Australia’s bushfire survivors demand government action on climate change

Janet Reynolds lost her home, and everything in it, during the NSW bushfires last year - now, she’s travelling to Parliament House, along with other bushfire survivors, to demand the government stops it happening again.

Fire authorities are warning of a ‘killer bushfire season’ as a heatwave hits Australia’s east coast today, with a total fire ban in many parts of NSW. This year intense heat brought serious wildfires to Sweden, California and even the Arctic, with the worst fire in Greece killing 99 people. So how is the NSW Rural Fire Service preparing for a long summer?

On August 15, 2018, Janet Reynolds was preparing to water her vegetable garden when massive winds suddenly sent a bushfire straight towards her Numbugga, NSW, home without warning.

Grabbing whatever she could and jumping in her car to flee, the 73-year-old retired school teacher found her driveway blocked by a wall of flames and a fallen tree. Fearing for her life, Ms Reynolds said she jumped out of the car, picked up the tree and threw it off the road herself.

“I thought, ‘oh no, I hope it doesn’t melt my tyres’,” she told SBS News.

“You can’t describe it. I think back now and realise I did suffer post-traumatic stress ... the skin on the backs of my hands felt as though it was burning all the time.”

Part of Janet Reynold's destroyed property. She said she is currently working to clear the land so she can rebuild.

While she escaped with her life, Ms Reynolds, who lived alone, said she lost everything else - her home, all of her photos of family and friends, love letters and drawings from the children she had taught over the years.

“All that’s left is ash, melted glass, fractured ceramics and melted iron," she said.

Almost six months after that fateful day, Ms Reynolds along with other members of Bushfire Survivors for Climate Action will travel to Parliament House in Canberra on Thursday to demand politicians take action on climate change to help stop future bushfires.

“You think of all the people that are going to be threatened if something isn’t worked out now,” Ms Reynolds said.

“It really does worry me.

“We want our government to show that they have the intelligence and the passion to really look after our country for all the people that live here, so they are not living in constant fear.”

She's hoping that after meeting with politicians, the government will take climate change's links to dangerous bushfires more seriously. 

Janet Reynolds said she is worried what will happen if the government doesn't act on climate change.
Source: Supplied

According to the State of the Climate 2018 report, there has been a long-term increase in extreme fire conditions and the length of bushfire seasons in Australia since the 1950s. 

The report, authored by the CSIRO and the Bureau of Meteorology (BoM), also found that over the coming decades, southern and eastern Australia will be facing an even longer fire season.

"Our research has shown that these trends are attributable at least in part to human-caused climate change from greenhouse gas emissions, including due to increased temperatures," Dr Andrew Dowdy, senior research scientist at BoM, told SBS News.

Australia has just experienced its warmest January ever on record, which saw Tasmania and Victoria devastated by bushfires. Meanwhile, North Queensland is recovering from unprecedented flooding while bushfires are burning in north east NSW.

The bushfire, near Casino, has already destroyed at least three homes with conditions expected to deteriorate, with two emergency warnings in place for blazes in Tingha and Tabulam.

Former volunteer firefighter and environmental scientist Robert Gardner, who is also a member of Bushfire Survivors for Climate Action, said he’s upset about the lack of action by politicians to address climate change.

Janet Reynold's property was destroyed in the NSW south coast bushfires in August 2018.
Source: Supplied

“Only this morning, I was talking to an older fellow in the coffee shop and he was saying ‘Summer is no longer enjoyable, it is a time of great stress’," he said.

“The summer season is no longer fun,” he said. “Those are the sorts of things we need to address. We don’t go away for holidays in summer anymore.”

The action group Bushfire Survivors for Climate Action formally launched last week on the 10 year anniversary of the horrific Black Saturday bushfires that killed 173 people and destroyed more than 3,500 properties.

Mr Gardner still lives in one of the areas destroyed by the Black Saturday fires and said his house was lucky to be spared. He added there’s “no question” that if nothing is done, Australians will be facing a repeat of the tragedy.

“Our fire seasons are becoming more intense, more frequent and coming earlier in the season,” he said.

“We’ll see it happen all over again and we are doing nothing to address it.”

Former Commissioner of Fire and Rescue NSW Greg Mullins said in a statement last week that bad fire seasons are “now happening almost every year”.

"After nearly 50-years fighting fires I've watched bushfire seasons gradually become longer and hotter, and bushfires become more intense,” he said.

"It makes me fear for the safety of firefighters and the wider community.”

“We want leadership and action to reverse what is happening, to protect our environment and our people. Not a lot of waffle and talk, but action and demonstration that they are taking this seriously,” Ms Reynolds said.

Published 13 February 2019 at 2:15pm, updated 13 February 2019 at 4:51pm
By Maani Truu