In the summer of 2019 my mum, Amparo Castillo, thought it would be a good idea for our family to go camping in Kiola, on the south coast of NSW. My two aunties, Luz and Mariam, were visiting from Colombia (my tias) and my mum wanted them to have a beach holiday. Kiola had been on fire only weeks before but the campground had survived and we were given the all clear for our little holiday.
It certainly wasn't the summer beach holiday you see on a postcard. The air tasted of smoke (like it did along the whole east coast) and all the trees were blackened spines. Ash spoiled the formerly white beach, a black charcoal mark where the tide came in. We could see fires burning in the distance within the national parks - nothing to worry about we were told. But anyway we made the most of it and were having a great time until about 11am on New Years Eve.
It had been about 35 degrees so we were swimming at the beach. Then the wind suddenly changed, the temperature dropped at least 10 degrees. We ran to our car, being flayed by sand whip as we went. Dark smoke filled the sky, inconceivably it started raining lightly, but now I know that wasn't real rain.
We were safe. We couldn't be safer really because Kiola had already had its fire. We had a buffer of burnt forest to the west and the ocean to the east. The campground had a generator and plenty of drinking water. But it was still scary. Communications were wiped out. We relied on our car radios to find out when the roads would open to let us out of our little refuge. I worried about my tias' lungs, with only our tents there was no way to avoid breathing in the smoke.
Bawley Point to the north was on fire, Cobargo to the south. And so many more places around them.
My tias ended up helping out at the evacuation centre in Ulladulla. They got to feed people which I know from experience is their favourite thing to do. It wasn't exactly the Aussie beach holiday we'd planned for them but they didn't fuss at all.
Recently I've been speaking to climate change and emergency services experts about disasters like Black Summer and the NSW North Coast floods. It's for our series Disaster Country, which includes a two part podcast I mixed for ACM. When these experts tell me about the growing threat of climate disasters I think back to that summer and can't help but be scared again.
And I should be scared. We should all be scared.
My experience is nothing compared to the thousands who lost their homes and hundreds who directly lost their lives. But I can say that I saw it and I felt like the world was ending. This is what we're seeing at 0.8 degrees warming and climate experts tell me as the planet keeps warming, disasters will get more frequent and more ferocious.
Amanda McKenzie, the CEO of the Climate Council, told me that in the latest IPCC report Australia was mentioned a lot. We were mentioned as a country vulnerable to the effects of climate change - the droughts, heatwaves, fires and floods - and we were mentioned as a developed nation not pulling its weight when it comes to climate action.
But it's not all doom and gloom she told me. Because Australia was also mentioned as a place with the capacity to do a lot towards creating a greener future. We have the wind, sun space and coastline for massive renewable projects, we have the infrastructure for exporting that power. We have the iron ore to pioneer green steel. We have a lot of opportunities. We just need to take them.
I really hope it doesn't take another Black Summer, another twin flood event, to push us to take those opportunities.
As my tias handed out blankets at the evacuation centre to people who'd lost their homes, not a word of English between them, but consoling how they could, I thought about how a disaster can bring out the best in people. Hopefully that empathy bubbles up before it's too late.
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