The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The bush fires in Australia mean just breathing hurts your throat

In Melbourne’s suburbs, the summer has been filled with bad air and smokey haze

Smoke from bush fires covers the central business district last week in Melbourne, Australia. (Robert Cianflone/AFP/Getty Images)

MELBOURNE, Australia — School is on summer vacation, and in my home, we’ve run out of milk. I’ve been sending my teenage daughter to the store, but today, I can’t: The air quality is hazardous. Even the construction workers aren’t working. We’ve been told to stay indoors with the doors and windows shut. A small panic sets in: Is this our new reality?

I live in the suburbs that cradle Melbourne’s central business district. Many inner-city suburbs like ours don’t have much grass or large areas of parkland or bush, so we are relatively safe from the fires. But you don’t need to go far before you start finding gorges, nature reserves, stretches of vacant land and, eventually, bushland. Currently, one of the major fires burning in our state is in East Gippsland, about 93 miles away. Experts say drought and lack of rain over the past few years turned the land “tinder dry.”

My country is burning.

Bush fires have always been part of the backdrop to the Australian summer. Sometimes, we get a hint of smoke in the cities for a day or two, but these fires are unprecedented. An estimated 24.7 million acres have burned. There’s so much smoke NASA reported it would circle the globe. The smoke resembles a winter fog, but it’s anything but fresh. It’s thick and absorbs the light, a blood-orange sun hangs in the sky. There’s poor visibility when you drive. At night, the streetlamps aren’t as effective.

Sydney had smoke first, and now it’s our turn to taste it. I noticed a tickle in my throat three weeks ago, similar to when my allergies flare up. Then I started coughing, and so did my daughter. “I have a cold,” she said. I started to say, “It’ll pass in a few days,” but then I remembered: We have no idea when the air will clear. Our bush fire season officially ends in March, but experts say we’re in for longer seasons now because of climate change. On days of very poor or hazardous air quality, my throat burns, the sensation traveling all the way down my esophagus, creating discomfort in my chest. I feel it in my nose, too. My eyes feel dusty. I have stomach problems, and they are flaring up, too, because I’m coughing more.

It’s the small particles, not visible to the naked eye. Researchers say you inhale them, that they get trapped in your lungs. There hasn’t been enough research into the long-term health implications of prolonged exposure to bush-fire smoke. The Environmental Protection Authority Victoria advises wearing P2/N95 masks, but in the city’s downtown last week, on a day of very poor air quality, I struggled to see anyone wearing one. People were still exercising outdoors when the EPA advises against it. There seems to be a resistance, almost a denial. Melbourne has been ranked as one of the most livable cities in the world many times. People are clinging to their lifestyle.

We saw the glow of fire in the distance. Four hours later, it was at our front door.

Out in the suburbs, however, you’ll find an occasional mask, and there are fewer people outside overall. One recent afternoon, I walked a usually busy street in my neighborhood and there was hardly anyone around. It was windy and dusty and reminded me of a desert. As a woman, I found myself slightly more alert as a result, just like when I walk the streets at night.

Some people have lost everything. The devastation is immense. In the cities, people have come together to raise funds and support affected communities. There are events every day. But as we do this, we worry. The fires are the hot topic debated at dinner tables. People are angry. An estimated 1 billion animals have been lost, our beloved koalas on the verge of extinction. Ecosystems may collapse. There’s guilt, too, on the ramifications for our entire planet. Climate-change protests have gone ahead despite opposition that “it’s not the right time.” Many blame Prime Minister Scott Morrison for his inaction, lack of preparation and decision to ignore experts on climate change and warnings from fire chiefs in the lead-up to our bush-fire season. Many believe he’s been too busy investing in coal, and he hasn’t said anything about stopping either. Australia is Aboriginal land, yet there hasn’t been any investment in Indigenous fire practices.

Many people feel let down, unsupported, hurt and betrayed by our government — everyone from the people inhaling the smoke in the cities to those more directly affected by fires in rural areas. In reactive mode, Morrison holds news conferences pledging money to fire-affected communities (as he should), but there’s something missing in his delivery. Understanding? Reassurance? A commitment do whatever he can to get masks and air filters into our hands when there is a national shortage? A commitment to do whatever it takes so we never have fires like this again? Let’s just say he is no Jacinda Ardern.

Then there are the climate-change deniers, fueled by right-wing media publications. Some of them say arson is the cause. Arson or human carelessness (a lit match or a cigarette left burning) may have started some of the blazes. But when you remove the spin, the numbers don’t add up. Lightning strikes in hotter and drier conditions are the more likely cause for most of the fires, experts say. Some blazes are so big they have their own weather patterns.

Taming fire let humans thrive. Now manmade flames threaten us all.

My daughter and I drive to my sister’s bayside house an hour away. On summer holidays, it’s our place to go when it’s warm enough for a swim. Today is one such day, but we can’t swim; the air is hazardous. We Melbournians complain about our tropical weather and not getting enough beach days (it’s either too hot or too windy), but I’d do anything to get that back. Is this what our summers will be like from now on? Nobody seems to know. Our days of clear blue skies are scarce; instead, it’s dreary. It’s difficult to differentiate between cloud and smoke.

At my sister’s house, we stay indoors. The EPA AirWatch website is our new friend. We monitor it so we know when it’s good to air out the house. I miss riding my bike. Rain is forecast. We pray for it, but it also causes problems — creates muddy conditions for firefighters, brings dry lightning, washes ash into our waterways.

We watch the news. The tennis players at the Australian Open are struggling to breathe. The price of food will go up. My parents are here, too. My family are conservative Liberal Party voters, Morrison’s party. This is where I get some hope: The air being inhaled can’t be ignored. You can’t switch it off like a television.

And while my father does defend his beloved Liberal Party, I see some signs of a shift. “He should lose his job,” he exclaims at the end of our debate. Could this disaster be enough to shake things up? Morrison did say last week that he will invest in Indigenous burning practices. Even Rupert Murdoch’s son has come out saying his father’s newspapers are contributing to the problem. They say you have to hit rock bottom for change to happen. I hope this is our rock bottom. If it isn’t, I’m afraid to see what is.

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