A Season in Hell: The Nightmare of Australian Wildfires

The ferocity of the flames, and the earliness of the wildfire season, has many Australians fearful of the long hot summer that lies ahead

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Ian Lloyd Neubauer

Faux-Grecian garden statues and native shrubs are all that remain of this house on Sunny Ridge Rd, in the suburb of Winmalee in the foothills of the Blue Mountains, after bushland behind the property went up in flames

There were hundreds of people at the Springwood Sports Centre,  an evacuation point in the foothills of the Blue Mountains, west of Sydney. Most of them were elderly, disabled, or with young children — the kind of people who wouldn’t stand a chance when the ravenous flames came roaring over the horizon, torching the oily eucalypts. Many were unable to take even basic fire precautions.

“We thought we better get out because they say if you are old and your house is not prepared — my husband can’t get up on the roof to unblock fallen leaves in the drain — you need to leave early,” said Bonnie Russell, a retiree who’s lived in the area for 30 years.

Sydney’s worst wildfires in living memory turned the Blue Mountains into a smoke-shrouded netherworld on Wednesday, one in which the menacing retorts of a firewall on the move were punctuated by the lonely whine of the waterbombers. The bungalows, the quarter-acre backyards, and the small tourist towns with their cafes and antique shops were hastily abandoned in the face of an apocalyptic, 300km fire front that, at any point, could have overwhelmed these strongholds of suburban life with ridiculous ease.

To buy a house that backs onto lush bushland has long been part of the Australian dream. To do so in these days of climate change and wild weather is to literally play with fire. Since the crisis began on Oct. 17, the flames have consumed 200 homes, 54,000 hectares of bushland and one life. Unseasonably warm spring weather, and the driest winter on record, combined to bring forward the start of the statutory Bush Fire Danger Period two months ahead of schedule on Oct 1. Conditions, says Shane Fitzsimmons, the Rural Fire Service (RFS) Commissioner of New South Wales, are “as bad as they get.”

The 100 kph winds are the worst. “It could be snowing and we would still be threatened by fire because basically it is blowing a gale out there,” said Matthew Hunter, an RFS divisional commander I met at the Lawson Fire Station, 16km west of Springwood, who’d been on the job for 40 hours without sleep.

(PHOTOS: Wildfires Ravage Australia’s Most Populous State)

All day Wednesday they came — the families in their vehicles, some pulling boats and trailers jammed with household furnishings, taking to the main highway out of the Blue Mountains, heading toward the sanctuary of Sydney. In Katoomba, a normally bustling mountain resort, they left a ghost town behind them. The plumes of the fires could be seen from the rooftop of the Carrington, a landmark 133-year-old hotel that, like many businesses in the area, was offering refuge and meals to people from fire-affected areas.

“This place is usually quite lively,” said marketing manager Michael Brischetto. “But as you can see a lot of shopkeepers have not opened today. They’ve either taken the warning and left the mountains or stayed home to protect their properties.”

The battle is personal. Firefighters come from the communities they are trying to save.  At Mount Victoria where a 3,556 hectare bushfire was burning less than a kilometer away, I shared lunch with a troupe of volunteer firefighters who’d spent an exhausting week backburning bushland to try to protect their homes and those of their neighbours. Seven homes had been lost.

“My best friend lost his house to a fire I was trying to stop,” said William Stillar, an 18-year-old volunteer covered from head to toe in soot and ash. “We tried wetting it down and axing in the door because there was fire inside. But in the end there was not much we could do.”

There was not much anyone could do either for Susan Templeman from the suburb of Winmallee, a buccolic slice of Australiana until the fires came last week and claimed several houses, including the one in which Templeman had lived in and raised her children in for the past 23 years. “It’s bloody hard, but we see it a a bit of adventure — not necessarily one we would have chosen,” she said, with the brilliant laconicism that is among the most endearing of Australian traits. “Life is not what you plan. It’s just what happens.”

Before the southern summer is over, there will, sadly, be many more Australians standing in the smoking yards of burned out homes and adopting that kind of detachment as the only possible coping strategy. But the end of the summer is a long way off. All across New South Wales, people are scanning the brown, acrid sky and thinking that the season in hell has only just begun.

MORE: Let it Burn — Changing Firefighting Techniques for a Warming World

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