A few weeks ago, I had to drive to Brisbane and, unexpectedly, drive back to Sydney just a few days later. It’s a journey I’ve been doing once or twice a year for 19 years. Over that time, I have seen dry periods and bushfires but this trip was different.
The first indicator of trouble was the sheer number of dead animals beside the road. An occasional cattle carcass or dead kangaroo is normal for the journey but once I hit the dry areas around Walcha, it was non-stop wildlife carnage all the way to the outskirts of Brisbane. Dead wallabies, kangaroos, echidnas, wombats – a who’s who of hardy, drought resistant Australian wildlife – and the occasional cow, goat or sheep, killed in pursuit of a meal of dead grass beside the road that was just as dead, but longer, than anything in the nearby bush or paddocks.
The landscape, even in areas of orographic rainfall, such as the stretch from Raymond Terrace to Gloucester, was increasingly dry and brown. Bushland along the Thunderbolt’s Way shortcut from Gloucester to Tenterfield was a black-and-tan skeleton of the bush that once was.
At Tenterfield, concern became genuine alarm.
Knowing I would be driving, news of New England Highway towns attracted my attention the week before my journey: fires … Tenterfield … Stanthorpe … but nothing about the New England Highway being closed, so how bad could it be? My city-boy attitude to fires – even having grown up in a suburb where fires at the back fence were a semi-regular occurrence – was that you’d always be okay in town.
As a boy, I learned that you can tell how fast a fire was moving through a landscape by looking at what had already burnt. Slow fires burn from the ground up into the canopy of the trees and take their time to smoulder through leaves and bark. They are slow and leave blackened skeletons of trees without leaves or small branches.
Fast fires, pushed along by wind, flicker from tree branch to tree branch, burning but not destroying everything they come in contact with. They change the colour of the vegetation but leave its form – brown leaves on trees, black bark, charred soil and smoked earth under brown grass. They are less destructive to wildlife that can often sit out the fire in burrows, hollow logs, under rocks and in caves as the flames pass.
But these fires are devastating for humans and cattle – fast-moving, unpredictable wildfires that blow embers ahead of them into the dry kindling of houses and gardens and burn animals trapped in paddocks, unable to be moved to safety fast enough.
All along the highway, the path of the fires was evident. At Armidale, the usually leafy landscape was charred and denuded.
Fire and drought
At Tenterfield, fires had burned right up to the walls of the buildings on the edge of town and the up to the fence of a new housing estate on the outskirts of town. The fire had gone through the estate, burning every vacant lot. The firefighters must have decided to save the houses and let everything else go.
Later, I learned that the fire had continued east to Rappville where 20 houses were lost; 20 houses in a town with a 2016 census population of 169 is basically the entire town. An entire town that had survived since 1840 is now gone.
At Stanthorpe, the situation was similar: charred bush and earth to the doorsteps of the buildings on the edge of town. Houses lost.
And drought too. I saw two paddocks that I didn’t initially recognise as paddocks – they looked like badly laid carparks of putty coloured concrete. There was absolutely no vegetation on them – about five hectares where the only thing higher than the dirt was the fence.
A few days later, returning to Sydney with my four-year-old daughter, I was explaining about the bushfires, then had to explain that the Black Angus cattle we could see, scratching in the dirt, weren’t burned, that they’re meant to be that way. Only not as thin.
The carcasses by the road had ripened. In northern NSW, the stench of dead flesh was not an occasional minute or two of unpleasantness; it was 10 or 20 minutes of choking odour, time after time, until we got to Armidale.
Listening to the ABC during that journey, I heard the news that Stanthorpe had finally run out of water – the first on the list of towns across western and northern NSW that are on the verge of running dry. Up to 50 water trucks per day were to commence delivering water at the cost of $800,000 per month to give residents just 106 litres of water each day.
Repeating the same journey by plane on Friday, I was reflecting on the experience of driving through the charred landscape, and the Climate Council’s research showing that climate change likely contributes to drought when I looked down to see, once again, fires burning unchecked in the wilderness. Two questions occurred to me:
- Are these country towns the “unsustainable lifestyle choices” that former prime minister Tony Abbott once called remote Aboriginal communities? But they’re not remote communities. They are major towns, an easy drive from Sydney and Brisbane, on the second most travelled north-south thoroughfare between those cities.
- If this is not a climate crisis, what is it? Because one thing is certain, it’s a crisis.