A Summer Like No Other - Bushfires, Fear, Famly, Hope and Change


This summer in Australia is like no other. After days, weeks, spent glued to ABC24, watching fire after fire consume eastern Australia (even the King’s Highway, gateway to the coast) my family finally trek down the mountain on our long-delayed break. The reality of the recent inferno flashes past my windscreen. The usual colour movie of Australian greenery has suddenly become monochrome. Black-and-white sticks, once trees, perch vertically - or often, lay flat - on bare, scorched earth. Where are the ferns, the cycads, the birds? Where is the dappled shading of the road? Tears drip, and my conversation dies.

During our short stay at our beloved South Coast, I discover myself reflecting, daily, on the changes to our lives since these fires began. We visit homes of family and friends, who've lost sheds, gardens - and hope - through the ravages of fire. We evacuate, we return.

Everywhere I go, I add to my mental list of what I’m learning about the new summer experience:

When visiting the fire-devastated NSW South Coast:

  1. So many emotions:
    • Grief. For those that have lost their homes, their farms, their livelihood, their lifestyle.
    • Grief, utter and unbearable, for the incalculable loss of native birds, animals, insects, and their habitat.
    • Guilt for having a home to return to, when so many residents have lost theirs. For having a holiday, when so many cannot.
    • Helplessness. Wanting to assist, rather than be a burden on now scarce resources, to a community already burdened.
    • Hope. Resolving to invest in experiences, purchases, in these towns that have lost so much
    • Fear and confusion, because wherever I am there is bush that could burn – and yet the bush is part of what I love about the coast
    • A bit of shame – am I a voyeur when I gaze at the sticks and bare ground that once was a vibrant bushland home to a vast number of creatures; or at the skeletons of someone’s home, their business?
    • Gratitude and awe, as I watch pilots in amphibious planes skim the river, kissing the surface just enough to gulp in quantities of water, then skilfully turning back towards the mountain fires. Over and over again.
  2. When I pack my car to travel, I pack a woollen blanket (in case of fire), and litres and litres of water, as well as extra food (in case of fire and the road is closed).
  3. In our bags of summer clothes, we include jeans and a cotton long sleeved shirt (even a woollen jumper), and our sensible hiking boots. Just in case.
  4. Every day, usually several times a day, I check the Rural Fire Service (RFS) website for the state of fires in my area. We create a ‘watch’ zone, and jump each time my phone buzzes with an alert from the Fires Near Me app.
  5. I watch the weather websites. Intently. Is today a fire day? A potential fire day? Is it windy? What’s the forecast? I learn how wind direction will propel fire behaviour.
  6. I notice that the normally bustling coastal Saturday morning markets are smaller, subdued, and sombre. I hear fire stories at every stall. How one stall holder has lost his house, his nursery. And his housemate, who perished defending the home.
  7. When I go to bed, I make sure the car (now always with a near-full tank of petrol), is parked facing outwards, for a quick escape.
  8. For the same reason, I put the car keys and my wallet in an easily accessible place; and I am semi-packed, ready to leave.
  9. I am grateful to generous and kind neighbours for checking on us, and passing on the emergency warning and evacuation notice that somehow, I did not receive
  10. I learn that police visit in fire emergency, and that we have to make a decision to stay or leave. If we stay, police put our name on a list. I think of what that list could mean.
  11. I learn to leave the gate open, to allow access to our place by the fire-fighters. And that it’s important to empty the kitchen bin before you leave . . . and to turn off the gas.
  12. The scud of that sea breeze, once so welcome, is now tinged with anxiety. How strong is the wind? What direction is it blowing? Are there gusts? Is it stoking the flames still burning in the mountains behind us?
  13. The constant buzz of helicopter rotors and of small planes as they pass over head, raises my heartbeat, sends my eyes to the sky.
  14. I am always on alert, listening for the wind, detecting the faintest whiff of smoke.
  15. I tread carefully around the subject of climate change and hazard reduction burns when talking with locals. I am obsessed with reading about prescribed burning. I know that strategic hazard reduction is just a part of prevention, but strong action to reduce the impact of climate change is essential. The people I talk with are people I respect and admire, good people, kind people. Perhaps influencing through relationship is my best bet . . . but it’s so hard to listen, rather than lecture.
  16. I am grateful for the jewels of peace, of joy. Kayaking with my child on sunlit-clear water, on a smoke-free day, through emerald-green mangroves, not a breeze to ruffle the smooth river surface.
  17. Owners of holiday houses consider renting to those who have lost their homes. For us, this will mean losing access to a place of family memory, while the coastal community will lose our custom. But we have a roof over our head, and another to share.

