The Springs Ran Dry. Then This Australian Town Burned.


MOGO, Australia — The lawns were always green in Mogo, a former gold-mining town in southeastern Australia where water from natural springs bubbled just beneath the surface. The lush oasis had never burned as far as anyone could remember.

But Mogo, like much of the country, is facing a new reality.

Last week, strong winds swept through the town, bringing a terrifying firestorm that razed half of the main street. Many now are asking: If a swampy garden spot can burn, is anywhere safe in rural Australia?

The Australian bush has always burned. But the higher temperatures that come with climate change, as well as the three years of drought and the expansion of communities deeper into wild-land areas, have put more people at much higher risk.

“We’ve had townships completely under threat that were never threatened before,” Gladys Berejiklian, the premier of New South Wales, said on Sunday.

In all, at least 1,600 homes have been destroyed in New South Wales and Victoria. By comparison, around 70 homes were hit in the two states during the last fire season.

“We can’t pretend this is something we have experienced before,” Ms. Berejiklian said. “It’s not.”

Although there are weeks if not months to go in the fire season, Australians are already reeling from the devastation of hundreds of volatile and unpredictable blazes. While cooler and damper weather has brought a relative respite for a few days, the fires are expected to pick up later in the week, when high temperatures and strong winds are expected to return.

Fiona Phillips, the member of Parliament for a district that stretches for around 150 miles along the coast and includes Mogo, estimated that 80 percent of the constituency had burned — hills and gullies, inland and coastal, lush and dry.

“Everyone is impacted,” she said.

The devastation, and the visceral images of communities leveled by infernos, have prompted a global outpouring of aid.

The governments of New Zealand, Canada and the United States have all sent experienced personnel. American firefighters who arrived on Monday at the Sydney airport were greeted with handshakes from officials and cheers from Australians passing through.

Celeste Barber, a popular Australian comedian, has helped raise nearly $20 million for firefighters through social media. Pink, the American pop star, recently pledged $500,000 of her own.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison, who has been widely criticized for his delayed response to the fires, also picked up the pace, announcing on Monday that the government would dedicate two billion Australian dollars, or about $1.3 billion, over the next two years to help rebuild ravaged towns, support affected businesses and provide mental health services for emergency workers.

Over the weekend, he said the government would deploy 3,000 military reservists, along with aircraft and navy vessels, in one of the largest uses of military assets at home since World War II.


The bush fires mirror what other places have witnessed in recent years. Areas that have also long had wildfires, like California, are burning more intensively, destroying record numbers of homes. Places like the Brazilian rainforest or the far north of Sweden, where natural fires are rare, are seeing record fires.

In the Snowy Mountains, the highest peaks in Australia, fires raged only weeks after the last snow melt, leaving many residents in the area trapped.

In Australia, the population outside big cities has grown by around 10 percent in the past decade, increasing the pool of people vulnerable to wildfire. Up and down the southeastern coast, subdivisions are sprouting as the area attracts more residents who want to live there year-round, not just visit on vacations.

They must be prepared for the worst. Life in rural Australia now means planning for long power cuts, preparing escape routes and keeping a kit of emergency supplies.

“Across Australia, we’re seeing fire into systems that have not had fire since European contact,” said Kingsley Dixon, an ecologist and botanist at Curtin University.

With light rains falling over many destroyed areas along the coast Sunday and Monday, many residents returned to flattened homes to gather anything that was salvageable — and in some cases to say goodbye.

In Conjola Park, a three-hour drive south of Sydney, Jodie and Jason McDermott held an impromptu party at the outdoor bar in their garden. Their home was destroyed in the New Year’s Eve fires, but the backyard bar was intact, including the wooden surfboard that served as the countertop.

“Here’s to the new future,” Ms. McDermott told her neighbors as they raised cold bottles of beer.

The neighbors used humor and Australian stoicism to deflect the pain of losing almost everything they owned.

“I had a leak in the roof — I don’t have to worry about that anymore,” said Maree Fletcher, a neighbor.

Ms. McDermott said she was going to make sure that her new house didn’t have the creaking floor boards that annoyed her every time she stepped on them.

“This is sealing our memories and embracing the new,” she said.

Bulldozers are coming soon to flatten the remains of their homes. Mr. McDermott said they would build their new homes where the old had stood.

The fires were so intense in Conjola Park that they melted an aluminum boat.

“A lot of people don’t understand the ferocity of what happened here,” said Brian Walker, a firefighter. On New Year’s Eve, he successfully protected other people’s homes as his own burned.

He lost his collections of aviation memorabilia, all of his clothes — everything.

“All the bits and pieces that you accrue in life,” he said.

Mr. Walker spoke about the people who had reached out to help and the kind words of support that had come from a man, a friend of his son, whom he had coached years ago in a youth sports league.

Then he paused. He cleared his throat and stuttered a few words. The stoicism fell away as his eyes watered.

Where would he live?

“I’m swinging in the breeze,” Mr. Walker said. “That’s going to be a big problem. So many people have lost everything.”

Building communities like Conjola Park or Mogo tucked away in the country’s vast wilderness has been an important part of Australia’s identity, an ethos of both living as one with nature and trying to tame its endemic harshness.

Mogo, once reliant on gold and timber, has in recent decades drawn tourists with its handicraft shops and a gold-mining museum, all of which burned in last week’s fire.

A deconsecrated church that was built in the late 19th century was also razed. The structure was not insured, said Peter Williams, who ran a pottery shop out of the building.

“I feel like a refugee — we’ve got nothing,” Mr. Williams said as he stared at the chaotic pile of rubble, including a handrail that is still intact but now leads nowhere. His home, also not insured, burned, too.

“This was 40 years of our lives,” Mr. Williams said. “I’ve run out of tears.”

Thomas Fuller reported from Mogo and Isabella Kwai from Nowra, Australia. Damien Cave contributed reporting from Sydney.

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