Residents take a dip to cool down at Lake Jindabyne, under a red sky due to smoke from bushfires, in the town of Jindabyne in New South Wales on January 4, 2020. (Photo by Saeed Khan/AFP via Getty Images)

Notes on burning: a stunning, apocalyptic essay by Kiwi crime writer JP Pomare

JP Pomare is a Kiwi living in Melbourne, and a stingingly great writer. His new thriller In the Clearing is set in the Australian bush, with fire forever licking the horizon. We asked him to tell us about the view from over there. 

1  Notes on burning

When my family read my new novel In The Clearing they all invariably made the same observation. This is Kent’s place in Warrandyte. I had changed the name of the town, and out of necessity to the plot, adapted elements of the landscape and yet they all worked it out. It’s true that many scenes of the novel are set in my brother’s old home, which edges a state park 45 minutes north of Melbourne CBD. It’s there in the descriptions of the house: a mid-century build, all windows and angles and wooden panelling, surrounded by native flora. It sits at the end on a dirt road that’s prone to flooding and close enough to the river that when all else is quiet, you might hear it babbling at night. But it’s not just the house. It’s the habits and anxieties of the occupants at the height of summer, those questions we ask ourselves.

Example one: would the river be useful in a bush fire? (Answer: Possibly. As a water supply to fight the fires. Not as somewhere to escape to as there would be no oxygen anyway, but possibly as a passage out if the roads were blocked; you could try to kayak toward the city.)

Example two: how many hours’ worth of air is there in a fire bunker? (Answer: if it’s full and without an additional oxygen supply, probably about an hour.)

Then there are the bushfire chores: keeping the lawn clipped low, raking up powder-dry bark, clearing gutters and other tasks I’ve come to heap under the catchall ‘fuel reduction’.

In my book the protagonist Freya is rightly paranoid about fire season. A single match could ignite acres of bush not in hours but minutes. It’s a paranoia I’ve known myself when we have stayed out at the house. It’s something many Australians have lived through, some showing patches of skin taut with scars, some with acute psychological damage. Many survivors remain, warning us all of how swift and angry a fire can become when the conditions are, for lack of a better word, perfect. Since Black Saturday, anyone in the bush now knows the seam of potential devastation they are hemmed into. Those eucalypts, paper barks, red gums grow thicker, they amass like an army. They will burn one day.

My brother used to organise these midwinter bonfires where we would play guitar and toast marshmallows and drink dark spirits in the heat of the flames. He absorbs different settings as much as they absorb him. Now he lives in Byron Bay where he surfs most days, lets his hair grow long, knotted and greasy. But in Warrandyte he surrounded himself with a variety of chainsaws, leaf blowers, and the sort of lawn mower I’d only ever associated with high school and the old taciturn groundskeeper in his Michael Myers boiler suit. In the same way that the surfboard and VW family van is a sort of admission fee for living in the Byron Bay hinterlands, a garden shed chockful of Makita and John Deere was the price he paid for living in the Warrandyte state park.

My wife and I bought a place in a town called Clunes a couple of hours north-west of Melbourne. With our tiny wedge of land there is no requirement for fuel reduction, but we still have a plan if the fires do come. We also subscribe to Vic Emergency updates on our phones. One day this season, a grass fire marched toward town and Clunes went from “no present danger” to “too late to leave” in the matter of an hour or so. If you were distracted, say out doing your groceries, by the time you got home and looked at your phone you might have been stranded in the fire’s path, the choice to stay or go made for you. This was a battle the fire fighters won soon enough, but we were still shaken. “What if we had been stuck there? Can you imagine how scary that would be?” she said. “What happens if you can’t enact your fire plan?”

After Black Saturday – which employed a disastrous “stay or go” policy – the Fire Service now takes a harder line. “Leave before it’s too late.” Evacuate first, have a fire plan, don’t pack your bags if you don’t have time, prioritise the things you need most, like medication and water.

In the Mallacoota fire, people evacuated while they could but when the fires swept toward the roads and cut off the exits, many were trapped. Consider a typical summer’s day: an Australian beach overly crowded with young families and holiday makers. Now see a horse, wide eyed and bowed in panic. Now see a wall of red marching toward you. You might have seen the photo. Those who couldn’t escape were stranded on the beach, huddled together. The symmetry with the Dunkirk Landing was too much for some commentators to resist as the fire moved much closer to the sea than it was ever expected to. Fortunately sand doesn’t burn, but the flames spewed hazardous smoke and trapped everyone on that crescent of beach until the Navy came by sea to sweep them away to safety, horses and all.

A car commutes on a road as the sky turns red from the smoke of the Snowy Valley bushfire in Australia on January 4, 2020. Source: Saeed Khan / AFP, Getty Images

2  Is this context too?

My friend Alice wrote a book called A Constant Hum. It’s short story collection, but also a sort of historical record: snippets and insights into the causes and effects of the Black Saturday Fires. Alice herself had fled before the fire front swept through, barely breaking stride as it took her childhood home. Her father was late to leave – he had planned to stay and fight, but at the last minute he decided to go. That decision saved his life. A good friend of Alice’s lost her parents. Families lost dogs and horses and all the other animals surrounding them in the bush – some creatures had to be put out of their misery days later by volunteers, stalking through the ruins with rifles. Everyone knew someone who had died. In Alice’s town, those who were left returned to find loved ones charred in bathtubs, faces twisted in endless screams. Or bodies suffocated in cars, or under beds that had melted around them. When we spoke, Alice told me I’m afraid we will run out of empathy. I think about that a lot now.

