• The Listener
  • North & South
  • Noted
  • RNZ
Photo/Getty Images

Australia bushfires: An account from smoke-filled Sydney

Slow to act on climate change, it seems Australia’s luck has tragically run out, writes Bernard Lagan.

The Sydney restaurateur, hot and weary, grumbled his frustration. The white cloths over his troublingly empty outside tables were smeared with falling ash. He’d replace them and a couple of hours later he’d have to do it again.

Finally, he gave up and substituted ash-coloured paper for the cloth.

The smell of burning eucalypts from the scores of bush fires to the west, north and south of Sydney carried sweetly on the breeze, the smoke yet to invade the city.

We hoped it wouldn’t. Two days later, the city awoke to a smell so acrid it seemed the fires were in the streets. The smoke had slunk in overnight and, by dawn, hung low and thick. Street lights switched on at mid-morning were a feeble yellow smudge in the haze. The birds vanished.

Even a short walk brought watery eyes and the clammy feeling of something foreign building in the throat. It seemed a mistake to linger outside as broadcasters passed on warnings for the even mildly vulnerable to stay indoors. For days, perhaps.

Suddenly, the emerald city’s acres of shady parks, soft sands and the bluest of bays looked and felt like a pollution-choked Asian metropolis. Jakarta, perhaps, or Delhi. Silvery bodies drifted through the haze, faces masked or wrapped with a scarf.

By afternoon, weather apps were mistaking ever denser smoke for clouds and cruelly forecasting rain when there was nothing to break our long drought. Office workers tumbled confused into streets when fire alarms were tricked by the smoke. The harbour’s buzzing ferries halted, fearing collisions. Even the great bridge that spans the harbour and the soaring Sydney Opera House roof were ghosts in the haze.

A 15-year-old daughter picked up from school said she felt flattened by the smoke and fearful of the fires building into mega-blazes to the north-west. She knows the climate is coming for her.

We should have taken more notice when, a year ago, a thin film of red, dried-out topsoil carried hundreds of miles from the deep inland began to coat cars and houses in Sydney. It blows in almost daily now, on mean winds that rob farmers of their crumbling earth – their most valuable possession in a drought that has taken everything else.

Over in the Blue Mountains, west of Sydney, the few farm animals left on the stretching plains cluster under the trees. Many animals have been sold for slaughter because the paddocks are dust bowls. The national sheep flock, we learn this week, is headed to its lowest level since 1904.


Australia’s biggest inland rivers have dwindled into cesspools. The Government has sent people to pull the remaining fish out and move them to what healthier waters remain. Trucks rumble across roads far north and west of Sydney carting water to the growing numbers of small towns where reticulation systems have run dry.

The first restrictions on water use hit Sydney in mid-December. They’re mild enough for now but, we are warned, time limits on showers will be next.

One rogue bastard drought did it all, say the harder men in our Government, rejecting the need for tougher action to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions. Others says climate change is behind the drought, dust, flames, smoke and ash.

No decent rain is forecast until at least May.

A hundred bush fires were raging across New South Wales in the run-in to Christmas. Australia has had its hottest days on record. Smoke shrouds Sydney again and the Government declared a seven-day state of emergency.

It’s going to be a fretful summer.

*After the publication of this article, the death toll in Australia's bushfires this season rose to 23, with six people still missing.

New Zealander Bernard Lagan is the Australian correspondent for the Times, London.

This article was first published in the January 11, 2020 issue of the New Zealand Listener.