Another devastating fire season has come and gone in Australia, leaving in its path thousands of hectares of burnt out landscape, houses turned to ash, 129 deaths, massive loss of livestock and innumerable endemic animals gone. The very faint wisp of smoke on a 45 Celsius degree day is enough to send panicked phone calls to emergency services.
Vast tracts of farm land still smoulder. Bush land is eerily blackened. For a few weeks, the Eyre Highway was closed, isolating Western Australia from its usual conveyance of trucks laden with essential supplies. Caravans (RVs), trucks and cars were stranded in hot conditions near the Nullarbor Plain, prevented from driving because of the relentless thick smoke.
International news media beamed images around the world of the unfolding tragedy. The United States generously sent teams of skilled firefighters to help, and loaned large water bomber aircraft, only to sadly lose one fire-fighting aircraft and their dedicated pilots in the thick smoke near the Blue Mountains in New South Wales.
As the fires abate, the recovery process is now underway. Insurance assessors are hard at work responding to claims. Convoys of semi-trailer trucks are carting hay to fodder-starved farms half way across the country. Stunned residents are slowly trying to recover their lives, searching for mementos among the charcoal ruins of what was once their home.
Yet, through all this, there have been amazing moments. State Emergency Services personnel, the Fire services, the Police and other emergency services, worked tirelessly in exhausting conditions. Charities collected and distributed funds to the needy. There were notable people who rescued and cared for traumatised animals. In some cases, smaller animals survived the heat by hiding in wombat caves, dug deep into the ground. And, in a few reported cases where farmers prayed, houses were miraculously spared as the firestorm swept by, leaving a blackened, smouldering landscape.
In some parts of Australia, smoke haze still lingers, a reminder that this great dry southern continent has a history of boom and bust, fire and flood, life and death.
Throughout all this, the media, more equipped than ever before, shared a narrative that these fires were essentially caused by a lack of assertive action towards solving the “climate change” issue. The unfolding tragedy of loss and death became thus somewhat politicalised as leftist political parties attributed generous blame against more conservative voices. Notably, also, those same sources of dissent didn’t refer to the records that reveal 186 people over the past year throughout Australia where formally charged with arson-related offences.
Historically, however, this year’s fires were in some ways comparable to those fires that have been recorded since the 1800s. Records show that, to varying degrees, there has been even greater loss of life, land and property in previous seasons.
Sometimes, with such catastrophic events, we also hear a narrative that’s likened to the “end of the world”. And, for some emotionally and physically, it is. The death of a young fire brigade volunteer, whose young wife and baby are left behind, grieving. The loss of 5000 sheep was too much for one farmer and his wife. Or, an entire enterprise turned to nothing more than uninsured ashes.
In an earlier Australia that had a distinct Christian ethos, the suffering and traumatised could somehow see their vulnerability within the context of a greater transcendent reality. God would provide. God would comfort. God would restore – according to His riches. God allows these things to happen. God is with us, no matter what.
Today, we’ve evolved into a different generation whose values have changed. We’ve become a secularised country that possesses an unspoken public disdain, almost a hatred, of anything that reflects Jesus’ name. God is no longer in the nation’s psyche. Politics, education and media now speak in unison with a nuanced, “politically-correct” voice. And as a result, our way of dealing with disaster has also changed. Funding for mental health services has increased, in many cases to meet the significant rise in suicide and post-traumatic stress. No longer do we pray; in fact, when our Christian prime minister offered “thoughts and prayers” for those dispossessed by the fires, he was immediately ridiculed and taunted by a leftist media.
Another fire season has passed. Next year there’ll almost certainly be another season of flood, hail, fire or drought. There’ll be those who pray, and those who don’t. There’ll be lives lost and lessons learned. Will there also be a similar “climate change urgency” narrative, we may ask, next year?
As followers of Jesus Christ, amidst the precedent of Biblical narrative, we can wonder what does it take for a nation’s heart to turn back to God? Prosperity and material abundance (blessing) have certainly moved us further away from faith. Would a losing of all we take for granted somehow speak deeper into our pain, and cause us to seek those transcendent values our forebears held onto? It’s an interesting question as we spare a thought for those who have suffered and braved so much.
By John Klassek