I’ve worked on climate change for 10 years. The Australian bushfires burnt down my family’s farm

“The farm is on fire” my mum said, as a red blush of fear rushed into her skin. “Fiona is trapped inside the house. She can’t get out”. 

Suddenly a story I had seen and heard on the news for months on end as an abstract nightmare had hit our family head on, and I stood in a living room 250 kilometres away, not knowing what to do. 

The fire front had burnt through paddocks encircling the house, and fireballs had blown up a wooden bridge that stood as the only access point to the farm. 

Credits: Chris Wright.

Frantically we began calling everyone we knew, asking them if there was anything they could do to help. Many answered, but weren’t sure what they could do. The fires were burning up and down the whole south coast. The situation was so bad that the Rural Fire Service had close the Highways for hundreds of kilometres. 

Our friends and family in town couldn’t make it out, and the fire trucks never did. Then the phone lines went down, and we didn’t hear anything for hours. 

The Prime Minister uploaded a Facebook video. He told us to be “patient and calm”. I wanted to scream.  

Credits: Chris Wright.

Two hours later, a text message came through simply saying “I’m ok”, but with no more information we didn’t know what to make of it, or when it was sent.

Finally, 90 mins later, we made first contact again with my Aunt. She was OK.  

After hours of waiting on a response for help, we learned that it was a neighbour that braved impenetrable smoke walls and unpredictable fireballs, drove through paddocks consumed in fire, and helped my aunt and a close family friend escape from the fire that surrounded them. Without his bravery, I am not sure what would have happened. 

“It was so hot you couldn’t stand up. I don’t even want to think about it…” my aunt explained over the phone as she described what had happened. She then began to list all the losses. 

“The sheds are gone, the truck is gone…the chickens are dead….half the cows are gone…the farm is gone…I don’t know if the house is going to be ok…” as we began to get a small snapshot of the impact of the fires on a farm that my Grandfather, who worked in forestry, used to say “would never burn”. 

Only three days before, we had spent Christmas together on that same farm. Every day for a week we watched new smoke plumes on the nearby Western hills turn red at night. We walked on white sand and watched rows of ash-filled tides line the beaches in blackened leaves. 

But no matter how big the smoke plumes rose, we took comfort in stories of how the house had stood there for over a hundred years. It had never seen a bushfire. Many had come close in the past. But even as the calls to evacuate the area came in, we felt like we would be safe. 

Even that morning, as temperatures across New South Wales began to rise above 40º C and winds began to howl at 60 km/h, we didn’t know how bad things could get. Then just after 10am, we received the call; “The farm’s on fire…I can’t get out.”

In the end, the Currawan fire front swept through my grandfather’s farm on the last day of 2019, and burnt black what had been the lush-green, kangaroo-bound backdrop of my childhood. Twenty-six Angus cows died. Fourteen chicken. Countless endemic species gone. The house amazingly survived, but two neighbours’ houses didn’t. 

Credits: Chris Wright.

Three days later, fires swept through again, but most of the damage had been done.

The highways opened up shortly after, and we have spent most our time since then with family, close by, trying to understand how to clean up and rebuild. 

The landscape is scattered in shadowy, burnt out trees, smouldering stumps and black, empty soil dotted in shrivelled deadbrown leaves. 

We don’t have power yet on the farm, so we’re staying with cousins and everyone’s sharing what they have. We have a big family and lots of support. We’re lucky. Luckier than most down here. 

The community of Conjola is a 5-minute drive from our family’s farm. They lost 89 houses and three locals died that day. Most died in their cars, trying to get away. 

Everyone across the South Coast has been affected. Many are worried they haven’t seen the last of the fires this year. Many people are homeless, or fear they may be soon.

This last week, it has become common to greet people by saying; “Did you get hit by the fires?” or “Is your house OK?”. 

Credits: Chris Wright.

It’s also become common to hear of amazing stories of people helping each other out. On the day after the fires hit, we had friends from across the region come to the farm in 4×4 cars to help put out spot-fires and see if they could help out. 

Over the next weeks, I’ll try to tell some of these stories, and what it feels like here. For the last week, I have’t been able to concentrate long enough to do so. 

The fires are still raging across Australia, and will do so for the next two months. There is  rain due to fall later this week, but there still hundreds of fires across Australia, 100,000 tonnes of wood chips burning in Eden, and the Gippsland and Kangaroo Island fires may only be stopped by flooding rains that are nowhere near on the horizon. 

Many more families may face scarier days than we have, and I expect the estimates of over one billion wildlife lost will go up again. Australians have been breathing in bushfire smoke for months now, and experts don’t even know what the health impacts might be. 

Credits: Chris Wright.

What I do know is that these fires were predicted. We didn’t know exactly when or where, but back in 2008, our best scientists and economists said that by 2020 my region would experience worse fires than we had seen before. 

Those predictions were not only ignored, and joked about on Hawaiian holidays and Pacific leaders jaunts, they were profited on. 

Billions of dollars have been handed out in fossil fuel subsidies and tax-free profits to protect an industry they all knew, was fuelling the climate crisis.

For now, this is what Australia’s worst climate crisis has done to our family’s farm. 

Credits: Chris Wright.