AUSTRALIA – It’s been exactly one year since a single bolt of lightning at Gospers Mountain started one of the most devastating bushfires in Australian history.
In total, the Gospers Mountain fire on 26 October burnt 512,626 hectares across the Lithgow, Hawkesbury, Hunter Valley, Lower Hunter, Cudgegong, Blue Mountains and Central Coast districts – an area more than twice the size of the ACT.
It also joined the Kerry Ridge, Little L Complex, Grose Valley and Three Mile fires.
By the time torrential rain extinguished the megablaze in early February, it had burned through over a million hectares, killed millions of animals, destroyed a hundred homes, and left dozens of communities fearful and traumatised.
One year on, residents and community leaders are calling for more action to be done to reduce climate change, to ensure such a catastrophe never takes place again.
‘I still get triggered when I smell smoke’
Luca Saunders, a Year 9 student at Blue Mountains Grammar School, said she gets triggering flashbacks to this day when she smells smoke or sees a fire truck.
Her house in Blackheath was in the middle of four different bushfires raging at the time, including the destructive Gospers Mountain fire.
“We were heavily affected by the Grose Valley fire and the Gospels Mountain fire, both of which came incredibly, incredibly close to my house on both sides.”
Luca evacuated to Victoria with her sister, and the pair were separated from their parents for three days, who stayed back to defend their house against apocalyptic conditions.
“I remember ash falling from the sky, everything being white and then at night-time there was always a red glow on the horizon,” Luca said. “It was an absolutely terrifying time, and we were never sure whether we’d see our house again tomorrow. We were never sure whether our livelihoods would be sustained into the coming year.”
“I personally get triggering flashbacks, if I see a fire truck or hear a siren,” she added. “Or if I smell smoke in the air.
Luca said it was “incredibly frustrating” for bushfire survivors to see how the federal government responded to the crisis.
“With the COVID-19 pandemic their response was incredibly quick, and it was very frustrating for survivors to see that that didn’t happen when our lives are being affected by the climate crisis, and these bushfires,” she said.
“It’s also incredibly difficult to see that a year on from this crisis that we face in this country. The government still has not advanced in its climate regulation, because it’s widely publicly understood that the climate crisis was the root cause of the bush fires.”
‘Lack of action on climate change is unforgivable’
Jim Casey, who has been a Sydney firefighter for more than 20 years, attended the Gospers Mountain blaze multiple times.
“The scale of the fire is what really sticks with me,” he said. “This fire had its own ecosystem in terms of the amount of heat it was generating. But it wasn’t alone – we had fires burning, really from the Queensland border to the Victorian border, and thousands and thousands of men and women trying to deal with it as best they could.”
Mr Casey said climate change was “beyond doubt” what kicked the fires into overdrive, and the extreme weather associated with climate change.
“We had a short and warm winter which narrowed the window in which we could do hazard reduction burning, and then summer was unseasonably hot, with dry lightning strikes at the tail end of the drought,” he said. “And so you end up with the climate catastrophic firestorm that characterised the last fire season.”
He said managing fire risks to a substantial degree requires “political action” on fossil fuel burning, and on climate change itself.
“What is unforgivable in my opinion is the failure of the government to act upon the root causes of these fires,” he said. “Every inquiry, all of the bushfire scientists, the ex-fire chiefs all agree that it was climate change that pushed these fires into overdrive.
“And for that to be addressed we must start talking about the burning of fossil fuels, exports of fossil fuels and moving towards some kind of carbon-neutral future.
“Instead our government warns to start mining gas and selling that. It simply isn’t good enough. It’s fiddling while Australia burns,” Mr Casey said.