and will upend assumptions about the protections and conveniences of modern life.

The fires in Australia cut power to many areas, and the hardware shops that remained open sold out of generators. Some shops accepted only cash because their electronic payments system went offline. And the authorities warned residents to boil tap water before drinking it. Just as in California, the fires seemed to be dragging a modern society backward.

Australians, like Americans, have a tradition of can-do optimism. It’s now being tested, but I’ve been impressed with the emotional resilience I’ve seen both in California and Australia.

In the seaside town of Canjola Park, three hours south of Sydney, I met Maree Fletcher scouring the wreckage of her home for anything she could salvage.

She, her son and her two dogs survived the New Year’s Eve firestorm by wading into the ocean.

Bulldozers would come soon to flatten the rubble of Fletcher’s home, and there was very little she could find to recover. Yet she was remarkably calm.

“As long as I’ve got my family everything else is irrelevant,” she said.