Waking up on New Year’s Day in Canberra, was like opening our eyes to a future we were unwilling to accept. Smoke wreathed the city, dense and grey, choking the air around us from the ground upwards.
The sun was a disconcerting fire-orange, hanging low in the sky. People walked the streets with P2 masks cloaking their faces, and doors and windows were shut tight, keeping out the smoke and keeping in the heat simultaneously.
Messages poured in from friends about their loved ones who were trapped at the coast, or their family holiday homes that were destroyed.
Over the coming weeks, as the smoke lingered and fires continued to rage, I watched as my home town became choked by the side effects of the crisis. Workplaces emailed their employees to tell them not to come in due to the smoke, which posed health and safety risk.
Outdoor businesses, including open air cinema and water parks at our lakefronts struggled to stay open. Cafes closed outdoor seating, and school holiday programs that focused on sports had to reconfigure their plans.
That was over a month ago. Now, fires rage even closer to the city of Canberra, and living with the effects has become the new normal. But it’s a ‘normal’ we weren’t ever truly prepared to accept – and that many people living in Australian cities haven’t encountered before.
As the fires have inched closer and closer to major cities and metropolitan centres, the majority of Australians who live in these areas have been given a glimpse into our potential future as the climate crisis evolves - and we are not psychologically prepared for what we see.
Unlike our fellow citizens who live in rural and regional areas that are more prone to extreme weather, those of us in cities that rarely experience such natural disasters have been thrown into a new way of life, one that is unpredictable and beholden to the erratic behaviour of a force that is beyond human control.
The majority of Australians who live in these areas have been given a glimpse into our potential future as the climate crisis evolves - and we are not psychologically prepared for what we see.
As we enter the fourth month of the fires, many of us are starting to wonder how or when this will ever end. Messages about self-care and mental health have begun doing the rounds in workplaces and on social media. An overwhelming theme is one of readjustment and grief – we are coming to terms with the idea that perhaps the consistency and safety we took for granted is more fragile than we thought.
Where many of the developing nations around us are used to a level of political instability, a scarcity of resources, and having very few back-up systems in place, Australia has held itself as most first world countries do - with faith in the systems we have carefully constructed and implemented, that are supported by millions of dollars in bureaucracy, and that have been developed over centuries.
What we haven’t necessarily accounted for is how little nature cares about our human systems - and how our complete reliance on complex systems that require technology to operate, has perhaps reduced our resilience for when a situation like the bushfire crisis emerges. People who have lost their homes and possessions are now facing the lengthy and frustrating process of navigating forms and application processes for relief – often, they are doing this without access to computers or even the internet as the infrastructure around them has been destroyed.
Many Australians my age have grown up in urban centres, with technology at our finger tips – we’re used to being able to rely on systems around us to help in a crisis. Whether that’s calling roadside assist when a tire blows, or the landlord when the roof leaks, we haven’t needed to be prepared to problem solve our way through when those supports aren’t available.
For the first time in my life (which has been spent living in cities), I am having to consider things like investing in back-up electricity generators, developing a proper bushfire survival plan that includes things like supplies of food for both humans and our pets, and the long-term preparedness of our home to withstand things like floods, fires and extreme weather.
Friends of mine have already packed bags in case fires that currently burn close to Canberra escalate, and we’ve had to consider what areas around us are suitable to evacuate to. After recent hailstorms destroyed hundreds of cars in the city, we have all been researching insurance options, considering how we need to financially plan for these sorts of sudden issues.
For the first time in my life (which has been spent living in cities), I am having to consider things like investing in back-up electricity generator.
As my partner and I look for houses to potentially buy, we’re focused on the energy efficiency of the property, the fire danger associated with the area, and the road access to and from the suburb, in case we face another crisis like this – which we almost certainly will.
This season is far from over, and no doubt the rest of the year will be spent grappling with its aftermath. If one thing is certain, it’s that life as we have known it may be over for good, and that it’s time we confronted our new reality in a world that will face growing climate emergencies.
Alongside the grief, anger and sadness many feel over the loss of properties, thousands of hectares of wildlife habitat, and of course the loss of life, is a new feeling of mourning for the life we thought we would have, and the planet we are leaving for our children to inherit.
We are having to reconsider pathways we thought would be open to us (like retiring to the coast, like generations of Canberrans have before us), and instead consider where will be safest for us as the climate worsens and becomes less predictable.
Even as we yearn for Summer to end, we also grieve the summers of our past – when December was a herald of the best time of the year, with beach visits, and temperate warmth, and blue skies that could be seen clearly, without a haze of smoke obstructing our vision.
Perhaps there are still a few of those summers left for Australia, but the summer of our naivety is certainly over for good.
Zoya Patel is the author of critically acclaimed memoir, No Country Woman.
This article has been published as part of the Stories from the Future project. Diversity Arts Australia (DARTS) invited participant writers to reflect on the Stories from the Future project, which gathers culturally and/or linguistically diverse creatives from across Australia to imagine equitable alternative futures for the arts. This project is a partnership between DARTS, the University of Sydney and state partners and receives core support from the Australia Council for the Arts, Create NSW, City of Parramatta Council and Liverpool City Council.