I’ve learned to regard time differently. I used to think of natural disasters as finite events. I believed they had a definite beginning and end. Even the worst of them would come and then they would be over. Recovery and rebuilding could then begin. The bushfires in Australia have shaken that certainty.
In New South Wales, the bushfire season started early, way back in September, and people have been living under that threat ever since. Here in the ACT, fires to the east, south, and west have threatened us since the holidays. Smoke was the biggest problem at first, as Canberra experienced the worst air quality of any city in the world. Then the fires crept closer, and planning for evacuation became a reality for many families. The fires have been "out of control" or "being controlled" or "under control." Never are they entirely out. And they won’t be—unless an enormous amount of rain falls. Enough rain to counteract the effects of a five-plus-year drought here. Authorities predict that Australia will be fighting these fires through February, probably well into March. Seven months—from the start of the fires in September through March isn’t an event—it’s a lifestyle. It’s a new normal.
I’ve learned that I am nothing if not pragmatic. Formulating a bushfire survival plan forces you to be. Choosing the what to bring for a to-go bag or bin is like packing for the most bizarre camping trip you could imagine. What I’ve chosen to include has changed over time. Now the contents are down to the essentials—if I can replace it, it doesn’t come.
I’ve learned that I will stay a whole lot longer in the face of fires than I ever thought I would. Friends from outside Australia urged us to evacuate at the first sign of danger, and it was easy at first for me to say: well, if the fires come anywhere close, we’ll just leave. But go where? There were no truly safe places, only places where the fire wasn’t at that moment. And evacuate for how long? We still had work and school and other commitments. You can leave them behind for a while but not for weeks or months at a time. Life goes on. You become numb and so do the friends and neighbors around you. I’ve learned that in future fire seasons, I will likely stay until emergency services tells our neighborhood to leave.
Perhaps the most important thing I’ve learned is that Australians take care of each other, from organizing relief efforts to supporting the volunteer firefighters to rescuing the native wildlife. And I’ve learned that they never, ever give up. They keep going and look for signs of hope. If this is the new normal, these are the folks I want to face it with.