At home (a bush fire zone):

  1. Smoke-free air is rare. P2 masks are the new chic.
  2. A glowing orange sun once just meant a beautiful sunset; now it signifies fear and death, the sun cellaphoned in a shroud of smoke and ash from nature’s cremation.
  3. The tussle we have as to whether to close up our summer-heated house at night, or opening the windows for the cool night air – knowing the price will be to fill every cubic centimetre with acrid smoke.
  4. Our bush-fire plan is an evolving discussion within the family. We prioritise. What is important? Worth saving? We realise that lives and family (including pets) are first.
  5. The list of items to pack is easily accessible. Evacuation centres are identified. A sad reason for a family meeting.

As a parent:

  1. I am honest about my fear, and my reasons, with my children.
  2. Our bush fire plan discussions begin with the practical – what will we do, where will we go, what will we pack in case of fire?
  3. Our talks broaden. I listen: to my children's concerns, their sense of hopelessness and helplessness. My daughter says “The world is messed up, and there is no such thing as normal. The new normal is no normal”
  4. We talk climate change. We talk politics. My teen is aghast, noting that in her lifetime, a heat wave seems to have moved from days of 35°C to days of 40+°C.

The Big Picture:

  1. This summer, there is little point in planning. I learn to be flexible, to let go, to live with my decisions.
  2. The fear is relentless. Every day. Will there be a fire near me, or in an area which I know and love? Or anywhere, really.
  3. Nothing seems permanent.
  4. We stop taking aspects of our life for granted, such as electricity, gas, water - and roads that lead to our favourite places.
  5. I can’t shake the feeling that life has changed forever. What will my children know as their present, their future?
  6. The bush, where my heart lives, calls to me in pain. There is a shadow of threat now, as we travel our tree-lined streets and highway.
  7. We ask ourselves - what can we do? What is our responsibility, what changes can we make to reduce our footprint, to reduce emissions? We realise this is not just a government problem - this is our problem.
  8. We understand that our way of life, what we took for granted, has changed forever. We can’t go back.
  9. I find it hard to be optimistic, yet I am determined to be so. I begin to notice, to be grateful. When the sky is clear, when the temperature is lower, when the clouds bring rain, when I hear my favourite birds call – I notice. When my children laugh, when the dog snores, when my husband cooks a delicious meal – I notice. When I walk through the desolate bush and see the new green growing in the blackened earth – I notice. And I hope.

Next Summer

As this horror summer draws to a close, and the rains finally fall, I find myself forgetting. Until I look back at the photos of December and January, sepia coloured, smoke filled. Summer now will be a season of caution.

©Larissa Dann 2020


Larissa, how deeply and profoundly you capture the very essence of the South Coast fire disasters, many of us back in the city could only gather a sense of the loss for those involved...while we watched the media reports unfolding from the safety of our lounge rooms. Your ability to share your experiences of your own family and others, and capture in words is a wonderful skill. My tears are yours. Thank you

Thank you, sincerely, Hilda, for your kind words. I'm humbled to hear that I've painted a picture of one impact of the fires. I think that the entire country is suffering, in varying degrees, from this terrible season.

Thank you for writing this honest and thoughtful piece. It really helps to read what others have been through and are thinking. So many of your phrases resonated and made me shiver with recognition. Wonderfully written.

Thank you so much, Andra. This has been, and continues to be, a very difficult time for us all. I sincerely appreciate your thoughts. Take care.

Larissa, you have such a gift for capturing the reality of the terror the bushfires caused for those at the Coast this summer. Being right there and sharing the emotional reality in such powerful points communicates succinctly your fears and hopes for the future. You’ve created such vivid images by so honestly sharing this experience. Hope and optimism is our way forward and as nature rebounds so will all of us who felt so worried and anxious this summer.

Thank you, Judith. I'm touched to hear that I painted a realistic picture of the fires as experienced by our family. Much appreciated.

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