In early November, we’d started to experience heavy smoke polluting the air, followed by burnt leaves, ash and debris falling like blackened snow in our yard.
Concerned, I downloaded the Fires Near Me NSW app to see just how close this fire was.
It was around 80kms away.
That’s when it dawned on me just how huge and angry this fiery fiend must be. It was so far away and yet we were seeing the effects of it in our own backyard.
My daughter’s preschool was closed on November 12 due to extreme weather conditions and the high risk of fire activity. It wasn’t a day she usually attends anyway but it was scary knowing that schools and daycare centres were being advised to close due to catastrophic fire conditions.
Over the next few weeks, on trips to local shopping centres, I would look at all the dirty cars covered with specs of black ash or remnants of it. No one bothered to wash them because they’d be dirty again within hours.
This cloud of worry started to hover over me — is it possible that this massive fire could burn a trail of death and destruction all the way to us on the Central Coast of NSW?
I couldn’t even imagine how those living closer and more directly in its path were feeling. By that time, homes had already been lost and people had already been in grave danger. I was terrified for those having to flee their homes as I sat in my living room and read every single news update I could find. And I was terrified that it might reach us, too.
It was towards the end of November 2019 when we drove from New South Wales to Queensland and back for a family trip.
Our party of four was mostly silent as we drove through spot fires on either side of the road through New Italy and Mororo.
We’d seen some damage on the way up but it was worse on the way back. If not seeing already blackened trees and melted road signs, we were seeing small fires going to work at what was left.
I kept peering through the trees, searching and wondering about the homes and the inhabitants. Sometimes we’d see a house that had been saved but was surrounded by blackened earth.
The smoke was so thick at times we couldn’t see more than a couple of metres in front of us. The smell seeped into the car despite the windows being shut and the air vents having been turned to inside air well before we reached these areas.
It’s a smell I’ll forever associate with the loss of the Australian summer along with the suffocating fear I felt of getting stuck surrounded by fire with no way to escape.
Driving through, we knew it was bad but we didn’t know that fires would continue to affect us closer to home in the coming months and throughout the whole season.
It was early December when the Three Mile Fire in Dharug National Park started burning through parts of the Central Coast.
The conditions were bringing the threat of fire too close for comfort with extreme heat and strong winds predicted for December 6. We decided to pack a few bags in case of emergency.
In reality, the Three Mile Fire had a long way to travel before it reached us (around 40kms). But with the threat of spot fires flaring up from travelling embers that were heading in our direction and new fires starting thanks to extreme conditions, we needed to play it safe.
Having to figure out what to pack in case our house was likely to go up in flames was scary, but I’d also been trying to convince myself that the things we owned didn’t matter as long as our people and pets were safe.
It was true. We would’ve been fine without all the possessions we’d acquired over the years.
But there was also a part of me that would have felt devastated if we lost everything we had left of my dad that had been stored at our house since his death in early 2019. His paintings, guitars, records, and photos are things that are irreplaceable but were impossible to take with us in case of emergency.
I’m sure there would’ve been other things I’d have been sad to lose too but couldn’t think of at that moment. Instead of thinking too long on the sentimental items we might miss, we just grabbed some personal identification documents and a few photos along with some clothing.
There were a few uneasy nights where sleep was restless while we waited for the worst, but we were lucky — we didn’t have to flee our home as many others throughout the country did.
We experienced months of this fear that wasn’t helped by being mostly confined indoors.
On December 10 the air quality was more than 12 times over the hazardous level in some areas. That day, my sister made her way to work in Sydney where she spent most of her day coughing even when she was well and truly inside her work building that doesn’t have open windows. The air quality wasn’t quite as high on the Central Coast but still way above the hazardous level.
My 3-year-old grew restless during these months. She’s used to spending lots of time outdoors, and even at preschool, they were often confined indoors to protect the children from the polluted air.
The previous summer was spent with many days at the beach or in our backyard with our little one splashing around in a plastic pool. The air was clear and fresh and we didn’t have a care in the world.
This summer was spent confined and filled with worry.
Christmas and New Year came and went.
We spent New Year’s Eve at home despite originally planning to head out to a local event with food stalls and music. That day had a weather forecast of over 40 degrees Celsius with gale-force winds predicted for late afternoon. By about 8 pm the event we’d wanted to attend ended up cancelled anyway due to extreme weather conditions.
