Flames are chewing up my country

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison tries to shake hands with a Cobargo resident.
Australian PM heckled by angry residents about bushfires
01:33 - Source: CNN

Editor’s Note: Max Barry is an Australian writer and the author of five novels, including “Jennifer Government,” “Lexicon,” and “Providence,” coming in March. He blogs at maxbarry.com. The views expressed are his own. View more opinion articles on CNN.

Stratford, Australia CNN  — 

I’m visiting my mother in the little country town where I grew up in Gippsland, a region of Australia that’s currently on fire. That’s not very specific, so let me narrow it down: I’m in one of the south-easternmost parts of Australia that is currently on fire.

Max Barry

Gippsland is a big area, roughly two New Jerseys. The closest fire is 50 miles away from us today, lending the sky a gray hue and the sun an orange tint. The official weather forecast is: “Mostly sunny but smoky.”

People here keep one eye on their phones, watching the online maps that show flames slowing chewing their way through half a million hectares to the north and east, but there’s no immediate danger. The local firefighters have stayed in town, in case they’re needed nearby.

But we are worried about what these fires portend. Threat of fire is a constant in this part of the world. In that sense, this is nothing new. In another, though, it is unprecedented, both in its scale and its implications for how Australians can manage a land that is increasingly beset by flood and flame.

Nearly 20% of Australia is officially categorized as desert, and 70% in total – the middle 70% – is a dusty, baked scrub that may as well be, and is, where no one lives. These areas aren’t on fire, because there’s not enough vegetation to burn.

The cities aren’t on fire, either. Australia’s major cities – all five of them – are parked by the ocean, where it’s cooler. Sydney is currently choked by smoke and Melbourne, where I live, shuffled through a hazy Christmas, but for the most part, it’s insulated.