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Sarah MacLennan can’t help but laugh at the irony. Surrounded by huge snowbanks and icy roads, her phone flashes a shade of red as she flips through photos from her sister.
The images show horrific scenes from southeast Australia, her homeland. It’s also where her sister, Emma Danby, currently is trying to stay one step ahead of the devastating blaze.
Luckily for Danby, she and her partner, Deb Delgrosso, were able to escape the inferno, but their home in Mallacoota was destroyed.
Amazingly, the old picket fence and shed seem to be relatively untouched, but the entire house collapsed, with only the chimney and some other parts still standing.
Despite the loss of property, MacLennan is relieved they’re safe.
“I keep telling them ‘come here! we’ve got a foot of snow,’” said MacLennan, who owns a cafe in Fall River.
Danby, who works for the Victoria Parks service, which manages the parks in that part of the country, could see this coming.
Unprecedented drought and hot, dry weather, has cooked the continent. It was only a matter of time, Danby guessed, when she visited her sister in October.
Fires are a constant threat in Australia, but the severity of the current series of blazes is unprecedented.
“Reports of bad weather started to circulate and they realized they would have to evacuate,” MacLennan said. “The risk was huge.”
Since that time, Danby, her partner and their dog have been moving from town to town, trying to stay ahead of the fire.
MacLennan said a lot of the coastal towns, like Mallacoota often double or triple in population during the hot, summer months as vacationers head for the beaches. Meaning it wasn’t only residents who needed to evacuate, but swaths of tourists as well.
“There were about 4,000 people there stranded on the beach that had to endure that. That region was really hit hard.”
Danby and her partner escaped to Boydtown, north of Mallacoota, but had to leave the next day as the fires continued to spread.
They spent another night in a town further north called Eden, but the next day that town was also evacuated.
“The fire had joined another and the conditions were just getting worse,” she said.
They continued to Merimbula and have been staying there since.
As of Thursday, a stranger offered their apartment as temporary lodging free of charge. A humbling gesture of kindness for people in need, MacLennan says.
“They’re feeling very displaced,” she said. “It could be another two weeks before they can go back to Mallacoota, the roads have literally melted.”
But Danby tells her sister that she wants to stay in her home country, after all, there’s going to be a lot of work to do when the fires eventually burn out.
One of the parks Danby works at has been 80 per cent burned out, with fears that approximately 85 per cent of the wildlife has been killed.
“The world needs to take notice of what’s going on in Australia, this is a big deal,” MacLennan said.
MacLennan said she’s hoping that personal stories like her sister’s will help people to realize just how serious climate change is.
The parallels between what’s happening in Australia now and the Fort McMurray fires of 2016 is not lost on her.
Coal mining is a major industry in Australia, contributing to the global rise in greenhouse gas emissions, which leads to warmer temperatures. But cruelly, the industry also siphons much-needed water, which is sorely needed during the extended drought.
Like in Canada though, Australia is divided on whether or not fossil fuel resources should continue to be exploited for the economic windfalls despite the environmental impacts.
“The government has to address it, they’ve thrown resources at it for now, but I don’t think Australians will stand for it anymore,” MacLennan said. “Climate change needs to be considered.”
“This should be the world’s wake-up call.”
MacLennan established her café to introduce some of the Australian flavour and coffee culture to the area, after working in the hospitality industry Down Under for many years.
She said the threat of fire in the summer months, Canada’s winter season, is constant. The brush of Australia, especially during a drought, ignites easily.
With climate change, the driest year on record and a prolonged drought period, it was a perfect storm that led to this season of intense bushfires that have already claimed over 25 lives, destroyed thousands of homes, and an estimated one-billion animals killed, an unfathomable loss of life.
It’s unlike anything MacLennan or her family has ever seen.
Even when looking back to the horrific fires of 2009, called the Black Saturday fires, it doesn’t compare to the 2019-2020 fires currently ravaging the country.
“It’s been an emotional time for us, we’ve had a few tears, but it’s nice knowing they’re OK and we can reach them,” she said. “I can still sleep at night because I know she’s safe.”
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