That was also the day that a fire started very close to the home of my mum and stepdad. My sisters and I kept in regular contact with my mum as she messaged us photos of the smoke plumes she could see from the yard and the water bombers flying overhead.
Residents within Mum’s suburb were evacuated and we all waited to see whether my mum and stepdad would be next. They had bags packed and ready to go.
The wind changed direction and they were lucky, but you can’t feel much relief when you know that it means there are houses and people in the fire’s new path.
Luckily for my family, the danger came and went and that fire was extinguished by January 4. It was at that time that the huge Three Mile Fire was also being reported as under control. Conditions seemed to be easing around the Central Coast.
It wasn’t the case for the south coast, Canberra and Victoria where fires were only just beginning.
It was just over three weeks ago that a dangerous fire in Canberra finally started to ease and it was just over a week ago on February 13 that all fires in NSW were declared contained.
Then came the rain
A big factor in distinguishing the NSW fires was a massive weather change.
We’d been begging mother nature for some rain, which we got in excess.
Starting around February 7, we had torrential downpours that lasted on the Central Coast for around three days.
Although we were grateful for it and happy for a cool change, many areas throughout NSW were now on flood watch.
My family watched closely as the end of our street was under water and rising. It’s a regular spot for flooding so we weren’t surprised but there was concern that it might reach us (as it never had before) if the rain didn’t ease up.
We were confined to the house again but this time due to the torrential rain. Even though temperatures were much cooler, the house felt humid and damp and that frustration at being stuck inside was all too familiar.
On February 9, we became increasingly concerned about some water damage showing at the front entry to our house. There was worry that our ceiling might collapse if rain continued without at least a temporary fix.
Again, we were lucky.
Rain started to ease on February 10 and although we have minor damage, it is just that — minor.
Others on the Central Coast were not so lucky. A state of natural disaster was declared on February 12 with many homes flooded along with over 38,000 without power.
We’ve had a little more rain since as well as some more hot days, but it’s been bearable. For now.
On February 15, we decided to have lunch at a little burger shop near the beach. The day was lovely and warm but not overwhelmingly hot — perfect. It seemed like a great day to spend outdoors after so many spent inside throughout summer.
We drove down the hill overlooking the main promenade in front of us and to the right with the beach to our left.
The water was a murky, foamy grey. A stark contrast to the usual sea blues and clear greens seen from the same spot.
We could see plenty of people littering the beach right alongside piles of litter from the water itself that had been dumped on shore.
It was as if the storms had churned up everything from the bottom of the deep blue and spat it out at us. It was putrid and the smell even more so. It was also deserved.
According to the WWF’s plastic report released in March 2019, plastic pollution is on track to double by 2030 with the worst of it to impact our oceans.
With the combination of worsening weather conditions in Australia and the continued use of single-use plastics, I hate to think what my country will look like and be experiencing by 2030.
Will we continue on this projected path or will we find a way to work towards creating a better future?
February is over and it doesn’t feel like we’ve had a summer at all while we’ve been hiding away from the turbulent weather. Either locked inside to avoid the terrible air quality or locked inside to avoid the hailstorms and torrential rain.
I didn’t lose my home or lose a loved one, which is a great relief and not at all the case for many Australians throughout the bushfires and floods we’ve experienced.
The loss of summer might not seem like a big deal when compared to those who have lost so much, but the long-term effects and the threat of continual summers like this one fill me with dread.
Will my children grow up with emergency bags packed and ready at the door every summer? Will outside play always be limited because our lungs can’t handle day after day of polluted air? Will our oceans be too polluted to swim in and enjoy?
If things are going to get worse, we will need to adapt and change, as people always have, but what if there comes a point when our land is not safe to inhabit anymore because we’ve ignored the warning signs we’re experiencing now (and have been for quite some time)?
I‘m not sure it’s even possible to reverse the damage and stop the worst that’s predicted to come.
I fear for the future my children are heading towards.
It’s a depressing outlook and perhaps I should end this on a positive note filled with hope. But after what we’ve experienced this summer, it’s clear that things will only get better with world leaders putting change in motion, and can we really find any hope in that?