6 december 2019

From disbelief to dread: the dismal new routine of life in Sydney's smoke haze

* There’s nothing like going to sleep with the taste of ash in your throat to give you an actual, physiological understanding of real fear
* ‘It feels like karma. This is what the scientists have warned us about, begged us to think of, all these years. It’s here. And it’s going to get worse.’

Charlotte Wood, The Guardian, December 6, 2019

Here’s the dismal new routine of life in inner-city Sydney. I get up around 7am, sniffing the air. Sometimes even through closed windows you can smell how bad it is, but today it’s hard to tell. I pad through the quiet house to peer out of the glass kitchen door at the sky: it’s cloudless, a fine pale yellow. Some days the light is deep orange, a colour so striking that only a few weeks ago I’d be compelled to snap a photo – but now it’s horribly familiar. When it’s that colour, you don’t open the door. And you double back through the house to make sure every window is tightly sealed.

Today though, I step outside and take a (shallow) breath. Not too bad. In our tiny courtyard the smoke is not actually visible right now, but it still takes a few little forays, stepping back indoors and out again, to determine whether the smell is worse inside the house or out. This morning, outside seems marginally better, so it’s time to move through the house, opening all the windows and doors, turning the ceiling fans up high. With luck we’ll get a bit of “fresh” air throughout in the next hour or so, before the smoke returns.

Next, I check the wet laundry waiting in the basket – it smells mouldy now after a couple of days, so I shove it back in the machine for another wash. Maybe today we’ll be able to hang it outside. But even then we’ll likely have to wash it again anyway. The smell seems impossible to banish.

As I open our windows this morning, the birds are squawking like crazy in the eucalypts beyond our fence – another good sign. On the worst days there’s a menacing quiet. But I can still taste smoke in the back of my mouth, and the heaviness in my lungs remains. In recent years I’ve largely grown out of my lifelong asthma, using medication only once or twice a month. Now I’m using my reliever several times a day. The health department urges asthmatics to stay indoors, not to breathe outside if you can possibly help it, and warns everyone against exercising outdoors. It’s bizarre to see people ignoring this advice, keeping up their boxing routines in the park, cheerlessly punching at each other through the haze. Almost as surreal is walking past two men one evening outside a pub, standing in the thick smoke, smoking.

I feel as though I’ve lost my ability to taste or smell anything but smoke. And oddly it doesn’t even seem to smell like smoke anymore; just an acrid, chemical, horrible odour in my clothes, my hair, the sofa, the pillows. One morning I dress in clean clothes and walk 300 metres to the shopping mall across the road from my house. The pharmacy, where I’m buying a new Ventolin, is deep inside, away from the entrance. But still the cashier wrinkles her nose. “I can smell it on you,” she says.

A Blue Mountains pal receives messages from concerned friends in the city. Her family lives 6km from one of the 150 fires burning throughout the state. Later we learn this fire has taken out 20% of the world heritage-listed national park, but when I speak to her the wind direction is away from her town. Impossibly, their sky is pure blue. When her husband returns from an appointment in the city though, she texts me later: “He smells like a barbecue.”

On one of the worst days, a friend tells me, Manly was filled with the noise of sirens as city fire trucks attended false emergencies: smoke alarms in houses and businesses were going off all day. Another friend swims daily at an eastern suburbs harbour beach famous for its crystal-clear water. Now she gets out of the water to find her skin flecked with fine ash.

We Sydneysiders are learning strange new symbols and language. Our weather apps now carry dotted lines across the shining sun: smoke haze. We learn the meaning of “temperature inversion”, in which warm air traps cool – and smoke – beneath it; our weather reports now carry air quality ratings. For the past month they’ve ranged from “poor” to well beyond “hazardous”. In news updates about the fires, it’s now commonplace to hear two horrific phrases: “seek shelter” and “too late to leave”.

In the inner city, people wear face masks to go about their business. In the first days of the smoke, a visiting tourist wearing a large black face mask was vox-popped on television. He’d bought the mask for his trip to China, the American explained, but didn’t need it there. He hadn’t expected to wear it peering through the haze at the Sydney Opera House.

Facebook chatter shifts from amused sightings of masks to suggestions of where to buy them, to resignation: they don’t work anyway. They might help your mood, but they’ll do nothing to stop the microscopic particles entering your lungs, unless they’re rated P2 and have super suction around the face. Despite this, I can’t help covering my mouth and nose for the few steps to and from the car. I haven’t taken a train or bus in weeks; too much walking involved.

