The Australian bushfires: Is this the new normal?

January 28th, 2020

A kangaroo in the flames

A single photo in The New York Times captures both the stereotype and the spectacle in the same frame. A kangaroo hops across the foreground of the picture, a living symbol of Australia in the minds of most Americans. Behind it, there’s a scene straight out of your average apocalypse — a house burning under a darkened sky, ferocious orange flames licking at the timbers.

For those living through the bushfires that tore through Australia as the old year ended and 2020 began, the devastation feels apocalyptic. “I look outside and it’s like the end of the world,” Fiona Crispin of Canberra told The New York Times. “Armageddon is here. I can’t remember the last time it rained. Everything is dead and dried up.”

Stephen Muse, also of Canberra, said of the fire, “It was like a rocket going through. I dropped my phone on the ground and didn’t even have time to pick it up before screaming at my family to get in the car.”

Survivors recounted frantic evacuations, digging trenches on the beach, and even jumping into the ocean to escape the fires that raced, with the aid of winds, faster than most people can run. “We’re all on edge,” Deb Wiltshire, a cafe owner in Batlow, New South Wales, said to The New York Times. “You think it’s over and done, then you get told it’s on its way back.”

The stories about Australia’s bushfires are certainly tragic, but they’re also compelling. This forces us to ask some difficult questions of ourselves. What does the coverage of these fires tell us about what we care about and, perhaps more importantly, what happens when the spectacle fades? 

The new normal?

The raw numbers documenting the scale and destruction of the Australian bushfires are sobering. Maps show widespread blazes across the country, with the southeastern state of New South Wales being the most heavily affected. BBC News reported that more than 70 fires were still burning across that state as of January 24 (down from 150 at the start of the month), with more than 2,000 houses destroyed and thousands of people displaced. BBC News also reported on January 24 that at least 33 people have been killed so far in Australia’s bushfire crisis. Of the deaths, NPR put the overall toll for firefighters at more than a dozen, three of whom were U.S. firefighters whose tanker aircraft crashed. The fires in Australia have burned an area comparable to the size of England.

It’s not unusual for fires to break out on this arid continent during the summer, which is simultaneous with the Northern Hemisphere’s winter. As recently as 2009, fires destroyed more than 2,000 homes and killed 173 people. What makes this fire season remarkable is the intensity of the fires and the sense that this may be Australia’s new normal.

The conditions for this outbreak have been building for months. First, there was a drought with reports of the driest spring on record. Then came the heat. In mid-December, the average temperature was 107.4 Fahrenheit, a record high. Dried-up vegetation created tinder box conditions that were easily ignited, and the flames spread with high winds. By late December, firefighters, mostly volunteers, were working 12-hour days to put out the blazes, and the government had called up a large-scale use of its military assets, a deployment not seen since World War II, The New York Times reported, both to assist in firefighting and to evacuate stranded citizens. Australia has also called on its allies for equipment and personnel support. 

Fighting fire with more fire

Churches in Australia and elsewhere have responded to the fires with prayers, compassionate care, and donations. Emily Evans, of the Uniting Church in Australia and a member of the World Council of Churches Executive Committee, told United Methodist Insight, “Chaplains are offering personal care, psychological first aid, and emotional and spiritual support at relief and recovery centers in the impacted areas to those affected.” The Australian Bishops Conference extended a national prayer campaign that had begun in November for the ongoing drought.

While this is the usual response to tragedy, there was another metaphorical firestorm building — this one political. Prime Minister Scott Morrison was condemned by some for vacationing in Hawaii as the fires worsened. He has also been criticized for not doing more to help Australia deal with climate change, which is seen by many scientists as a major contributing factor to the fires.

Meanwhile, more conservative media outlets have run stories condemning climate protesters and suggesting that environmentalists are preventing the kind of backburning that might control the fires. They have also suggested that the fires may largely be the result of arson. In response, Dr. Timothy Graham of Queensland University of Technology told The New York Times that “maybe 3 to 5 percent of fires could be attributed to arson, that’s what scientists tell us.”

Putting the fires in our favorite box

Ask someone today what’s important about the Australian bushfires, and the answer you receive will probably be shaped by events that happened long before the fires began. For people who are moved by the state of the global climate, the extraordinary nature of the fires is one more piece of evidence to which attention must be paid on this issue. Others will see the events through a lens that sees climate activists as part of the problem. We all have a favorite box in which to put such stories.

But let’s go back to the picture of the kangaroo. While the image tempts me to see something exotic and far away in an unfamiliar creature, the burning building is what strikes me because it was someone’s home. The survivors’ stories tell us about human moments that are often glossed over in our rush to plug the story into a larger narrative that we think we already know. Once the larger narrative takes hold, we’re freed from thinking seriously about what we’re seeing.

In her recent book The Problem with Everything: My Journey Through the New Culture Wars, essayist Meghan Daum says that looking at things closely and thinking through them with nuance is now considered by many in our culture “a luxury we [can] no longer afford.” But Christian eyes are formed by attention to the suffering of creation and the incarnate way that God works through human instruments. Reducing things like the fires to stories we already know, as Daum says, “[denies] us our basic human right to be conflicted” and to find God and connection in that conflict. 

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