One day soon, we might say: "Remember when kids used to play outside in December..."

“Are the kids in the hall again?”

Almost every day for weeks, when I arrive to collect my two children from their after-school care, they’re inside the school hall with 100 others, their young carers positioned at the exits to make sure they stay there.

The air’s too dangerous for them to be outside.

Emily Smith lost everything in the NSW bushfires. Post continues below.

Video via Channel 9

Last week, a text message to all parents: ‘Dear Parents/Caregivers: All PSSA sport, tennis and school sport are cancelled tomorrow due to poor air quality, Sports trainings are also cancelled.’

No cricket trials. No handball. No playground. Kids sitting in the classroom through recess and lunch. My son was meant to have an excursion to a local park this morning – cancelled.

It’s too toxic out there.

As I write this, the Department of Health reports that the air quality in most of the greater Sydney region has reached ‘hazardous’ levels. In NSW, ambulances are responding to increasing instances of respiratory illnesses, and there are over 100 aircrafts fighting fires in NSW, Victoria and Queensland. It’s estimated that the area burned so far is larger than some small countries.


Fire fighters, exhausted from weeks of battling on all fronts, are fleeing from flames that burst through barriers and follow no rules of engagement.

My coddled children not being able to play outside means nothing next to what those in the fire zones are facing. Lost homes, lost animals, lost loved-ones.

But every time I look up from my work desk to the screens on the wall there’s a new scene of inferno. Weather maps glow dark red. It’s been this way for weeks now.

People in the streets are wearing face masks. The shops have sold out of them.

Social media is a scroll of eerie, glowing sunsets, red skies, raining embers.

There’s a thin layer of ash and dust across everything, including, presumably, our lungs.

Our eyes are gritty and everyone has a cough.

People are feeling unsettled, afraid, even those of us who are safely surrounded by city and suburbs and water. There’s a feeling of unrest in the dirty air.

Image: Supplied.

The thing is, this is Sydney in early Summer. Late November and early December is when the Jasmine fades from the hedgerows, when windows get pushed open in the evening to the stirring chirrup of cicadas. The ocean starts to feel inviting. It’s the time when kids play outside as daylight sets.


But maybe not anymore. It’s just a little bit insufferable that us city folk have suddenly started to panic about what’s happening where the houses stop. That it took our skyline to be choked by black smoke for days on end for us to suddenly care.

But the majority of us are city people, now. And when the bush is falling from the sky onto our cars and flying into our windows and trapping little lungs indoors, the urban are suddenly woken up.

And they’re asking: What have we done? What will we do?

My daughter worships a schoolkid from across the world who’s been pleading with the western world to wake up to the damage our grasping progress is doing to the planet.

“Are the fires because of global warming, Mum?” my girl asks.

“Yes, darling, they are,” I say.

Greta Thunberg urges children to stay away from school to force change. The irony is, Australian kids are struggling to get there anyway, though the smoke and the smog.

By the time my daughter goes to high school, will playing outside in December be something kids used to do?

Will breathing masks become as common as sun hats?

Will national parks become no-go zones from October to March?

Will we look back at November 2019 as the moment when an entire state (or two, or three) developed that nasty rattling cough that never really leaves?

How long will it take us to tally what we’ve lost?

I’m not one for doomsday theories. I am always looking for the sunshine. But even the most glass-half-full Sydneysider is struggling to see the bright side though the haze as Spring bows out in a blaze.

My kids want to know how far away the fires are, since they can taste them on their tongues.

“Not far away,” I say. “But you’re safe”.

I’m lucky to be able to say that. There are many who can’t.

Feature image: Supplied and Instagram/@wainwrightholly.

This story originally appeared in Holly Wainwright’s weekly newsletter. You can get more stories like it by subscribing to her weekly newsletter. You can also follow Holly on Instagram or Facebook.