Welcome to Australia’s climate change reality
EXACTLY a year ago, my family started our Sunday in the same way that we started most summer weekends: at the beach in Tathra, with a picnic and a swim to beat the heat.
But the peaceful morning quickly gave way to chaos as I checked the RFS app on the way home, having heard about nearby fires in Victoria. It was a horribly hot day, with a dry north-westerly wind, so I knew our area was at risk too.
It was bad news. The app showed an uncontrolled fire burning just 10 kilometres away from our town, and we went from relaxed to emergency response mode in a matter of minutes.
First, we got the kids out of harm's way. My partner Jane and I sent our children, 11-year old Jasmine and five-year old Joey down to the beach with our neighbour.
Next, we started preparing for the fire, which was fast approaching our home. This involved whipper snipping around the house, clearing flammables away, and filling up every tub we could find with water, because the mains water pressure was dropping rapidly.
Jane and I kitted up in nonflammable, protective gear to prepare for what we knew was a tough fight to save our house. We set up in the backyard, so we could water the gutters and the yard. We would retreat to the house if it got too hot, and then to our vehicles if our house caught fire.
So we waited for the fire front, the roar of the fires growing louder and the flames approaching.
At this point, I have got to say I was terrified. Eventually, it reached us, and as expected, it was too hot and dangerous to stay outside.
We retreated inside, as the fire front went over our house. Then came the ember attacks, with burning embers raining down on us like a severe hailstorm. Jane and I went outside once they subsided and started dousing all the lit embers we could see.
Over the next two hours, we kept working despite the fact that at one point I felt like I might pass out due to a lack of oxygen because of the smoke and burning.
Jane, who is a total legend, even spent time on the neighbour's houses. Her efforts saved two or three nearby homes.
But the fight wasn't over for us. Despite our efforts to save our neighbour Steve's house, the flames won. Steve's house was destroyed, as were several others on our street.
The flames and radiant heat from surrounding fires threatened the flammable pine deck surrounding our pool, and a studio and ensuite bathroom that are separate from the house. I had to take some pretty extreme measures to protect this, including cutting off parts of the deck with a chainsaw, and punching holes through the ensuite bathroom wall to bucket in water.
After what felt like forever, we managed to get the situation under control, even as we saw surrounding houses collapse.
Jane left to locate our neighbour and the children, while I stayed to monitor our home and help any neighbouring properties that I could. I spent the next few hours with a torch, hoses and buckets putting out little fires and checking on my house and those of my neighbours, some of whom were 80 years old.
Now, one year on, the memories of the smoke and the flames and the adrenaline-fuelled fight to save our home are still so vivid.
But while I feel incredibly grateful for our good fortune and our supportive community, I can't help but wonder when our luck will run out. Climate change is increasing bushfire danger in our part of the country, and fire seasons are getting longer and more intense.
Our new reality is the constant threat of fires hanging over our community, and we're constantly on alert, even outside the normal fire season.
While there has thankfully been no immediate fire risk to our home again, I am nevertheless feeling the lingering impacts of the fires.
For instance, the insurance premiums on my business have gone up because Bega, NSW, is now considered a high risk postcode. As more areas become vulnerable to climate risks, rising premiums are here to stay.
I, and the thousands of other bushfire survivors around Australia, will never forget the day we lost everything, or came very close to doing so.
Too many dates on the calendar are already darkened by memories of a difficult day, and with the horrible fires that have occurred since Tathra - in Queensland, Victoria, and Tasmania, just to name a few - there'll be plenty more anniversaries to come.
We know that when we continue to let climate change remain unchecked, more Australians than ever will be in the firing line.
To stop this growing threat to Australians, our economy, and our wellbeing, we need to stop burning fossil fuels and transition to 100 per cent renewable energy, so that climate change doesn't get worse.
And we need to do it now, before the consequences of inaction are too high a price to pay.
Nick Graham-Higgs is the founding director of NGH Environmental and has been an environmental practitioner for more than 25 years.