Just before the pandemic hit, images of Australia on fire were seen all over the world. Three years later, this disaster may already seem far away, but right away, traces of the devastation are still visible. The unseen and vivid memories of this traumatic event also remain etched into the daily lives of the Australians we met.
Mallacoota is a small city in the southeast of the country, halfway on the coast between Sydney and Melbourne. About seven hours’ drive from these major centers, the community of 1,000 people on the Pacific Rim has remained sheltered from major housing developments. Kangaroos bask in special places. And the nature, watered by the rains of recent years, is fertile.
But if you look closely, under the overflowing foliage, the bark of the trees is black – like a scar from the fires that have passed through there. Mary O’Malley, who was vacationing in Mallacoota to celebrate the New Year when ‘wildfire’ struck the small town on December 31, 2019, doesn’t need tree bark to remember that tragic time.
Now permanently moved to Mallacoota, the district of her husband’s birth, she remained deeply affected by what had happened. Along the coast, where the stroll takes us, are rows of tea trees – or Melaleuca alternifolia – Fully charred beach view.
We could hear the cries of pain of the koalas trapped in the burning trees. It was unbearable. Gas explosions were heard. The sky was red, then completely black. It was… the end of the world,” she remembers with tears in her eyes as she stopped her little dog Oki from getting off the coastal path. “You have to watch out for the snakes,” she warns.
on video | To save koalas in Australia
Australians now call it “black summer,” but this fire season, which peaked in summer, between December 2019 and January 2020, lasted just over half a year.
After months of severe drought and fueled by record heat, fires have destroyed more than 24 million hectares in Australia – 500 times the size of the island of Montreal.
More than 3,000 homes were destroyed, 33 people died directly during these massive fires, and another 450 died as a result of smoke inhalation.
The fumes were very strong This has temporarily depleted the ozone layer by 3% to 5% in 2020Recently, a study published in the Scientific Journal nature.
When the fires reached the small town of Mallacoota, its residents and tourists found themselves trapped there. “We couldn’t leave. We took refuge in the port because the only way in and out of the city was closed for security reasons,” explains Mary O’Malley.
She and her family stayed there for about three days before a military ship came to pick them up and about 1,200 others – the largest sea bridge in Australian history. About 500 other people were evacuated by air.
“We see ourselves as Australia’s first climate refugees,” Mary says. Furthermore, you believe the reason why former Australian Conservative Prime Minister Scott Morrison did not take the climate issue seriously is that he lost the election in May 2022 against his Labor opponent.
“The Australians were so mad at him that he went on vacation to Hawaii in the middle of this disaster. On the radio, he defended himself that he wasn’t there because he wasn’t the one who could put out the fires.”I don’t hold the hose, dude!” He said. [“Ce n’est pas moi qui tiens le tuyau d’incendie, l’ami !”] People have not forgotten this phrase, nor have they forgiven him for his inaction on climate change. »
Slow and difficult healing
After the tragedy of the fires followed an epidemic. “It was very difficult for the community not to be able to find each other, to stress each other in order to get up. People had to grieve on their own,” said Carol Hopkins, president of the Mallacoota and County Recovery Association.
“Climate disasters not only have a devastating effect on the territory, but also have an impact on people’s mental health,” confirms the person who also helped coordinate Red Cross efforts during and after the fires.
On the terrace of a small local café, four septuagenarians are sitting on a hot Saturday morning in February. Both companions have a hat on their heads to protect themselves from the sun, which is already hitting hard.
Were they there during the big fires? The assistants nodded in unison. “We’ve never seen anything like this before,” says Brian Page, with a typically Australian accent, under a look of approval to the group. “He’s even lost his house,” he adds, referring to his friend Graeme Norman, who sits next door and who lives a few kilometers away in Wangarabel.
Graeme Norman pulls his phone from his pocket to search through his photos for evidence of damage, which he finally finds. Twisted metal sheets and ashes under a gray sky.
In Mallacoota district alone, which includes the village where Graeme lives, 123 families have lost their homes to the fires. The Australian Daily reported that of the 79 homes to be rebuilt, only 27 have been completed. the age last December.
Pandemic-related health restrictions and high construction costs crippled people who had lost everything and needed to rebuild their lives.
Graeme Norman, not knowing if he will ever be able to rebuild his house, for reasons of obtaining a permit. “I do not have the right to rebuild it on the same land, because it is prone to fires. On the other hand, I am empowered to do it in terrain prone to flooding. Where is the logic? He wonders.
The man welcomes us home the next day to show us his modest fold-up house, which he has used as a temporary residence for three years. Everywhere: the fields, where Graeme Norman keeps the cattle.
“I managed to save quite a bit,” he says. Fortunately, my animals were saved. My neighbor’s paws were burned. »
While stripped of everything, Graeme Norman approaches the situation with a certain amount of fatalism. People ask me how I managed to handle it. I answer them: we have to pick up what we have left and go on living. We can run away, scream, get angry…but in the end, it gets us nowhere. thus. »
In total, his losses amounted to material $100,000 Australian dollars, according to his estimations. “I had insurance…but I was underinsured. Anyway, I lost a lot of things that insurance can’t replace,” he says, emotion in his voice.
He recounts: “Family photos, the sweaters my mother knitted for me when I was little, my father’s old paraphernalia.” But I prefer not to think about it. »
Like the sword of Damocles
Graeme Norman also doesn’t want to think too much about the possibility of fires of this magnitude happening again.
It must be said that after the fires, Australia experienced three years of colder and wetter than average due to a prolonged bout of La Niña. The fires were followed by floods in some areas.
However, these same conditions, which allowed nature to be reborn from its ashes by encouraging the regrowth of vegetation, could have sown fertile ground for “grass fires”. Ceylon Law Climate and Emergency Leaders Council for Climate Action (ELCA)Australian authorities should prepare for widespread grass fires on an unprecedented scale, starting this year.
Another disturbing fact: According to experts from the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP)The number of fires worldwide could increase by 50% by 2100, and governments are not sufficiently prepared.
“After the fires, we put the energies into community recovery. However, I’m afraid we’re not sufficiently prepared if a hot, dry season repeats. It’s a concern,” says Carol Hopkins, who works with the Australian Red Cross.
Graeme Norman, for his part, has already considered buying a used fire truck to protect himself from a possible new fire. But he can’t stand it. Can he share the costs with his neighbours? impossible. ‘If everyone pays equally, which house will be saved first?’ he wondered helplessly.
Funding for this report was made possible by the support of the Transat Fund for International Journalism.duty.