And It Was All Yellow: Fires, Floods, & Disaster Prevention

Thirsty, hungry, dirty, tired. These men, virtually camouflaged in their uniforms amongst the charred and parched remains of the Australian bush, are smiling because their shift is over – and because the journalist told them to. I know this because the man on the left is my dad, Mark Murray.

He is one of roughly 72,000 Rural Fire Service (RFS) volunteers. For one long hot summer, he and many, many others worked together battling the uncaring, unrelenting bush fires that claimed 24 million hectares of Australian bushland, an estimated three billion native Australian animals, 3000 homes, and 33 people: six of whom were RFS volunteers; three of whom were American aerial firefighters.

They were battling the fires that stole so much more than Christmas. He left for evening shifts at 7pm, often returning home at 10 the next morning ashen and smelling of campfires. A soot-covered chimney sweep, only tired, hungry and in dirty RFS yellow. The masks he was provided with were inadequate, filthy, and seemingly futile in the face of air choked with the ashes of incinerated bushland.

It’s hard to imagine walls of flames as tall as buildings clawing up at the night sky, but we saw they were real on the news. We saw things that should only exist in dystopian sci-fi novels: fire tornadoes, lightning storm cells generated in the smoke clouds above bushfires. We learned what pyrocumulonimbus clouds were, and we learned to fear them. We saw strong winds tip over RFS trucks. We saw towns scorched black and razed to the ground. We saw expectant mothers learn that their partners had died fighting fires that didn’t care about their new babies growing up without dads. We saw South Coast communities ring in the New Year huddled on beaches under Mars-red skies, and thousands of people rescued by Navy vessels in an “unprecedented mass relocation of civilians” because roads became impassable. And we saw iconic Australian fauna burn.

Communities were left devastated, in ruins, mourning lost lives, lost homes, lost livestock, lost livelihoods.

Profound, unfathomable, loss.

We watched the news each day for updates about Australia’s fate, a heavy burden visibly borne on the shoulders of the leader New South Wales needed to get us through this disaster: RFS commissioner, Shane Fitzsimmons. His supportive presence was accompanied by pockmarked maps of the state cast onto our screens to demonstrate the number of fires and their unrelenting growth.

Grown men were brought to their knees tearfully attempting to articulate the grief and horror of the ravages of fire. The country was left disappointed and divided about the response, and calls for climate action seemingly fell on deaf ears. There was nothing “natural” about this preventable disaster. Sympathy and solidarity filtered in from overseas in the form of monetary donations and NGOs were then faced with the difficult task of how best to disperse the funds – an estimated massive $640 million.

The fires, hopes for a speedy recovery, and the Australian tourism industry were all extinguished in March of 2020 with the arrival of heavy rains and COVID-19.

Many of the affected communities have struggled to recover – despite the massive sums raised to support them – and it begs the question about what we can learn from this in the future. The consequences of global warming aren’t going anywhere anytime soon, and we can only look to Germany’s recent floods for the devastating consequences of inadequate disaster preparedness. In a post-Covid world where climate-change weather events will only become more frequent, it’s up to governments, as well as local communities, to ensure the most vulnerable members of society are protected and prepared for the inevitable.

While NSW residents were saddened to hear that Shane Fitzsimmons was stepping down from his 12-year role as the RFS Commissioner, his achievements were rightly recognised as the state recipient of the Australian of the Year 2021 award. Not one to shy away from duty to our country, Fitzsimmons is continuing his distinguished and altruistic career as commissioner for the NSW Government’s newest agency, Resilience NSW, which endeavours to support at-risk communities in the planning and preparation for adverse climate events.

It is my hope that the formation of Resilience NSW signifies the first step in the Australian Government’s new trajectory towards making political choices that address the urgent need for climate action and to strive to reverse its effects. As one of the world’s top carbon emitters, we must do this not just for our communities, but for the country we love, and the earth we depend on.

A visit to my grandparents’ dustbowl farm in the Hunter Valley, Christmas 2019.

The farm the following August, 2020. Nature can teach us a lot about restoration – if we let it.

“There is no power for change greater than a community discovering what it cares about.”

Margaret J. Wheatley

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