The fire danger warnings have a new category. Colours at the low-danger end are green, moving through yellow and orange. The new one is a deep, malevolent red with black stripes, and it’s called “catastrophic”.

On the first catastrophic warning day there’s a palpable fear, because even expert firefighters have never seen anything like this. The winds are completely unpredictable. Nobody knows what will happen.

At first we watch the footage – those walls of orange flame storeys high – with our hands over our mouths. Money floods in to emergency relief funds to support “the fireys”, the koala rescuers. But as the days and weeks pass, here in Sydney the mood changes from disbelief to hypervigilant fear to a kind of WTF petulance. It’s still happening? We’re used to turning our attention briefly, intensely, to “those poor people” affected by climate change, then returning to normal life. Now those poor people include us.

Internet fights break out over whether it’s obscene to complain about the smoke. Of course it is; we’re lucky, we of the middle-class inner city. I can afford to buy a new Ventolin once a week, for example. I have time to do each load of laundry thrice before it smells clean. My work doesn’t force me to remain outside, breathing in this shit all day long. And of course, no fires have visited inner Sydney. None of ours are among the 600-plus homes burnt to the ground. None of us are among the dead.

But also: it isn’t obscene to find this intolerable. It is intolerable.

After our petulance comes a stoic, patient reasoning. It’s good for us to get this wake-up call. And it’ll be over soon. But that was weeks ago, and the patience has been replaced by a grim, creeping dread. A fear that it won’t be over soon, or ever. It feels like karma. This is what the scientists have warned us about, begged us to think of, all these years. It’s here. And it’s going to get worse.

We have the “Fires Near Me” app on our phones now, but I’m careful not to zoom out too far from our immediate 50km zone. If you do, it’s easy to panic. There are so many little fire symbols they overlap. Weeks after they began, almost half are still classed “out of control”. And zooming out brings the existential horror of what all this really means. It also brings shame, at how we city dwellers have managed to ignore what people in the regions have endured for years now. Even as we’ve written the letters, donated the money and attended the protests about the towns without water, the massive fish kills, the dust storms, the extinctions. Even if we’ve attended to all this in our minds, there’s nothing like going to sleep with the taste of ash in your throat to give you an actual, physiological understanding of real fear.
Firefighting crews battle a bushfire encroaching on properties near Lake Tabourie between Bateman’s Bay and Ulladulla south of Sydney.

I speak with a psychologist friend who lives in the far west of New South Wales, on a rural property. The fires are not close to her – yet – but the fear certainly is. Her dining table carries a thick layer of dust that’s been there for weeks. “At some point I’ll clean it off, but with two or three huge dust storms a week, there seems little point,” she says. A few weeks ago she drove into “a dust blizzard” with visibility of a few metres, terrified, unable to stop in case another car was behind her. As conservationists, she and her partner do not stock their land and have always prided themselves on total groundcover. But now, with paddocks “shaved” by hordes of hungry kangaroos, exposed soil is everywhere. Rain is a distant memory. “This is how deserts form,” she said. Her daughters, in their early 20s, decided some time ago not to have children.

A few days ago, on the worst day here, I lay on my bed in the afternoon. My lung cobwebs felt specially heavy, the sinus headache intense. Outside, despite daylight saving time, it was almost dark at 4pm. I’d taken to putting towels to the gap under the front door. My thoughts turned again, with fury, to our country’s leadership vacuum. The prime minister’s family lives here in Sydney; surely by now the man must be saying something? I checked his social media pages. Prime minister Morrison’s Instagram account carried grinning images of him – baseball cap in place - atop a ladder, draping his family home in twinkly Christmas lights. No matter what’s going on each year, says the PM of a burning nation, getting in the Christmas spirit has always been such an important part of our family life.

Outside parliament in Canberra, a woman sets up the burnt remains of her family’s destroyed house: a few iron sheets, a leaning section of charred wooden framework, twisted metal, black pots and pans. Her sign, painted on blackened corrugated iron sheet, reads: “Morrison your climate crisis destroyed my home.” Not very Christmassy, Melinda.

Back here in the Marrickville morning, it’s nine o’clock and the birds are growing quiet again. The smell is back. It’s astonishing how quickly it arrives; you sense it first in the back of the throat. I move through the house once more, closing all the doors and windows tight.

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