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"The last thing my sister told me on NYE was, 'I don’t think anyone knows how bad this is'.”

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While I was at a beach house in Byron Bay for New Year’s Eve, my family were trapped in Narooma, surrounded by thousands of evacuees grappling with the possibility that they just lost everything.

We’d gone to Narooma for a family holiday, the same place my parents have visited for more than 30 years. It’s a beach town. The house we stayed in was maybe a five minute walk to the water. Fire doesn’t belong anywhere near there.

I was due to fly out to Byron on Monday morning, but the smoke made it impossible for the plane to land. We ended up having to go to an airport two hours away to take off.

Tracey and her family ran for their lives from the NSW bushfires. Post continues below.

The next morning, my family woke up to black skies. There was no power. Mum said she tried to read a book, but found it was too dark at midday to make out the words.

My brothers were meant to go to a music festival, but were turned back half an hour into their trip because all the roads were closed.

They all watched burning leaves land in the backyard and thousands of cars congest the town. People were fleeing to the beach or the golf course, leaving homes they didn’t know were even in danger 24 hours ago.

The feeling I had, of looking at a beautiful beach with a champagne glass in my hand, while knowing my family had no food or hot water or electricity, was I think indicative of how all Australians felt on New Year’s Eve. Like it couldn’t be hedonistic or silly or carefree because our family – whether literally or metaphorically – were surrounded by fires that had proved they were going to do whatever they wanted to.

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To be clear, my family were on a holiday so were not at risk of losing their home, like so many thousands were. But they saw and tasted and smelled what so many Aussies have over the last three months. And there’s no other word for it but Apocalyptic.

 

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12 hours later I’m home, smelling like smoke and with my clothes covered in ash. Some people are still stuck on roads they entered this morning. Some towns have no running water, while others have been told they’re undefendable from the fires. Some people are staying to try to protect their homes and businesses, while others are trying to leave but don’t know how or when to go because of conflicting information. Today I saw a tiny snapshot of the destruction that’s taken place over the last 72 hours – destroyed homes, blackened paddocks, and hundreds of dead animals on the side of the road. If nothing else, it puts everything in perspective. If coming into 2020, you have your health, somewhere to live, and know your loved ones are safe, you have everything.

A post shared by Clarf (@clare.stephenss) on

I think on New Year’s Eve, the ‘safe’ Australians felt like they were in two places at once. At a party or watching fireworks (which I don’t begrudge them – what else are we meant to do?) while also on a firefront, alongside terrified firefighters and civilians.

The only person who seemed completely blind to the latter was Scott Morrison who announced in his New Year address that “there’s no better place to raise kids” than Australia. I wonder if the little boy pictured on a boat in the middle of a lake, the air a hellish red, desperately steering his family to safety, would agree with that? It feels tone deaf to sing the praises of Australia at the precise moment military air and sea assets are being deployed to assist with thousands of stranded evacuees.

Morrison continued by saying, “We have faced these disasters before and we have prevailed, we have overcome,” but that’s not true. We’ve never faced anything like this before, and who, exactly, does he see as prevailing? At least 19 people have died. Thousands have lost their homes.

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I keep thinking about what happens when you treat the human body badly. You pillage it of all it’s resources and you don’t let it rest or recover. You put toxic things into it. You take your health for granted while you ignore the warning signs that it’s suffering. Why would we think the world more broadly would be any different? That it won’t one day start to falter, just like a body that’s been abused for 50 years?

I know that Morrison can’t put the fires out and there’s only so much he can do at this point. But last time I spoke to Clare on New Year’s Eve, before service was cut, which was at about 6pm, she said, “I don’t think people understand how bad this is… it feels like we’re in a war.”

If this were a nuclear explosion or an attack by a foreign enemy, Morrison would surely be full of fighting words. There’d be more resources and money and strategies and meetings and urgency.

When we voted in a government with no policies whatsoever on climate change, we voted in a government who were destined to ignore natural disasters.

I wonder if this week that finally hit home.

Featured image: Instagram @jessiestephens90 and @clare.stephenss.