Australian politics has to change forever when your own citizens cannot sleep or breathe | Cynthia Banham | Australia news
The night of New Year’s Eve was a kind of slow torture. I spent it in Vincentia on the New South Wales south coast, lying with my seven-year-old son, unable to breathe or sleep as thick brown smoke filled the house. As I listened to my child coughing, calling out from the depths of his nightmares words that sounded like “don’t die”, I prayed for the Princes Highway to reopen.
I write this not because I believe for one minute that what I went through compares to anything people further south on Australia’s east coast experienced that night, or will this weekend, but because friends and family who live outside the region – whether in Sydney or other, unaffected parts of the country, such as Perth – asked me to.
They simply cannot believe it when I tell them what horrors are unfolding down there. There is a way to understand, I tell them – tune into ABC Illawarra local radio. Then you’ll hear about the power outages, the food, fuel and water shortages, the stories of locals bringing water to families with children and babies trapped in cars fleeing Ulladulla and its surrounds, of supermarket staff at Milton guiding shoppers around darkened stores with head torches to find dried food because the refrigerated goods have all spoiled.
But in all likelihood they won’t, so let me tell you what it was like, the final day of 2019, for my family.
We were at a village on Jervis Bay, where we had planned to see in 2020 with my brother-in-law and his wife. We knew there was fire around but we didn’t understand the threat – who did?
Everything changed at precisely 1.57pm, when the NSW Rural Fire Service emergency bushfire warning text message came through on our mobile phones – “people nth of Ulladulla & in Bay & Basin & Nowra areas – seek shelter as fire arrives”.
“Where is Bay & Basin?” asked my sister-in-law, who is from Melbourne.
“That’s here, where we are,” my husband said.
They were at the shops, buying food for our celebration dinner, a meal we never cooked, as the night was spent formulating a fire plan, getting ready to evacuate, via the sea in kayaks if it came to that.
It was hard to keep a level head as our hearts raced, our panic escalated, as ash fell, the sky blackened and night fell hours before actual sunset. Local ABC radio was our lifeline – and surely, after this summer, the federal government will increase the ABC’s funding? – and it was how we learnt the fire had reached Sussex Inlet on the southern side of St Georges Basin (12km away), where we heard that power and telecommunications would be lost during the night, that people in Lake Conjola were jumping into the lake to escape raging fires (30km away).
What did we do?
We gathered up woollen blankets, towels and bottled water and placed them outside on the deck. We assigned lifejackets (we had enough for the women and child). We opened all the gates, pulled out the kayaks. We filled the bath, readied the hoses. We dressed in the most appropriate clothes we had, inadequate though they were. We bought batteries from the service station for the radio and torches (the local Coles closed an hour after the RFS text message came through).
We found Ziploc bags for our mobile phones, in case they fell into the sea. My husband and his brother organised shifts to stay awake throughout the night, to monitor the radio and sky either side of the house for the orange glow that we hoped would never come. Our plan, if it did, was to don lifejackets, take the women, child and dogs to the beach, and then the men would come back for the boats.
Meanwhile my son clutched his little bag of crystals and two small soft toys. His uncle and aunt tried to distract him with a card game but, by 8pm, he was holding his hands to his ears, begging us to turn off the radio – the emergency warnings were upsetting him so – and that’s when I took him to bed.
About 1am the RFS dropped the threat level to our area and, when in the morning the Live Traffic App informed us the road to Sydney had reopened, we threw our things into the car and fled.
I feel guilty being so safe in Sydney, while the locals we left behind stay to defend their houses and their lives.
Politics has to change forever as a result of this summer because our country has – there is simply no turning back now. We, on Australia’s east coast (and beyond) have seen what the consequences of not acting on climate change look like and it is terrifying.
How many people will have died and lost their houses when this immediate crisis has passed? How many farmers will have lost their livelihoods?
How many animals will have perished? How many species will have been brought closer to the brink of extinction? How many children will have lost their innocence?
I am haunted by Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, a book I read only a year ago, never imagining how soon I would see photos in the Australian media of the post-apocalyptic world he described, of refugees fleeing blackened landscapes, parents leading their children through the smoke, carrying their belongings in their arms, hoping for rescue on military convoys.
We have no use for politicians who continue to pursue agendas that ignore the reality of our warming climate, that place our suffering planet in ever-greater jeopardy. It is time for a new generation of leaders to stand up.
• Cynthia Banham is a Sydney-based author and journalist