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Destruction, fear, and hope: life amid the Canberra bushfires

By Natasha Cica - posted Monday, 20 January 2003

It is Sunday night but I just had to be reminded what day it is. This is the first time in 36 hours that I have been able to think and breathe clearly. Finally, on this Sunday night, the sky isn't the colour of a deep, boiling bruise, the sun isn't mean hot red, the full moon isn't swirling sickly yellow, the wind isn't blowing death. At least for the time being, Canberra has stopped literally exploding around me.

I can write this now because I'm very lucky. My own house hasn't burned down, and I haven't seen or touched or been burned by fire first hand, even though I've been living in a state of emergency in one of the suburbs sitting on the front line of this apocalpyptic conflagration, and even though much of my neighbourhood evacuated in the middle of last night. My electricity and telephone still work, there is water coming out of my tap, and at the moment that water still looks drinkable. I still own more than the clothes I stand in.

I still don't know if all these statements will be true this time tomorrow but I am more hopeful about the most important of these things than I was even late this afternoon, and by the time you read this I will know with more precision just how lucky I am.


Almost everyone who lives in at-risk Canberra is now in a state of shock. We have watched ourselves go through a range of motions. We have cleared our roof gutters and poured water into our bathtubs. We have glued ourselves to local ABC radio, which quickly managed to deliver an astonishing volume and variety of unspun information that we could source nowhere else. We have packed our bags and cars with whatever seemed most important in any available time. We have really met and really helped many of our neighbours, perhaps for the very first time, and have tried to make human contact with people stuck in worse places across this city. We have filled buckets of water. Too many of us have used those buckets of water. We have tried to eat, tried to think, tried to sleep. We have reassured loved ones interstate. We have scoured the shelves of supernaturally chilled supermarkets for bottled water and batteries and candles.

We have also watched ourselves go through a range of emotions. A complicated and fluctuating mix of fear (of burning, of loss, and above all of the unknown) and anger (for me, this erupted at news of looting in devastated suburbs) and grief (for the terrible personal stories trickling back to us, from friends and strangers) and numbness (at all of it).

Although it's a bit hard to contemplate summoning energy for any of it right now, without doubt there are a lot more motions and emotions ahead of us.

I hope that one of them is a new appreciation of what it's like to live in a kind of war zone. A place where personal safety, security of property, and the reliable supply of electricity and water and sewerage facilities - not to mention the presence of reassuring cultural landmarks (like Stromlo Observatory; for me a magical, happy place of science and stars and forest and weddings) - are, very suddenly, no longer a given. I hope that this translates into a new gut-level empathy for people inside and outside our borders who have a more developed historical and personal experience of this kind of materially tenuous state of being.

Disappointment of these hopes would be a sad waste of what we've lived through in Canberra since a blindingly ordinary Australian Saturday morning unexpectedly turned into something fundamentally different.

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About the Author

Dr Natasha Cica is the director of Periwinkle Projects, a Hobart-based management, strategy and communications consultancy.

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