The plight of the survivors
One year ago, on March 3, 2020, the fires in Australia were finally “under control” after 240 days. The result: an area half the size of Germany burned, four billion animals perished and countless people traumatized. Who is helping?
“We need some official documentation. Did you get an insurance payout ?” – “Yeah, we did.”
Consultation in the old community hall of Milton, a rural town with a population of 1700, three hours’ drive south of Sydney.
Where town meetings or club celebrations used to be held on the well-worn parquet floor is now the local drop-in center for bushfire victims. In one corner, clothing and food donations pile up; in the other, Bridget McKenzie’s desk stands.
“If you can send me your driver’s license and insurance letter overnight I’ll put you on the list, if we have a spare you are ready to go.”
Help is still needed after a year
McKenzie is a volunteer from the beginning. The retired elementary school teacher wanted to help out for a few weeks after the January 2020 bushfire disaster, organizing necessities – shelter, clothing and food – for those affected. Now, more than a year later, she’s still there.
“The scale of the destruction was so great that the authorities were simply overwhelmed. Then Corona came, no one was in charge or responsive,” she says.
“Many victims were left with confusing financial aid application forms. Only now do government agencies and relief organizations like the Red Cross and Salvation Army seem to be slowly catching up.”
Cath Boyd checks in every few days. To inquire when relief funds are finally available, or just for a chat. When the fire came, Cath had to leave everything behind. Her farm, the pigs, the tractors.
“It’s a hard life in the trailer”.
Today, she and husband Trevor live in a discarded, borrowed trailer with a camping gas stove. With no toilet or running water. Even criminals don’t shy away and take advantage. Criminal lawyers are here with legal assistance gladly ready to clarify possible facts.
“It’s a hard life in the trailer. You don’t have much and there’s nothing to do. When it gets dark, we go to sleep, when it gets light, we get up. Most of the time I have to wash with wet toilet tissues. I miss having a decent shower.”
If the logs of the woods weren’t still blackened with soot, no one would think that the spinach-green hills around Milton were the scene of the most devastating brush fire in its history a year ago. Hardly any farmers in the area had insurance.
“The monthly payments are just too high,” Trevor Boyd says. He cannot understand why, out of billions of euros in donations and announced emergency aid, hardly anything has reached the bushfire victims so far.
Waiting for government money to arrive
“Too much bureaucracy,” Trevor suspects, or maybe Corona. Trevor can do nothing but wait. Wait until the government money comes and then start all over again.
“I have no idea how we’re going to do this. First we were supposed to get payments, then unfortunately they said we weren’t eligible. There’s nothing that can be done about it.”
No one is talking about the death toll from the fires in the area. Not about the farmers caught in the flames. Nor about the livestock that had to be shot, half-dead, in charred pastures.
“Their self-esteem was destroyed”
Volunteer organizations repaired thousands of miles of fencing, businesses donated feed, food and drinking water. Neighbors help out. “Those affected are grateful,” assures Kim Daniels, who helps out two days a week at the community hall. Though they may not show it openly.
“People around here have worked hard for what they have. They’ve never had to ask anyone for help. That’s why it’s even harder for them now. Many have lost everything in just a moment. In the process, their self-esteem has also been destroyed.”
Bushfires don’t discriminate, they destroy what stands in their way. Those who are lucky escape with their lives. Saving your house or farm is almost like winning the lottery. Jodie and Robert Miller managed to do both.
“Narrawilly,” the Millers’ farm, has been in the family for 160 years. About 1000 dairy cows on 1000 acres of land, a one-story, whitewashed farmhouse with a red tin roof on a hill.
The national park on the opposite side of the valley was already burning at the time. Robert Miller hoped the fire would pass. Then, on New Year’s Day 2020, the wind shifted. Half the Millers’ farm torched, but not a single building. Not even the house.
Weeks later, it started raining again. Nature takes care of itself after a brush fire, but the fire survivors needed help. Help they weren’t getting.
A wave of mental illness feared
The Australian government had promised one and a half billion euros in immediate aid. “Hardly anyone has seen any of that,” complains Robert Miller. The promised long-term mental health care for farmers fell victim to the corona crisis.
“Our doctors are warning of a wave of mental illness. The nervous strain during the fires, the constant fear – many farmers have had nightmares ever since. For weeks, I myself didn’t know if I would live to see the next day. It was like being in a war zone.”
Post-traumatic stress, anxiety, discomfort, appetite and insomnia – mental scars that won’t heal. Jodie Miller had only known all this from television, from stories told by war veterans.
“I was scared to death.”
But ever since she stood alone, with only a garden hose in her hand, in front of a thousand-degree wall of fire, she has suffered from similar symptoms.
