Memories Lost

As I gather my thoughts and sit down to write this blog entry, cyclone Oswald batters the east coast of Australia, thousands of homes are underwater as parts of Queensland cope with record flooding. Helicopter rescue crews are trying to reach hundreds of people trapped on their roofs by the rising floodwaters in Bundaberg. There are fears homes could be washed away by fast-moving waters after the Burnett River bursts its banks. Heavy rain is traveling south, and is expected to reach Sydney by midnight. It's been raining heavily here for the last 3 days. The surf is huge and the garden is getting some much needed rain.

It's been quite a year so far. These floods follow the heat wave which swept across the country smashing temperature records. A new record of 43.3ºC has been set for the highest national average temperature. On January 8th the Bureau of Meteorology added new colours, purple and pink, to its weather map to denote temperatures once considered off the scale: 50-52ªC and 52-54ºC. Hobart achieved its highest temperature since records began in 1882, reaching 41.8ºC. The term 'new normal' has become a conversation topic. This reminds me, somewhat alarmingly, of something I read in Clive Hamilton's book Requiem for a Species back in 2010, unsettling at the time, as the weather events have been this year. Climate change sceptics have been getting a run for their money.

Last week I travelled to Tasmania to photograph the aftermath of the fires which ripped through communities on the Tasman peninsular. Some mixed and strange emotions as I drove the Arthur highway a day after it was reopened to the public, meeting people amongst the ruins of their homes. In Dunalley, 65 properties were destroyed: 30% of its buildings including the school and the police station. One aspect of these firestorms I find most intriguing is their indiscriminate nature. I'd find it more understandable if a fire was to rip through a settlement taking everything with it; petrol stations, houses, power poles, vehicles, fences, trees. Instead, a house will be almost instantly incinerated while the neighbour’s house, only metres away, will be left untouched. Pure chance; it's a cruel blow to lose your home and with it all your worldly possessions while your neighbours are left wondering what spared them from this unfortunate fate.

Scott Griffith's family's home in Dunalley was not spared the fires. He and his wife and four children were poking through the wreckage attempting in vain to salvage anything from their former lives. All that remained amongst the concrete foundations and fireplace were warped corrugated iron roofing, a stainless steel kitchen sink, a semblance of a hot water cylinder, a bicycle frame, a barbecue, steel bed frames and wire mattress springs from what was once the girl’s bedroom. What did they think to save while the firestorm approached as they sped off out of town to escape being burnt alive? If anything? Their wedding album. For reasons unknown they had taken it out of storage for the first time in quite some time, it was there sitting on the lounge room coffee table up for grabs as they ran for their lives. Neighbours across the (once was) fence and a little closer to the inlet stayed behind for the duration of the fire to fight back flames and protect their much loved garden. The garden incinerated while the house remained untouched as they held wet towels to their faces. This simple measure saved their lungs from the heat of the fire and the smoke. For days after they were coughing, painfully. Less than one kilometre from where they were at the time, I came across the remains of three cars down at the wharf, their rims melted, rivulets of alloy which had run down the bank. Alloy wheels melt at 600ºC.

19 year old Dylan Martin took me out to his family farm showing me the remains of his house looking over the inlet. Again total destruction. His Mum & Dad's house within sight just around the bay was left untouched. He and his Dad spent the afternoon of the fires cutting back bush in a nearby gully. Grading land back to bare soil, wetting the earth, forming fire breaks. All this in the hope of protecting their apricot orchid and livelihood. The fires struck on Friday afternoon, they worked in to the night until early Saturday morning, some 15 hours all up. Hard work and determination saved the family home. Out of any one I met during my time on the peninsular, Dylan was the most concerned about climate change, it's not to say the others weren't, just that Dylan brought the topic to our conversation. I wonder…is this because he's intelligent and well informed, or because he's young and idealistic?

In Sommer’s Bay, I met an elderly couple, Byron & Shirley Blackwell who were visibly grieving, and somewhat shell shocked when I pulled in to their driveway. They were sifting through the pile of ashes of what was once their holiday home. They had lost a few treasures of note; framed family photographs which adorned the living room walls, 4 small boats, outboard motors, a lawnmower... They had had many happy holidays with their three sons and more recently their grandchildren here over the years. Only weeks prior to their loss one of the grandsons had made his granddad promise to never, ever sell this house.

What we possess over time, especially our homes, becomes a tangible link to days past, memories. Our memories are profoundly what make us human. The sudden removal of these possessions must come as a huge shock, revealing to us suddenly and unequivocally that the past days are now over and all that remains is in our memory. Perhaps this is why the family photo album tops the list of what is most important to take with us.

A little way up the road was Michael Tichanow's house. Michael's a woodworker, he's also a builder. Over the past 12 years he'd been investing his spare time, love, attention and effort in his own home. Wooden floorboards throughout, wooden bi-folds, large wooden decks looking out to expansive views over the inlet. I can so relate to the care and detail he must have invested in this home of his. I've spent many long hours over the past years on my own property doing similar work. One gains a certain amount of pride and self-worth from this. It's not only the doing of the project which is enriching, it's also the enjoyment of living with it. This ultimately enriches one’s life. By the way he was describing his house it sounded quite unique. On the day of the fires Michael and his wife and most of his neighbours withdrew from their properties on a flotilla of watercraft. He described how he witnessed huge fire bombs hurtling through the air across the inlet from the hill side a kilometre or so away. Fire doesn't always travel along a given path; along the ground or through the forest canopy, in this instance it literally launched itself from the hilltop from afar, much like you would expect a massive cannon ball to, exploding houses in the community as it fell to the ground. Michael's house was one such place. I could well imagine how traumatising it must be to be left with a pile of ashes in place of what once represented something so meaningful.

See my full photo essay on The Climate Institute's website or published in The Sydney Morning Herald.