Watching the Beach Town of My Childhood Burn
The Australia Letter is a weekly newsletter from our Australia bureau. This week’s issue is written by Livia Albeck-Ripka, a reporter with the Australia bureau.
When I was about 15 months old and could only say a few words, one of them was “baitfish.” My family had just returned from our annual summer vacation in Mallacoota, a beach town of a few hundred on the southeast coast of Australia, where we would catch tiny, glimmering fish and use them to lure flathead out of the water.
After we returned home, a patch of light shimmered on the wall, and according to my mother, I pointed to it and described what I saw: “baitfish.”
It was the Australian summer of 1990-91, and on the other side of the world, the Israeli military was handing out gas masks to its citizens because of the threat of attacks from Iraq. But in a fishing village thousands of miles away, where giant goannas scuttled through gumtrees and kookaburras laughed, my siblings were hunting for wild animal scat and leaping into the ocean.
At the end of every day, we would collapse salty and exhausted into bed. My mother, riding in a dinghy across an expanse of glittering lake, felt grateful to be so far from the world’s calamities, she recently told me.
This New Year’s Eve, when blazes near Mallacoota caused smoke so thick the sky turned pitch black, my family absorbed the news and the imagery in horror.
We were in Inverloch, a different beach town some 280 miles away — which, this year, escaped the blazes. But our vacation was eclipsed by haze and news of the devastating fires, which so far have burned millions of acres, killed at least 25 people and likely wiped out around a billion animals. Across the country, hardware stores began selling out of masks used to protect people from smoke inhalation.
A few days into the new year, in near 100 degree temperatures and choking smoke, I left my family and drove to Hastings, another coastal town, where hundreds of evacuees from Mallacoota — now ravaged by fires that cut off power and destroyed properties — were due to arrive.
Watching them disembark was surreal; I had only ever witnessed scenes like this in Italy, covering the country’s naval rescue mission for refugees. After 20 hours on the ocean, people were weary and some of them, having lost their properties, were likely now displaced.
One woman getting off the boat, Corrin Mueller, 23, carried a sign that read “inaction costs more,” which she said referred to the Australian government’s failure to reduce the carbon emissions that lead to global warming. “We’re only here because nobody’s acted quick enough,” she said. “And there’s so much more we can still do to stop more people having to go through this.”
One of the things I most wanted to understand, however, was what had driven those remaining in Mallacoota to stay there, and how it felt to watch their paradise turn to ash. So I headed east, toward the firegrounds, and eventually boarded a military flight to the fishing village so mythologized and revered in my family’s collective memory.
In Mallacoota, I found miles of charred bush and flattened homes, but a resilient community, determined to rebuild as soon as possible. Our photographer, Asanka Brendon Ratnayake, and I stayed in one of a number of log cabins that had miraculously been spared by the fire — the “luckiest log cabins,” as one local described them. It was surrounded by scorched gumtrees.
Despite the devastation, there was a kind of magic: Inside the local pub, which was running on a generator, people drank cold beer and sang along to Don McLean (“This will be the day that I die…”). The burden they were carrying was revealed only in snippets; people became teary describing the fear they’d felt on New Year’s Eve, as they fought with buckets of water and surgical masks to protect their properties, and the sounds of the gas bottles wailing as they exploded.
At 8:30 a.m. on the morning of New Year’s Eve, Debbie Preston, who runs the local caravan park, said she “thought she was gone,” and texted a friend an expletive.
At 9:30 a.m., she texted again: “Goodbye.”
It was surreal to hear these stories in a beach town like so many others along the coast, where summer after summer I have taken my own vacations. The scale of the calamity created a cognitive dissonance: In many moments during the two straight weeks I spent on the road reporting, I would forget that I was in Australia.
I don’t believe I was alone in feeling this way.
Across the country, people who grew up here are grappling with seeing it transformed; with experiencing summer in an oppressive and polluting smog that seeps into everything; asking themselves if this is what this time of year is going to be like from now on, if we are experiencing the apocalypse.
As a reporter, I ask myself and my sources the same questions, and the answers are complex. One of the most frightening things about climate change is that we cannot predict exactly what will happen, and that at some point, we may tip into a cascading series of devastating events that we cannot reverse.
But I hope that one day when I return to Mallacoota, the baitfish are there, shimmering in the lake.
Write to us and let us know how you feel at email@example.com.
Now on to other stories of the week.
The World Saw This Australian Beach Town Burn. It’s Still Cut Off: Mallacoota, where people huddled on the shore for safety on New Year’s Eve, is rationing fuel and relying on the military for help.
Hold the Phone, Sydney … It’s Raining: For one gray and drenching moment, or a few hours in some places, strong rain doused some of Australia’s deadly flames. And all rejoiced.
How Many Animals Have Died in Australia’s Wildfires? A professor estimated this week that a billion animals had died in the bushfires. But where are these numbers coming from?
Australia’s Leader Calls for Inquiry Into Government Response to Fires: In an interview with the local media, Prime Minister Scott Morrison expressed regret but reiterated that economic concerns would still play a key role in climate policies.
Opinion| Why Australia Is Burning: As firefighters battle flames across the country, Australia’s prime minister is fighting to keep climate change out of the conversation.
Australia’s Fires Test Its Winning Growth Formula: The country’s vulnerable environment and growing dependence on China have raised questions about the sustainability of its economic success.
Looking Toward a New Era of Australian Cuisine: After two years of exploring the country’s food scene, our critic wonders what will deepen its mark on the world.
Air Pollution, Evolution and the Fate of Billions of Humans: It’s not just a modern problem: Airborne toxins are so pernicious that they may have shaped our DNA over millions of years.
Wildfires Mar First Days of Play at Australian Open Qualifiers: Smoke from the fires shrouded the courts and caused one player to double over in coughing fits.
Smoked Salmon From New Zealand: Add this cold-smoked Ora King salmon to your next brunch spread.
Reducing Fire, and Cutting Carbon Emissions, the Aboriginal Way: As blazes rage in southern Australia, Indigenous fire-prevention techniques that have sharply cut destructive bushfires in the north are drawing new attention.
Around the Times
Saudi Society Is Changing. Just Take a Look at These Coffeehouses: As the government relaxes restrictions on men and women working and socializing together, coffeehouses are on the front lines of change.
A Japanese Politician Is Taking Paternity Leave. It’s a Big Deal: Shinjiro Koizumi, the son of a popular ex-prime minister, was praised for setting an example for Japan’s workaholic fathers.
Iran’s President Lashes Out at Europeans Over Crumbling Nuclear Deal: With the government in Tehran under pressure, President Hassan Rouhani warned that European troops could be in “danger.”
Putin’s Power Shake-up: Here Are Six Takeaways: Is Vladimir Putin Russia’s president for life? Maybe. But he’s still observing the niceties.
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