“I feel guilty for surviving. The farm burned and we lost animals, but not human lives and not our home. Others were not so lucky. That’s why I feel guilt – and shame. Because I wasn’t very brave, I was scared to death. I never want to experience that again, it was a very difficult time for me.”
You don’t have to be an expert to see that Jodie is not doing well. Every response is an effort, every memory of the fire an overcoming. The power was out then, Robert on the other end of the farm, her cell phone dead.
Warning announcements on the radio to the rescue
All Jodie Miller could rely on were the warning announcements on the radio, a service provided by the ABC, Australia’s public broadcaster that operates television and radio stations nationwide.
“We would sit in our cars and listen to the ABC tell us where the fires were and which roads were closed. We learned when the wind shifted and got the assessments from fire officials and police. Without those announcements, we would have been toast. We got the information we needed to make the right decisions.”
Announcements around the clock, from warnings to unequivocal calls to evacuate immediately: for months, Australians in fire-threatened areas were kept informed of the path, strength and speed of fires on local emergency frequencies and on the usual ABC program.
The ABC’s information service is in jeopardy
But, just one year later, the information service is in jeopardy. “The government is slashing the ABC’s taxpayer-funded budget more and more,” complains Alix Foster van der Elst, media spokeswoman for the “Get Up!” citizens’ movement. This, she says, is as stupid as it is dangerous. After all, the cuts are so severe that the future of emergency broadcasts is also at stake.
“In six years in power, the Conservatives have cut the ABC’s budget by the equivalent of 485 million euros. More than 1200 jobs have been cut – including the post of head of emergency broadcasts. This is a scandal. The ABC saved countless lives during the bushfires, it would be unthinkable if this service was no longer there.”
Alix Foster van der Elst is not surprised. “The ABC is uncomfortable,” says the media activist. Who else would criticize the government for not having a climate policy worthy of the name? Farmer and bushfire victim Jodie Miller doesn’t care who – far away in Canberra – is calling the shots. The main thing is that the ABC’s budget is not touched. “Because anything else,” she believes, would be playing with fire.
“The ABC has saved our lives”
“In Australia, there are natural disasters on a regular basis: Bushfires, floods or cyclones. We need to be warned in time and there must be enough journalists to report on the ground. The ABC has saved our lives and it shouldn’t be a matter of money that it can continue to do so in the future.”
34 dead, 6000 buildings destroyed, an area half the size of Germany burned, four billion animals dead and an economic loss of 67 billion euros: the black summer of 2019/20 was the most devastating natural disaster in Australia’s history. So devastating, in fact, that it had a political aftermath.
“This is a report that goes into the next journey of this nation’s healing after one of the most significant natural disasters in our nation’s history.”
In March 2020, the process of coming to terms with the brush fire disaster began. For six months, a public inquiry panel heard from witnesses and experts.
In the end, the panel made 80 suggestions, all of which were approved. They ranged from acquiring a fleet of firefighting helicopters owned by the state to requiring far more undergrowth to be burned in a controlled manner during the milder winters to deprive the fires of food in the summer.
“Just unprecedented fire behavior, incredible spotting, firegenerating storms. These things never used to happen.”
He spoke of unprecedented fire intensity and flame fronts creating their own weather system: one of the experts before the commission was Greg Mullins, the longtime former fire chief for the state of New South Wales.
“We were at war last summer”
He called for establishing a national emergency management system with coordination authority, better equipment for volunteer fire departments, and, more importantly for Mullins: more flexible environmental, forestry, and local governments that would have to adapt their often outdated regulations to the new bushfire reality.
“Power lines belong underground, not above, but fireproof, so there’s electricity after a fire. We must now only allow non-combustible building materials in bushfire areas and should establish more permanent evacuation centers. But most importantly, we need to respond early to extreme environmental conditions. We were at war last summer. In war, you have to know what the enemy is capable of – now and in the future.”
Squishy climate change targets, an influential mining lobby and mostly coal-fired power instead of alternative energy: for fire conservationist Greg Mullins, the biggest environmental enemy is the conservative government in Canberra. Australia is one of the 20 countries worldwide with the highest pollutant emissions and is the third largest exporter of fossil fuels. There is no change of course in sight.
The next fire is sure to come
“No one is arguing that rising global warming caused last year’s bushfire disaster,” Mullins says, but record temperatures and long droughts acted as fire accelerants.
“We’ve been completely overwhelmed by Mother Nature. She’s had enough of all the poison we’re blowing into the atmosphere. The more extreme Australia’s climate becomes, the more devastating and frequent bushfires become. It is our collective moral duty to future generations not to let this trend escalate.”
Those affected by last year’s bushfires don’t have time for politics. They have to rebuild their homes, their livelihoods, their lives. With or without help from the government. But no one wants to just give up or move away. You can call that pride, defiance, down-to-earthness or recklessness. Because the next fire is bound to come.