Australia burns but my son still wants to play outside

Two summers ago, I took my son on his first bus ride for Christmas. It was a simple gift from the heart that was a present for me too, of a special memory and time filled with innocence and wonder.

Fast forward to Christmas 2019 and things are vastly different. He is older and more daring, while Australia is boiling and on fire.

Christmas morning for us in Canberra comes and goes as expected, but a family lunch in sweltering heat is punctuated with news updates of bushfires massing in the region. They are yet to threaten our urban enclave but their toxic smoke has lingered in the air for weeks. The firefighters are heroes. Most are volunteers and unable to enjoy Christmas with their families. The unluckiest will never return home at all.

By mid-afternoon, the youngest members of the family are overtired and due a sleep, and so is their mum. Meanwhile, the eldest child has worn his father down with impassioned pleas to try out his most beloved gift. Reluctantly, and with a pensive view to the skies, I close all the household windows and take him up the nearby mountain on his new bike.

The trails are slippery and treacherous beneath our tires, the rocks bone dry and shifting like ballbearings on polished glass. My bike is caked in dust, its chain thick with grit. We ride slowly, cautiously, feeling the drift of the earth, and hearing its crunch like a million corn flakes.

A hot wind whips up a dust storm, sending particles into my son’s eyes. He rubs at them, pushing them further in. I instruct him to blink them away, to flush them out, and we ride on. I scan the track constantly for brown snakes.

Kangaroos soon appear beside the trail, adults and joeys, dull-eyed and listless, searching for a trace of precious moisture or greenery amid the arid brown tinderbox of bush. My son stops to admire them. They flare their nostrils, smell the air and bounce away.

The bush hums around us. Magpies sit with their bills open, panting to dissipate heat. A flock of white cockatoos squawk overheard, their wings visibly dirty from clouds of floating ash. We ride past a dam where we used to skip stones across. It’s now nothing more than barren earth with cracks my son could fall into.

The northerly arrives with a vengeance. Pale blue smoke follows ominously on its coattails and quickly engulfs the city. The sun hanging low in the sky becomes muted and the land takes on a decidedly apocalyptic feel. Everything is brown, grey, white, and eerie. My son again rubs his eyes and coughs hoarsely, the noxious ether filling his pink lungs. I better get him home.

My son’s voice is filled with youthful protest and disappointment as we ride home, but he doesn’t yet understand the emergency that is unfolding. His will ultimately be the generation to properly tackle the challenge of climate change, of reducing greenhouse gas emissions and energy consumption, while those who came before them merely bickered as to its existence.

Riding down the mountain, we see people out walking with particulate filter masks. I had tried to buy some but they had sold out.

Over the course of the next week, we would watch as public pools and major tourist attractions closed. Evacuees from nearby coastal towns would start arriving in Canberra with harrowing stories of bushfire survival. Long queues formed at petrol stations and supermarkets sold out of bottled water.

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Public schools became evacuation centres for these “climate refugees.” And our quiet city of 400,000 residents attained the unenviable honour of becoming the world’s most polluted city with air that was 25-fold worse than what is considered hazardous. I would explain it all to my son as best I could.

I am hopeful of a solution, but also realistic. Immediate action is imperative. Otherwise, by the time my son is old enough to have his own children, riding your bike outside with your old man over Christmas may have become an activity that is impossible to do.

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