When the kids woke us up at dawn on New Year’s Day, the sun was a sore, distant red. Our baby daughter’s hair smelt of the ash that had been swirling around in her room during the night despite our efforts to seal up the windows and crank up the air purifier. Our 4-year-old son’s room seemed better, but he too had had a difficult night, waking up several times damp with sweat and gasping for water. Every time he stumbled in to see me in the small hours, I had shuffled his small dark shape back through the foul air in the corridor and nudged him back among the pile of teddies on his bed, praying that he could fall back to sleep with the noise of the electric fan and air purifier making his room sound like the inside of an aircraft cabin.
And yet, when we heard the news later on that Canberra had had the worst air quality in the world that day, we were a tiny bit excited. Canberra rarely had any accolade bestowed on it – most people would struggle to locate it on a map, and if they did locate it and turned up they’d be disappointed – but here we were, world number one and making global headlines. My dad took a picture from the living room window and posted it on Facebook.
But then, even our sense of humour started to leave us. People were evacuating on our go-to holiday beach, more lives and homes were being lost with no end in sight. As temperatures hit 40C and strong winds were forecast, the threat of fires spreading into Canberra became rather too real for comfort. The city’s emergency services announced they were on a ‘State of Alert’, and DD rushed out to buy water and nappies. We tried to pencil out an evacuation plan, but with fires raging in the bushland and mountains all around us, we weren’t quite sure where we were supposed to go. Plus, we moved our car off the driveway and parked it on the road due to our slightly paranoid fear that falling embers might cause the petrol tank to explode right by the house, and almost immediately a neighbour backed into it, jamming our driver’s side door. And to top it all, some idiot arsonist kept starting small bushfires in the night just down the road from us. As if firefighters didn’t have enough to deal with – 200 house smoke alarms went off that night in Canberra triggered by the heavy smoke that enveloped us once again.
The next morning, the kids were going crazy in the house so we did the unthinkable and took them out. The car was covered in ash, and as we drove we couldn’t see 500m ahead. Everywhere grass was so dried out it looked like stuffing inside an old sofa. Once again, Canberra had the worst air quality in the world but this time it wasn’t funny. Inside the shopping centre it smelt only marginally better than it did outside, but as we wandered about aimlessly killing time, none of us mentioned it.
But we are the lucky ones. At the British High Commission we have a ready made community of equally concerned and well informed expats, and DD’s bosses are sympathetic and accommodating. We can make demands of the High Commission to improve the air quality and cooling system in our house – they might not be able to, but it helps just to complain at some unlucky souls who are duty bound to listen. And if things get really dire, we can jump on a plane and take refuge with family in Japan or the UK.
I can’t begin to imagine how trapped and powerless we would feel if we were one of the many parents out there who are local to the region, have nowhere else to go and no one else to lean on, trying to protect their little ones all on their own. On a more pragmatic level, some childcare centres have been closed to protect staff and children from the smoke – it’s the right thing to do of course, but what of the single parent who has to go to work?
Early this morning the last of our Christmas visitors left, and when I stepped out to see them off my heart skipped a beat as I couldn’t smell too much smoke and the air was cool. As we start back on our normal routines today, we seem to have been granted a little respite. I might not be able to hang the bedding out, but perhaps I could risk opening the blinds and later even walk round the corner to the shops. Here we go, one day at a time.