WORDS BY Yessenia Funes
PHOTOGRAPH BY Michaela Skovranova
It’s been a year since Australia’s bushfire crisis drew international attention. Since then, the federal government has failed to take much action to address the root cause: the climate crisis. Advocates and scholars tell The Frontline they worry that Aboriginal communities will continue to pay the price.
This time last year, the eastern coast of Australia was ablaze. The pre-pandemic days of 2020 may feel like a lifetime ago, but the sting still burns for the Australians who survived. Indigenous and Aboriginal communities were particularly left traumatized as they saw cultural treasures light up in flames.
Since then, COVID-19 and Australia’s own racial reckoning—inspired by Black Lives Matter in the U.S.—have pushed bushfire recovery out of the national spotlight, but the country urgently needs to address the looming climate crisis, which directly contributed to the season’s ferocity.
Welcome to The Frontline, where we’re diving into what’s happened in the year since the fires. I’m Yessenia Funes, climate editor of Atmos. The current bushfire season in Australia has been relatively quiet compared to the last, but that only underscores the need to prepare as much as possible before yet another devastating one arrives.
When Bhiamie Williamson finalized his research in March of how the 2019-2020 bushfire season affected Aboriginal peoples like himself, he wasn’t entirely surprised by the findings. Williamson is a research scholar at Australian National University’s Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research, but his lived experience as an Euahlayi man informed him early on that the devastation wouldn’t be felt equally. It rarely is.
The working paper to come out of that research concluded that the fires impacted Aboriginal peoples twice as hard as the rest of the affected population. Despite making up only 2.3 percent of the population in New South Wales and Victoria where the fires raged, Aboriginal peoples made up 5.4 percent of the population living in fire-affected parts of the states.
“It’s been an unforgettable year, starting with the fires,” Williamson says. “Fortunately, a few of us working in this space were able to get out there to demonstrate to the general population how Aboriginal people were disproportionately impacted by the fires and the significant impacts they had on their mental, spiritual, and cultural health and well-being.”
What did shake him during his work was this: More than one-tenth of the children impacted were Indigenous. How will they carry this lifelong trauma? There’s a lot that remains unknown about how disasters such as these impact infants, toddlers, and children long-term. It’s even more of a mystery for Indigenous children. The scientific literature has found that, in Australia, reading and mathematical skills suffer after a child has lived through the trauma of a bushfire. The lifelong ramifications of this are not to be underestimated; scientists have suggested the trauma may hurt their cognitive and developmental process, which affect individuals far beyond the classroom.
“What we know is there is a delayed impact on children’s education,” Williamson says. “This is something that we consider to monitor and advocate for: that the services to support, in particular, young Aboriginal people to recover, to have the best opportunity at life through their education. That’s a real long-term commitment.”
Williamson’s paper only begins to uncover the serpentine ways the Black Summer—as this record-breaking season has come to be called—will forever leave its mark on the land and its inhabitants. More than 24 million hectares burned, leaving at least 33 people dead. About 3 billion animals suffered from this deadly dance of orange and red. For many Aboriginal peoples, these creatures are more than wildlife; they’re relatives.
“We know from the pandemic what a buzz of activity looks like—what real change looks like, real adaptation looks like… That’s not happening.”
Since this devastation, not much has changed—at least not at the federal level. Change is starting to happen more locally, though. For instance, the New South Wales Rural Fire Service—whose volunteers were on the frontlines of these blazes—has implemented new tactics in response to the devastation experienced a year ago, says Ben Shepherd, an inspector with the fire service. It’s updating firefighter uniforms and responding rapidly to incidents through a new aircraft system. Before the Black Summer, the service would send aircraft only after firefighters would arrive on the ground to assess the need. Now, it sends aircraft immediately to drop water as part of an effort to keep these fires as small as possible as soon as they appear.
“We know that if we can keep [the fires] under 10 hectares, then we’ll have a better chance of keeping them contained before they become problematic,” Shepherd says.
The service has seen an influx of interest in its volunteer firefighting team since last season with 8,000 new members, but COVID-19 hindered some of that growth. Regardless, the firefighters have been grateful to catch a bit of a break this summer. Thanks to La Niña, Australia has seen increased rain, which helps keep fires at bay. Unfortunately, all that rain threatens farmers out west where more grass is growing as a result, fueling fires closer to chickpea and wheat crops. So while the risk to human life is substantially lower this season, Shepherd shares that the economic impact to farmers is “enormous.”
“It’s a bit of a balancing act for some of these landholders,” he says. Too much rain is bad for their crops, but their own machines can spark fires if it’s too dry outside. “The good thing, at least, from that area is that it is generally less populated, but the fires can run very, very quickly over a broad area and have a significant impact in a short period of time.”
