Michael Burge

Michael Burge

Journalist at No Fibs
Michael is an author and Guardian Australia journalist who lives on Ngarabal country in the NSW Northern Tablelands. He was was born at Inverell into a farming family with New England roots deeper than most. His debut novel Tank Water is out now from MidnightSun Publishing.
Michael Burge
- 5 hours ago
Michael Burge
Michael's articles about writers, performers, artists, creative rebels and the writing process are available at his website.

WHEN FORMER GLEN Innes mayor Carol Sparks announced her intention to run against Barnaby Joyce in the NSW electorate of New England at the upcoming federal election, she committed to stand up for climate action.

“With all the climate catastrophes that we’ve had, people feel lost and they feel depressed,” she told Guardian Australia’s Rural Network this week.

Sparks and her community at Wytaliba had recently followed the coronial inquiry into the deaths of two locals in the unprecedented fire that ripped through their town in the spring of 2019.

I can attest to the widespread feeling of anxiety about the bushfires. Even now, three things still haunt me about Black Summer in New England.

Speed and intensity

Firstly, it didn’t just start out of the blue over Christmas 2019, but that’s when the crisis reached the large population centres of Sydney and the world began paying attention.

Here in the northern NSW New England region the country started to regularly burn in early 2018. A fire was ignited in April (well into the cool end of autumn for the high country) on the highway near our property at Deepwater, destroying a neighbour’s fodder crop. 

Another was started when a hazard reduction burn got out of control during a rainy weekend in September, destroying infrastructure, jumping the same highway and threatening properties. 

There were at least two further Deepwater region fires during the cooler months of 2018, and then an enormous blaze at Wallangarra, just north of Tenterfield, in February 2019. 

That took place before the drought was becoming apparent. Our last significant rainfall in autumn 2019 was at the end of March, when 47 millimetres fell at our place. The next rain we received was 7mm in late September. It almost evaporated before it hit the dust.

The Rural Fire Service (RFS) brought the bushfire season forward in 2019. Usually, outdoor fires and burn offs are permitted through winter and early spring, right up to October 1. It was a wise move, since in very early September bushfires raged through Tenterfield (the Mount Mackenzie Road Fire) and Drake (the Long Gully Fire, which burned for seven weeks), destroying homes and other property. Another threatened the town of Wytaliba, the small community in a valley east of Glen Innes where the Sparkses live.

Landowners, politicians and the media started throwing around the word ‘unprecedented’, mainly due to the speed and intensity of these unseasonal fires.

When a grass fire burned the verges at the head of our driveway soon after Tenterfield was impacted, we were shocked into action and created a fire plan to maximise our chances of survival. Even though this little blaze took out only a strip between the main road and a closed railway line, we realised it didn’t do any damage or get out of control because there had been no wind to drive it.

Raining burned vegetation

That’s the second point I cannot forget. Plenty of these fires burn on dry ground, but if there is wind behind it, fire travels. 

In November 2019 – still spring – fire ravaged two towns in our region (a second blaze at Wytaliba known as the Kangawalla Fire and another at Torrington) driven by the most intense air movement I have ever experienced. At one point during the terrible day when people were killed at Wytaliba, it felt like we were in the grip of two cyclones fighting for supremacy. The wind was so strong it was shooting into the ground and whipping up long slices of dryer-than-dry soil that shot into the air. Dust, debris and burning foliage were being carried from where the fires were burning at Torrington, 28 kilometres away.

Across the region, we heard of fires travelling ahead of themselves in waves of embers, anywhere between 12 and 40 kilometres in advance of fire fronts during high winds. We saw it for ourselves when a lesser-known fire raged through Butterleaf National Park to the east of us, raining burned vegetation on our home and a blanket of smoke that lingered for weeks. 

Word was that since it wasn’t threatening homes, the Butterleaf fire was let go. We understood why, since fire-fighting resources – and water – were in short supply. I saw NSW fire commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons say live on morning television that his teams had “resourcing issues” (a comment he later retracted). A report found that the fire in Butterleaf had ripped through Bezzant’s Lease, a privately owned wildlife reserve about 10 kilometres east of our place.

Pyrocumulonimbus (Photo: Wikimedia)

According to climatologists, the hot air ahead of a fire can create a weather system known as a pyrocumulonimbus thunderstorm. I witnessed three of these. One showed on the horizon the day Tenterfield burned, its terrible lava-orange core showing deep within a great cauliflower head. Another was blowing towards our home the afternoon the RFS messaged me and advised that I leave home or shelter in place, so all I could see of it was the eerie yellow glow that wrapped everything in its pathway. 

As I enacted our fire plan and evacuated to Glen Innes, I saw the worst pyrocumulonimbus over Wytaliba. It looked like a mushroom cloud after an atomic bomb, although it was collapsing into itself, dissected by the terrible wind. Collapsing over communities, livestock and wildlife; rivers, creeks and forests. Collapsing over everything I have ever known about living in rural Australia at a thousand metres above sea level in a cool-climate region.

Myth-making

Finally, in late January 2020, it started to rain again, although the real drought-breaking falls waited another month to kick in. Across two years of the worst dry spell, the fires had gone from unseasonal roadside blazes to utter disaster.

The third thing I’ll never forget about Black Summer is the way sitting MP Barnaby Joyce politicised the Wytaliba deaths and engaged in widespread myth-making about how hazard reduction burns would have avoided the extent of the Black Summer fires. 

It was a big distraction to the truth: Wytaliba had been well-prepared

As Badja Sparks, Carol’s husband, wrote at the time: “Pray for rain, pray harder for leadership.”

With Carol’s campaign for The Greens kicking off, this long-time New England representative may well be the answer for many in the region.

Some of this content was published in Australia and How To Find It by Patsy Trench.