No newspaper is without agenda, but some are so overtly bent on swaying public opinion that it seems futile to resist or even point out the falsehoods. News Corp (owned by cackling Bond villain Rupert Murdoch) has been particularly problematic this fire season. Major Australian newspapers are directing attention toward things like arsonists and protests, using deeply misleading numbers and headlines and sidelining rational science-based views of the causes of the fires. They’ve created a context vacuum. Now many Australians simply don’t believe climate change has anything to do with the fires. The headlines also lack human context. No one seems to be talking about the long and short-term realities of surviving these fires. Right now, the economic effect is being quantified and analysed ad nauseum – years of rebuilding regional communities, the hit to tourism, etcetera – but we’ve barely scraped the surface of the trauma of devastated communities.

I find myself in the comments sections on certain news sites. I often have a hunger for other people’s viewpoints, other people’s realities, in part to counter my own biases but also to understand how others are interpreting the same information I’m receiving. Some people simply refuse to believe in things which are demonstrably, undeniably true. This act, of reviewing what an average Australian person thinks about climate change, is akin to putting a thermometer into the mouth of a man who is on fire.

I’m watching a bird now, darting back and forward across the sky like a needle repairing a hole. I’m reminded of all the birds incinerated by the fires. I feel like I would be sad if this bird died, because I can see it before me, because of the simple fact I’ve watched it and had an opportunity to anthropomorphise it. The hundreds of thousands of other birds that have died in the fires over the past months don’t elicit the same level of sadness I would feel if this bird were to combust. I cannot for the life of me even begin to imagine all those other birds, falling from the sky in a trail of smoke. Trees, forest. I wonder, Is this Context too?

3  A great big pool of empathy

I agree with Alice when she says I’m afraid we will run out of empathy. It took me a while to understand what that might mean. I imagine it as some reservoir we all swim in and someone has pulled the plug and slowly we are sinking without realising it and soon we won’t even be able to reach the edges to climb out. I found myself reminded of the people I know who viewed the Christchurch massacre video, or routinely share videos and images of shocking or sickening injuries, assaults, fights. People being maimed with fireworks or impaled on fences. I refuse to watch them. I can’t imagine the sort of psychological landscape someone must have to view anything like this with any feeling other than deep sadness. Do these people possess no empathy? Or is it that they are so removed from the context they don’t understand they are viewing another human hurting, another human dying?

These videos exist outside the limits of my curiosity. I know what exposure to traumatic material does; the way it numbs the brain. Now when I think of what Alice said, I think of a collective desensitisation, the six o’clock news effect. There is just too much suffering and too little attention, and too little context and the more you engage in the suffering, the more boring it becomes until it becomes easy to see something like the fires and not feel anything. Even if you don’t choose to view certain material, the algorithms win every time; they feed your curiosity, until you no longer engage with it then they find you something else, something even more engaging. No one, myself included, can resist forever and the attention economy has a voracious appetite. Coronavirus will be next, pushing the koalas and climate refugees down the feed; the fires a momentary apocalyptic yawn.

Mike holds his daughter Ella as the skies above turn red during the day on January 4, 2020 in Mallacoota, Australia. (Photo by Justin McManus/The Age/Fairfax Media via Getty Images)

4  Little baby face masks

My wife is pregnant with our first child, a little girl. She’s scheduled to arrive mid-June. It took a long time for me to come around to the idea of having a child. I assumed I wouldn’t have children and arrived at that decision the same way I decided to stop eating meat. The big decision was a rope, and all the tiny thoughts and feelings I had about the decision were strands that made up the rope and so long as enough of these strands held I’d continue to hold that view.

The strands were lifestyle, money, the fact I’m not sure I will be a good dad, the carbon effect of bringing another human into the world, and of course the uncertainty about the future. This last strand grew bigger and bigger until it was big enough to be its own rope. Call it cognitive dissonance if you like but, in the end, my biological desire to procreate won out. So now I have a baby on the way to amplify my paranoia about an uninhabitable planet.

The consumption for baby Pomare has already begun; we bought a stroller, some clothes, a car seat. When the bush fire smoke swept through the city and places began selling out of respirators, I remember asking the lady at Bunnings, do they have little baby face masks?

The new normal, that’s what people say. It’s the new normal. It’s just an expression yet every time I hear it (particularly when it concerns climate change) I can’t help but think that’s a pretty passive way of saying everything is completely fucked. I wonder if these people accepting the new normal are just optimistic – they’re hopeful enough to believe that we can adapt to an increasingly unliveable planet. When the pessimists like me are greeted with another unprecedented climate event, we are usually angry or fatigued, or both. There is of course a third category outside of the pessimist-optimist dichotomy; some people, many people, believe they can insulate themselves from the climate crisis with their money. And they’re right. Maybe this is why so many intelligent people, people I would otherwise admire, read the newspapers that push a decidedly pro-coal agenda. The last to be affected, and those least affected, will be the wealthy few. They have freedom of movement, they can draw upon their influence and means to avoid the floods and flames. They can pay higher prices when the bee populations plummet and harvests drop, or when fresh water becomes increasingly scarce.

A storm came not long ago that brought ash from the bushfires down on our home. Our windows were coated, our car went from white to brown. It’s normal, it happens from time to time, once every couple of years, but then again it happened two weeks later and has happened again since. It’s another chore to add to mowing the dead grass in summer, raking bark, checking fire evacuation packs. Maybe it is better if we are all optimistic, if we blithely carry on reciting the platitude this is the new normal. We can pretend Bunnings has always stocked baby face masks. Maybe we can all sleepwalk through this, arm in arm into the flames and instead of screaming say this is the new normal.

Into the Clearing by JP Pomare (Hachette New Zealand, $34.99) is available from Unity Books.


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