Wednesday, 1 January 2020

Childhood memories up in flames

In 1982, I was six years old and we lived in a cul-de-sac called Nicholi Crescent in Wagga Wagga, Australia. Everyone knew each other - we used to play tennis on a makeshift court painted onto the road by a neighbour, safe in the knowledge that no cars would ever speed through. At the end of the dead end, there were acres of long grass - we played there too, never thinking of the possibility of a snakebite, in pre-nanny state Australia. These days, the long grass has been replaced by houses, the cul-de-sac bulldozed into a street, although it's still called Nicholi Crescent. A snoop on Google Street View shows that our old house still has the terrible yellow 1970s glass on the front, although the magnificent Nicholi gum tree, the one in which I got stuck in 1986, is gone.

One warm Thursday night in 1982, we got home from late night shopping to find the end of Nicholi Crescent on fire. Everyone was staring from their front lawns as the fire brigade went to work. I even remember what I was wearing - pale blue pedal pushers and a blue floral shirt handed down to me from close family friends with slightly older daughters. My photo ended up in the local paper, the Daily Advertiser. It was a picture of me, my mother and the old lady next door with concerned expressions on our faces, but nobody was hurt and nobody lost their home.

It was terribly exciting. 

Being in the paper was akin to being famous for a few days in Wagga Wagga in the 1980s. The next day, I got to wear my pink dress to school - unafraid of burglary, the windows were left open when we went shopping and my uniform, lovingly, nerdishly laid out for Friday, reeked of smoke. I had a great story for class news that day - a fire, the newspaper photographer, my pink dress in a sea of blue and yellow checked school uniforms - I loved the attention.       

But that was 38 years ago. I can't remember what caused the fire at the end of Nicholi Crescent but neither can I remember any discussion of climate change. Throughout my Australian childhood, serious bushfires across the country made the news in summer, there were long, hot days, and droughts. But this summer's fires and temperatures have gone to the next level. This time, bushfire season started in September, which is still spring in Australia. 

It has been relentless. For many farmers, droughts have become the norm rather than the exception, and yet still, Scott Morrison refuses to accept that the climate is changing, that it cannot be ignored as a factor in these horrific, destructive fires. 

In 2013, the CSIRO (Australia's Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation) released a report which found that Australia can expect higher temperatures, more extreme heat and longer fire seasons. Then, in 2014, the CSIRO released a report that found since the beginning of the 20th century, average annual temperatures have increased and, crucially, in the 50 years leading up to 2014, temperatures increased at twice the rate than in the previous 50 years. Alongside this increase, rainfall has decreased. The data is real and there was a time when it wasn't being ignored.

In 2011, Prime Minister Julia Gillard introduced a carbon tax - in three years, this tax helped reduce carbon emissions but in 2014, Prime Minister Tony Abbott repealed the tax and ramped up coal production and carbon emissions have been increasing ever since. The summers keep getting hotter, the coral of the magnificent Great Barrier Reef is suffering a visible extinction event, and this year's bushfires have, at the time of writing, destroyed more than 900 properties, killed nine people with four people missing, and burnt more than 5.1 million hectares. Oh, and funding for the CSIRO has been cut by the federal government, which should surprise nobody who knows about this wretched government's anti-science, anti-environment agenda.

 It is no longer terribly exciting. 

The fire at the end of my street in 1982 happened at a time when there was limited awareness about the human impact on climate. It all seemed so innocent at the time but we had no idea that we were contributing in ways big and small to the situation we have today. 

It's easy to mock Greta Thunberg for saying her childhood has been stolen. It is easy to say that she should be in school, that she is being manipulated by powers bigger than her, but she is right to suggest that economic growth is meaningless if it comes at great environmental cost. Instead of directing ire at a teenager (and in some vile cases, expressing a desire to inflict physical violence on her), that energy would be better spent finding solutions.

Unfortunately, I can't see the Australian government stepping up any time soon.


If you're feeling powerless to help Australia, especially from other countries, here are some links where you can make donations, although it would be nice if the federal government stepped up and ensured adequate funding made its way to the states. If this summer is any indication, Australia will not be able to continue to rely on volunteers to back up the full-time firefighters. Scott Morrison's thoughts and prayers can, with all due respect, get in the bin.


Photography by Kim Newberg


  1. Georgia you have an incedible memory!!!! I too remember that evening but have no idea what I was wearing!!!! I do remember the house was full of ash and all the clothes on the clothes line had to be rewashed. The toilets had ash in them as did the curtains in the bedroom. We were so lucky when thinking of the devastation in Australia at the moment.

  2. Thank you. I have been watching the bushfires from afar, wondering why the lessons of the past have not been learned. We need to plant trees to trap ground water (mallee bushes should do it) and lock in carbon, as well as lower our individual carbon emissions.

    I am from Melbourne, but now live in London. I remember going to an open session of a conference about climate change in 1989(!) at the Dallas Brooke’s Hall in Melbourne. It wasn’t a small thing run by trendy-lefties; it was a big, national event with video conference links to sessions in Brisbane and Sydney, as well as Melbourne.

    - Pam