• ‘Australia Burns: Silence of the Land’. (Shane McLachlan)Source: Shane McLachlan
Were the worst fires in our nation’s history a random and inexplicable tragedy or is a lack of meaningful action on climate change to blame?
Kate Myers

4 Nov 2021 - 3:42 PM  UPDATED 8 Nov 2021 - 9:17 AM

The bushfire season of 2019–20 was one of the hottest, driest and most destructive in Australia’s history. The east coast of the country was ablaze, with flames reaching heights up to seventy metres, and the world watched on in horror as homes, ecosystems and entire communities were burnt to the ground.

It was a defining moment for our nation that no one wanted to be a part of. The trail of destruction left by the fire fronts that erupted up and down the state of New South Wales was something no fire index or weather forecast could have predicted.

Many wondered how this could have happened. Worse still was the lingering question: was humanity, in fact, to blame? Australia Burns: Silence Of The Land chronicles the events of that catastrophic season and asks whether such fires could ever be explained as the random tragedy that some suggested they were, or if they were instead a planet at breaking point, a cry for help from Mother Nature, and a preview of an inevitable and devastating future.

As the documentary pieces together the events that unfolded, told by those who were on the front line, the inclusion of personal footage and the stories that accompany it offer an unfiltered and emotional account that captures the true toll of the fires. Director Shane McLachlan’s commitment to an authentic recounting of these moments is evident from the start as each individual is given the space to share their experience and reflect on the lasting impact of what they witnessed without the need for embellishment or overproduction.

The reality of what unfolded speaks for itself. The carnage of the bushfires is at the forefront; however, the documentary also looks at the issues behind the flames, giving voice to those who understand the land and its unique ecosystems best, and powerfully asserting how the absence of meaningful action on climate change played a role in the fire’s irreparable damage to the natural environment.

A total fire ban was in force on the fateful day when crews arrived on Yuin Country in Moruya, a small town on the far south coast of NSW. It should have been the end of the usual fire season, but as deputy captain Justin Robinson explains in the opening moments of the documentary, when his team disembarked after a five-hour journey from base, it was clear there was no time to waste. This was a season that showed no signs of easing any time soon.

A fire front ravaged the northwest of the town, and Robinson’s crew drove straight into the heart of the inferno, ready to defend properties and save those cornered by the blaze. The story of what they were confronted with in the hours that followed is one echoed throughout the documentary. It was a fire that the town will never forget, not least due to the lives it claimed, but sadly this was not an isolated incident. Instead, interviews with experts including former Commissioner of Fire and Rescue New South Wales, Greg Mullins, show the widespread reality of what was left behind in the wake of the multiple fire fronts that engulfed the state, and the frustration and anger at the denial that continues to permeate government policy.

Though bushfires are an accepted part of Australian life, an unrelenting nine months fighting out-of-control flames was, in the opinion of climate scientist and writer, Dr. Joelle Gergis, a sobering reminder of our status as “the most vulnerable nation in the developed world when it comes to climate change.” For Dr. Gergis, and indeed for many others who share their insights, there was nothing ‘natural’ about the extent of the fires and their ferocity. While they could be attributed to any number of causes, the conditions that fuelled the fires were indisputably and ashamedly the result of climate change.

In their opinion, it was also not enough to see repairing the damage of the fires as simply rebuilding homes and supporting communities; entire species had been put at risk, and Australia’s unique flora and fauna remain in danger of permanent extinction should fires like these become a regular occurrence. These are facts that some in positions of authority would rather ignore. “Most people really haven’t fathomed that we are witnessing a large-scale ecosystem collapse on our watch right now,” Dr. Gergis shares.

The need to find ways to control and prevent future fires on this scale is the core of the documentary’s message. As more stories of that Black Summer come to light, the benefit of hindsight reveals that the incomparable knowledge of the bush held by Aboriginal people is one largely underused resource that could have made a real difference to the outcome. After all, cultural burns have played a critical role in mitigating the threat posed by fire on the continent for thousands of years.

In his reflection on the horrors of that season, Den Barber, Wiradjuri man and Founding Director of Koori Country Firesticks Aboriginal Corporation reiterates the importance of reviving this ancient practice to get ahead of the problem, an approach that could have significantly reduced what was, in his view, unnecessary destruction of Country.

Wildlife conservationists have been left similarly reeling in the aftermath of the inferno due to the horrific loss of a billion animals during the fire season. It’s hard to watch as representatives from organisations across the state tell of the influx of injured species in the wake of the blaze, and the heartbreaking impact on their own sanctuaries, with the loss of an entire mob of eastern grey kangaroos just one of numerous heart-wrenching tales.

It’s the permanency of these losses, and the possibility that we could have done something to avoid such a catastrophe, that is hard to ignore.

The contributors to the documentary are unanimous in the question they pose to those in positions of influence and indeed to all Australians: how much are we prepared to lose? 

“Mother Nature’s really pissed off at us,” former Commissioner Mullins says. “We can’t deal with Mother Nature when she is in a mood like this, it’s too much.” As the documentary delves into the lasting effect of that season, and progress on climate reform proves painfully slow, it’s clear that our fight to save our home has only just begun.

Australia Burns: Silence Of The Land  is now streaming at SBS on Demand:

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