Portrait Of A City On Fire: What Life’s Like In Sydney On Its Hottest Day On Record

Photo by Jenny Evans/Getty Images.
I like to stand on a particular beach in the Eastern Suburbs of Sydney, as often as I can. It’s just a little crescent of sand, where you can bury your toes and look out across the ocean to the Harbour Bridge. When I stood there just the other day, I couldn’t see the bridge at all, not through the smoke. It’s been completely obscured by a thick cloud of grey – like stubborn fog, only more sinister.
There are bushfires raging all across the east coast and top of my state, New South Wales (NSW), licking the outskirts of this great, blue-sky city. When the wind blows in just the right direction, all the ash and smoke travels straight to us, clogging the city sky. I’ve been struggling to breathe, as many thousands of others have, too. On bad days, I try to speak and choke on my words. I splutter through sentences, trying to get some clean air. They say not even the hardcore pollution masks can properly protect us from it. Office workers have been evacuated from their buildings because the smoke has been creeping through vents and setting off the smoke alarms inside. We’ve been told to stay inside as much as possible. It’s bad, but obviously not compared to the horror of being right where the fires are. I can’t stop thinking about the people who’ve had to decide when to leave their home; when to surrender it to the flames. And then, of course, the ones who haven’t survived.
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Right now, about 2,000 firefighters are trying to control more than 100 active bushfires across NSW. As of 15th December, the fires here have burned more than three million hectares of land, destroying 700 homes and taking six lives. It’s a national climate emergency, but where is our prime minister, Scott Morrison? On holiday with his family in Hawaii, where he continues not to acknowledge that his country is burning. He hasn’t held a press conference to tell us that he’s with us in all of this; all he’s done so far is deny firefighters the extra funding they’ve requested. Politicians here will not admit that this catastrophe has anything to do with climate change, despite the glaring facts. The absence of leadership, and action, and rationality, is staggering. It’s deeply unsettling, not to have any authority figure validate our fears. It’s difficult to have hope for any change in this country, when the most basic acknowledgment of fact is too much to ask.
This is all we’re talking about here at the moment. Wherever we go, whoever we see, it’s all about the smoke and the fires and the sense of apocalyptic dread we feel when we look at our sky. People I know have collapsed, had fevers, struggled to breathe, seen doctors and cancelled plans because they’re feeling unwell. They’ve had difficult, confronting conversations about what their future might look like. Two of my friends are pregnant and several are caring for toddlers. They’re all wondering how they’re supposed to protect their children – not just now, but for the rest of their lives, if this sort of thing becomes normal. I’ve been worried about my little dog, because pets have been affected too.
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If climate change has ever felt theoretical to anyone here, it doesn’t anymore.
This week, we’re bracing for frightening temperatures. In some parts of the country, we might just smash the record of 50 Celsius. This is a country that knows the heat; we often revel in it. We sweat – on beaches, on farms, across our famous red dirt. But this kind of heat is unnatural. It’s cruel and it’s frightening. It’s only the beginning of summer and already, we’re sweltering in unprecedented warmth. It could be a long, dry fire season. And it might get worse – much worse.
It’s a strange time. It’s almost Christmas and we’re meant to be feeling cheery. My family usually sneak in a visit to the beach on Christmas Day; a quick swim in the saltwater before we pop the turkey in the oven. It’s a celebratory time, but it’s quite literally overshadowed right now by the lingering smoke and the unfolding tragedies across the country. The fires continue to burn and our prime minister continues to ignore it. It’s not the jolly, festive vibe we would obviously like. It feels ominous. It feels like the beginning of something bigger; something more devastating.
For now, I guess, all we can do is donate to the relevant rescue funds, mourn for the people who’ve been most affected, and keep demanding that politicians pay attention to what’s happening to our country. We could be looking at a very smoky Christmas and a scorching new year. Who knows what might come after that.

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