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 farmland 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.
Tragedy and recovery
International news media beamed images around the world of the unfolding tragedy. The United States generously sent teams of skilled firefighters to help. It also loaned large water bomber aircraft, only to sadly lose one fire-fighting aircraft and its 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 halfway across the country. Stunned residents are slowly trying to recover their lives, searching for mementos among the charcoal ruins of what were once their homes.
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. Notable people rescued and cared for traumatized 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 toward solving the climate change issue. The unfolding tragedy of loss and death became thus somewhat politicalized 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 were formally charged with arson-related offences.
Historically, however, this year’s fires were in some ways comparable to those that have been recorded since the 1800s. Records show that, to varying degrees, there was even greater loss of life, land, and property in previous seasons.
Sometimes such catastrophic events are likened to the “end of the world.” And for some, emotionally and physically, it is — like the death of a young fire brigade volunteer, whose young wife and baby are left behind, grieving. The loss of 5,000 sheep was too much for one farmer and his wife. Or an entire enterprise that turned to nothing more than uninsured ashes.
In an earlier Australia that had a distinct Christian ethos, the suffering and traumatized 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 secularized 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.
Dealing with disaster
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, amid 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 loss 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.