In a folder titled ‘Armageddon’ are photos of what Graeme Freedman (66) found just after New Years after bushfires completely destroyed his home just outside the Australian village of Cobargo two years ago. In one of the photos, his wife Robeyn stands dazed among the rubble, a basket of eggs in hand. It was bizarre, he says. “The chickens were dead in the coop, everything was destroyed. But the eggs were still whole.”
The cows tried to escape the fire. The animals were found a few pastures away, their hooves so badly burned that the bones were exposed. “It was eerily quiet when we got back,” Freedman recalls. “The smoke was still in the air. There were no birds. The only thing that broke the silence now and then was a gunshot, when someone shot an animal to put it out of its misery.”
The fires, which have come to be known as the Black Summer Fires, burned large parts of eastern Australia to ashes. Cobargo, in the southeastern state of New South Wales, was largely destroyed on New Year’s Eve 2019. Half an hour after the Freedmans fled, the house and barn burned to the ground in a firestorm. Eighteen of their animals, including cats, cows, chickens and two dogs, also died. Though they’ve lost everything, Graeme Freedman says it could have been worse. The neighbors chose to stay and fight the fire. They didn’t survive that.
The scars of the fires are still visible in the landscape. From a distance, the rolling hills are green, but the trees are dead and bare.
The fires in Australia were world news. 24 million hectares of land were destroyed, almost six times the surface of the Netherlands. 33 people were killed and about 450 people later died prematurely from smoke poisoning. Ten thousand houses and buildings went up in flames.
Two years later, it is mainly charities that still provide aid. “Many people still live in caravans or sheds,” says Leanne Atkinson of the Catholic Social Services organization. Often there is not even running water. That is why Atkinson has set up a project to provide turnkey toilets. “A kind of Ikea kit that you can set up anywhere,” she explains. These workarounds will be necessary for some victims for years to come.
In the days following the fire, Prime Minister Scott Morrison visited the village. His plan to show commitment failed utterly. Some residents called him an idiot, others refused to shake his hand. Morrison couldn’t hold himself. Images of it went around the world. “Scott is never welcome in Cobargo again,” says Graeme Freedman. “He had not prepared the country for the wildfire season, while we knew it was going to be very severe. There were no firefighters to protect us. We’ve been let down left to burn.”
The two billion Australian dollars (1.25 billion euros) that Morrison made available for the recovery is mainly intended for entrepreneurs and for projects such as mental health care. The programs are coming to an end, while more than half of the amount has not yet been spent. “All we want is for them to actually spend this money on recovery,” Freedman says. “And that they help people build their houses. Now it is on an account to draw interest.”
The site where the Freedmans’ house once stood is still a construction site. For over a year and a half they lived in a caravan in their yard, recently they are staying in a small bungalow. The construction of the new house will take at least another four years at this rate.
The slow recovery has a number of causes. Many people were not or insufficiently insured. Immediately after the forest fires, victims received a one-off $1,000 (640 euros) from the government to provide for their first needs, but that is a drop in the ocean.
A permit is required for rebuilding. Applying for this is a slow and bureaucratic process that can take months. Then people encounter a huge lack of material and manpower, which has caused the costs to skyrocket. Even victims who were insured, such as the Freedmans, get into trouble because of this. “Costs have risen so much that we are at least $100,000 short,” Freedman says. That is converted to 64,000 euros.
The delay has increased further due to the pandemic. Because Australians have spent little money due to the very strict lockdowns and closed borders, many are now putting it into renovations. Also, now that remote working has become the norm, people have moved from the cities to the countryside. As a result, the market is completely overheated.
“Corona has killed us,” Freedman says. “Some construction companies don’t even want to take orders from forest fire victims. It is often too remote and too complicated.” As a result, only about 7 percent of the victims in this area have finished rebuilding.
This year, eastern Australia has been spared extreme bushfires due to La Niña, the weather phenomenon that has seen sea temperatures in part of the Pacific Ocean drop below average. That causes a lot of rain in this area. But it’s a temporary reprieve from the inevitable: more fires.
According to a report by the national science agency CSIRO, published in Nature, shows that the average annual area lost in Australia to bushfires has increased by 800 percent over the past 32 years.
Immediately after the fires, a parliamentary inquiry was conducted into how things could get out of hand and what should be done to prepare for future fires. The report, with eighty recommendations, has been shelved for the time being. Important recommendations, such as increasing firefighting capacity, protecting wildlife and increasing education, have not yet been implemented.
The researchers write that the known techniques to prevent forest fires, such as the preventive burning of shrubs, are becoming less effective due to climate change. The fire brigade has less chance, because the summers last longer and are much hotter.
The overarching cause for the extreme weather has been revealed time and again in studies: climate change. But that is the most polarizing theme in Australian politics and has already cost many politicians their heads. In November, just before the climate summit in Glasgow, Morrison promised at the last minute that Australia will be carbon neutral by 2050. But the urgency to significantly reduce emissions before 2030, as scientists are advocating, is not being felt in Canberra. Nobody wants to burn their hands on this theme, which is sensitive, among other things, because of the enormous Australian mining sector.
Sara Tilling runs the local animal shelter in Cobargo, which went up in smoke on New Year’s Eve 2019. There are still blackened trees around the shelter. “Virtually all the kangaroos, wallabies and koalas in this area have died,” she says.
It’s dinner time for the kid joey’s. Tilling walks to the fence with bottles of milk, the kangaroos jump towards her. After the forest fires, she had to kill a number of animals with her own hands because they were so badly burned. That won’t let her go. She lives in fear of another fire. “You can make a house fireproof, but we can’t possibly prepare the animals. The thought of losing everything again is unbearable.”
These are the invisible scars left by the wildfires. According to aid worker Atkinson, a cure is still a long way to go. “The community is extremely traumatized and because of corona these people have been forgotten. People think they have to get over it, but how can that be if they still live with the consequences every day?”
Also read: Entrepreneurs Australia do not wait for grudging climate policy
A version of this article also appeared in NRC Handelsblad on 30 December 2021
A version of this article also appeared in NRC in the morning of December 30, 2021
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