Meanwhile, the Australian government established a Royal Commission to look at the flaws in its response and better prepare for future bushfires or other natural disasters the climate crisis may throw its way. This commission has largely focused on publishing a report to outline all of this in detail, which came out in October as a 594-page monster. The report flagged that the current emphasis on state and local governments for emergency response needs to change; they’ll need more support at the federal level, especially when disasters cross borders (as they will). The federal government should handle large-scale evacuations and the transportation of personnel or equipment, for example.
While the report makes recommendations, the Australian government decides how it’ll move forward with them. So far, the attorney general has passed a bill to formalize a national emergency declaration process, which was one of the report’s recommendations.
The report authors also refused to hold anyone accountable for any contributions to the Black Summer’s devastation—like right-wing leaders in Australia who tried to shift attention away from the climate emergency to conspiracy theories around arson. Or Australia Prime Minister Scott Morrison, who was vacationing in Hawaii while his constituents went toe to toe with the flames.
The coronavirus pandemic has shown the way governments around the world can respond rapidly to an emergency, and David Bowman, a professor of environmental change and biology at the University of Tasmania, would like to see the Australian government take a similar approach to bushfires and the climate crisis at large. Despite the season’s rain activity, strong hot winds from La Niña could still offer bushfire potential, especially as the season enters February and March, Bowman says.
“We know from the pandemic what a buzz of activity looks like—what real change looks like, real adaptation looks like,” he says. “We’ve experienced that this year. We know what disruptive change looks like. That’s not happening… We know that we have a high vulnerability [to fires]. We know all of these. We know what to do, and we’re not doing it.”
“It’s kind of like doing what you can while the leaders do nothing.”
Bowman emphasizes the need for a “state-of-the-art warning system” to make sure people can evacuate before flames come knocking on their door. Adaptation takes time, of course, but time is running out for communities that are prone to fires. They need education to better prepare themselves, and Bowman doesn’t feel it’s coming fast enough.
“We don’t have that drilled into us of what to do,” he says. “It’s all just a big free fall! We’re going to have a massive event. It’s bloody obvious! How do you think that makes me feel?”
That reality is even more dire for Aboriginal communities across Australia, which are sometimes more remote and abandoned by governmental leaders. Annick Thomassin, a research fellow at Australian National University, is researching the recovery process for Yuin people in Mogo, an Aboriginal community southeast of the Australian capital of Canberra. Bushfires ravaged their community, leaving families homeless and the Mogo Aboriginal Land Council without a base. These buildings have yet to be rebuilt, in part, due to the slow-moving nature of the funds necessary to do so. Where the most urgent work remains is in the community’s mental health and well-being, Thomassin insists.
“It’s really shocking to see some of the mountain range [near Mogo],” she says. “The intensity of the fire was so strong. Part of the mountains in this area, you look at them over the range, and you can see space you’ve never seen before.
She can’t imagine what the Yuin people must feel to witness this mutilation to their home every day.
The Royal Commission noted in its report that governments should work more closely with Indigenous and Aboriginal peoples to improve land management, but Thomassin hopes that when changes do come, that they’re made in a way that meaningfully centers and properly resources the country’s First Peoples.
“One thing that people have to understand is that, yes, there is the cultural burning and environmental knowledge people have—and it’s extremely important—but there’s a need to generally resource this not only in terms of money but in terms of capacity for people to self-determine and to do it on their own terms,” she says.
Williamson, an Aboriginal man, echoes these concerns. He’s not sure that the Australian government has enough qualified and skilled policymakers who know how to engage with Aboriginal communities in a meaningful way that isn’t exploitative. Still, he remains optimistic. After all, Aboriginal advocates have been building off the energy of Black Lives Matter in the U.S. to highlight the inequities that still exist for them over in Australia—especially around police brutality and Aboriginal death in custody.
These vulnerable communities across Australia need more than simply money to be better prepared come the next raging summer. They need self-determination over that money. They need non-Indigenous allies willing to take a “decolonial journey,” as Williamson called it. They need their land back.
“We know that the federal government does not want to tackle climate change in any real way,” Williamson says. “People are really starting to question and look to solutions to see how they can better manage their environment to safeguard their lives, their properties, and their assets. And for Aboriginal people, looking after the land and all the creatures, plants, and animals that live on it. It’s kind of like doing what you can while the leaders do nothing.”
The good will of governmental leaders won’t be enough if Australia is to survive another Black Summer. What its people need—especially the land’s First Peoples—is action.