Canberra author of Little One and Son of Mine Pete Papathanasiou has had opinion pieces on the bushfires published in the Chicago Tribune and the Toronta STAR
Dispatch from Canberra, Australia, where the air is thick with toxic smoke, politics and climate debates
Greetings from Canberra, Australia’s capital city. Surrounded by native bushland and replete with parks and greenery, we are normally a picture of health and vitality, of cleanliness and purity. But since the beginning of 2020, we have the unenviable honor of being the world’s most polluted city.
Located in Australia’s southeastern corner, Canberra is deep within Australia’s most catastrophic bushfire zone. For the last six weeks, Canberra has had fires burning to the north near Sydney’s Blue Mountains, and to the east on the New South Wales South Coast. And now, with temperatures forecast to hit 42 degrees Celsius (107 degrees Fahrenheit) and high winds, the fires are massing to the south and west, creeping up from the Snowy Mountains. Our small city is surrounded, and people are worried. More than worried in fact, given the memory of the deadly 2003 bushfires still fresh in mind. People are prepping and taking drastic measures in case the situation escalates.Editorial: Australia burns as the planet bakes »
As the father to three young sons ages 4, 2, and 5 months, and the son to a mother who is 89, I find myself caught in the middle, caring for those most susceptible to the hazardous bushfire smoke. The ultrafine particles lodge in their vulnerable lungs and make breathing difficult. Mum’s eyes sting, her throat burns, her voice is hoarse. Both she and her grandsons have been confined indoors during this time, which is especially frustrating for energetic young boys who want to play outside. All I can do is apologize to them and find another board game or picture book or stream another cartoon show.
During the month of December, I was glued to the particulate matter readings of Canberra’s Air Quality Index, or AQI, that are reported hourly from three measuring stations. Hazardous air quality is considered 200 or above. In this period, Canberra’s air quality exceeded 200 on at least nine occasions, with the highest reading of 1,413 on Dec. 21. It was around this time that hardware stores across town sold out of P2/N95 particulate filter masks. Only these could offer protection from the toxic bushfire particles in the air.
And then, on New Year’s Eve, the NSW South Coast bushfires flared disastrously. Located 90 minutes to the east of the capital, this is normally the region where much of Canberra spends its summer holidays, so the sleepy coastal towns and idyllic beaches were at their busiest. At 8 p.m. on Jan. 1, following a day’s worth of wind, Canberra’s AQI hit the terrifying mark of 5,185. This is 25 times worse than what is considered hazardous and earned our city of 400,000 residents the undesirable distinction of being the world’s most polluted city, surpassing such metropolises as Delhi (population 30 million) and Kolkata (15 million) in India, Lahore (10 million) in Pakistan, and Shenyang (7 million) in China.
Such dirty air has created an eerie end-of-world feeling in what is normally rated as Australia’s most livable city ahead of overcrowded Sydney and Melbourne. The streets are deserted. Public pools and major tourist attractions have closed. Sporting events have been postponed. Department stores sold out of air purifiers. Businesses suspended trading. Such was the level of concern that the Australia postal service stopped all deliveries to Canberra to protect their outdoor workers from the toxic air. So much for those who had ordered P2/N95 masks in the mail.
With fires still burning, a political debate raged alongside. The Australian government remains enamored with coal as its primary source of energy production. The 2020 Climate Change Performance Index recently ranked Australia worst of 57 countries on climate change policy. When the bushfires were increasing in intensity before Christmas, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison went on a family holiday to Hawaii. After the new year, he visited devastated bushfire zones, but some residents refused to shake his hand.
With the NSW South Coast being evacuated, a wave of “climate refugees” began arriving in already-strained Canberra. Long queues formed at petrol stations, supermarkets sold out of bottled water, bank ATMs were emptied of cash. I was soon receiving messages from friends outlining their prepping arrangements: “We have seven days of food and water, both cars fully fueled plus an extra 50 liters in jerrycans, a thousand in cash, torches, batteries, radio, firefighting gear, and go-bags packed.” It was enough to scare the living daylights out of me.
Eyeing the smoke cloud sitting dolorous and heavy from our living room window, and watching the TV news channel for regular updates, I would explain it all to my sons as best as I could, and silently apologize for the future we’re leaving them. Theirs, hopefully, will be the generation to properly tackle climate change since all ours could do was squabble as to its existence.