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The Land on Fire

Before there was the pandemic, there were the bushfires.

This morning it is sunny and warm. From my bed I can see a blue sky freckled with white clouds. Cockatoos and parrots flit past. All seems calm and comfortable. From outside I can hear the usual bustling of a farm morning, but beyond our acreage the national park is drowned in an eerie quietness. At eye-level, my window reveals the scars of the recent fires and floods that have ravaged New South Wales. The forest that slopes down the hill looks like a moonless midnight. From the trees emanates a force that I imagine a black hole would feel like... A resounding absence of life.

Here in Taralga, a blink of a town on the outskirts of the Blue Mountains National Park, they have experienced the disaster that much of the country has seen in the past months. In January, an enormous bushfire raged through the area. Thankfully, the rural community’s volunteer fire-fighting service saved almost all residences, but the surrounding mountains are decimated.

The fires are a daily topic of conversation, whether in the city or the country. A two-year drought has plagued Australia and, combined with increasing restrictions against controlled burning, the bush was in a prime state for a major fire. Local “fireys” at the pub explain how the increase of residents in rural areas has put a halt to the necessary hazard reduction burns. (Compared with 100 years ago, there are many more human assets scattered about so controlled burning poses too much risk.) Those who have not had flames in their fields are not optimistic that they have been spared: “It’s not an ‘if,’ but a ‘when’.”

Because of the buildup of fuel, these fires have burnt more furiously than ever before. The flames are not 2 meters but 60 meters tall, moving as fast as 50 miles an hour. Skills that have been honed for survival in this environment, such as climbing trees or rapid ground cover, are no longer enough to save the Australian wildlife. White bones are scattered unceremoniously amidst the singed forest.

Australia is famous for having “four seasons in a day.” The weather changes on a dime; storms brew from clear skies and hail replaces sun rays in less than a minute. Locals say the swings have gotten more extreme in the past years. Only days after the fire here in the Blue Mountains, the heavens opened and more than 200ml of rain poured down in a matter of hours. The debris of the incineration was swept down hillsides by the ash-tainted water. Blackened trees took their final bows, rocks tumbled loose. It hasn’t rained this much here since 1961. Neighbors passing each other on washed out roads roll down the windows of their utes and ask: “what’s next!?”

The traumatized wildlife in this region that managed to survive the blazing heat, smoke, and starvation were then met with freezing temperatures and torrential rains. The flood conditions were exceptionally perilous for the already exposed and defenseless animals. Tragically ironic, most of those who survived the burning died of hypothermia... Amid the fire’s bones are the flood’s carcasses of iconic Australian animals: kangaroos, wallabies, wombats, koalas, and more.

Walking amid the destruction, we mourn.

It is silent.

And still.

Save for some red-bellied black snakes which I scream at.

I am staying with Dr. Andrea Harvey, an energetic vet originally from the UK. Andrea is heavily involved in the ongoing debate regarding brumby management. She is currently finishing a PhD on wild horse welfare analysis and is on the scientific advisory board for wild horse management in Kosciusko National Park. We discuss the various angles of the concerns regarding the brumby population in Australia as we feed her herd of 30+ rescued brumbies and do chores around the yard. She shares with me valuable insights from her research and involvement in the debate over brumby welfare and appropriate management.

Along with horses, the yard is “chocker block” with goats, geese, sheep, chooks, cockatoos, parrots, donkeys, kangaroos, and more. All rescues, a couple still have special privileges, like Gertie the goat who lives on my veranda and keeps me on a strict curfew (she’ll start bleating if I’m late to bed). Toffee the rescue kitten also lives in my quarters. She’s a bit laxer about when we go to bed but wouldn’t be caught dead letting me sleep alone. My favorite four-legged resident is the wombat who’s bunking in the feed room as he recovers from mange and hypothermia. (You have to be careful not to disturb his snoozies when getting grain.)

We finally got electricity back on Thursday (it has been out for two weeks). There were whoops of celebration as hot water finally trickled out of the shower head. Thankfully, I had not opened the freezer while the power was out… as I’m not sure if the snake in the plastic bag would have un-thawed enough to regain consciousness.

As always, much more to come soon…

~Cello Lockwood

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