Reporting on the Australian fires: 'It has been heartbreaking'

Mike Ticher, Helen Davidson, Graham Readfearn and Calla Wahlquist
Photograph: Brett Hemmings/Getty Images

Mike Ticher, Guardian Australia’s news editor

Australia’s unprecedented bushfire crisis has unfolded in waves across the spring and summer, demanding coverage across many months that has encompassed a vast geographical area and has tried to make sense of dozens of interrelated narratives, from the personal stories of individuals caught in the disaster to the devastation of wildlife, social media misinformation and the overarching relevance of the climate crisis.

The key vehicle for delivering the news on the bushfires has been our daily live blog. Our first day of live coverage, incredibly, was on 10 September, months before the normal onset of the bushfire season, when fires raced through parts of northern New South Wales and southern Queensland. Since early November we have covered the fires live on 32 days, including continuously from 16 December to Christmas Eve, and again from 30 December to 11 January, often for more than 12 hours a day.

But of course an event of this size and drama cannot be covered solely from the office. The logistical challenges of putting reporters and photographers into fire zones hundreds of kilometres from their Sydney or Melbourne bases have been huge. The safety of our journalists has always been our priority, but inevitably in a situation where the demands on them are extreme and communications often impaired, there have been anxious moments. We have been rewarded by extraordinary dispatches, telling the stories of places whose names have sadly become synonymous with disaster: Balmoral, Cobargo, East Gippsland. In other towns, such as Mallacoota and Malua Bay, we have been able to reconstruct the terrifying events there through the accounts of residents both in print and audio.

The crisis came at what is usually the quietest news time of the year, when many staff are on leave. Many gave up their summer breaks to work long hours on our coverage. Some were themselves caught up in the fires while on holiday, able to report on a harrowing experience only when communications were restored.

Reporting events on this scale has been challenging enough, but putting them in the context both of Australian domestic politics and the wider question of climate change has put even greater demands on our reporters and opinion writers. From the start we have been at pains to keep the climate crisis at the forefront of our coverage, by explaining the science and holding the government to account for its response.

Calla Walhquist, reporter

The photographer Chris Hopkins and I drove from Melbourne to Bairnsdale, Victoria on Monday 30 December, the day after emergency services took the unprecedented step of advising everybody in the far-east wedge of the state to get out.

Under a bridge on the eastern side of Bairnsdale, next to a sign that said “no camping”, we found evacuees such as 77-year-old Marilyn Withers, whose face was red from the 43C heat.

That night the temporary campground under the bridge swelled to the hundreds, including many who had fled with just the clothes on their backs and who were now sleeping in their cars. The discount department store sold out of tents that night, we were told. Many people had not intended to flee, but changed their minds when they saw the size and speed of the smoke column.

It looked like a moving volcano. We watched from a pie-and-sandwich shop on the edge of town alongside Alan and Jenny Blair, who had made a last-minute decision to leave their six-hectare property at Wy Yung. While we spoke the wind was roaring in from the north-west, pushing the fire towards Wy Yung and Bairnsdale. At 5pm, the wind changed, sparing the Blairs’ home but devastating the villages of Clifton Creek, Sarsfield, and Bruthen, taking 43 houses and a school.

The next morning at the official evacuation centre it was easy to spot those whose houses had been lost. They walked around white-faced, desperate to talk to someone but wary of the notebook. I made friends with the animals: 250 horses held safe in the saleyards, countless dogs, five chickens laying eggs in the back of a Landrover. Shellshocked humans who did not want to talk about how they were doing told me about how their pets were faring, and then their kids, and then finally themselves.

Everyone who stayed to defend their property told us they would never do that again.

I grew up in the shadow of bushfires, on the other side of the Victorian alps. When a woman told me the church where her family was buried had burned down, I told her my family’s church had burned too, in another bushfire. It feels inevitable now that if you live in Australia some part of your life will burn down. It’s just a matter of when.

Helen Davidson, reporter

My first fire callout this season was to the well-heeled Sydney suburb of Turramurra in November, where no property was lost, houses were doused in the delightfully coloured pink fire retardant and some departing firefighters handed us ice creams on their way out.

My most recent was to the area around Nowra, south of Sydney, and the NSW southern highlands in January, where houses were lost and fires created their own lightning storms.

In between, I went to the Mount Gospers fire twice and the Green Wattle Creek fire as it hit Balmoral again and again over consecutive days.

Reporting on the fires requires a lot of driving, instinct and guesswork. There is often more information in the newsroom than on the ground, and we relied a lot on firefighters, the fire and traffic apps and radio broadcasts. I also received text updates on wind and weather changes from my dad, who can read charts better than I can.

We would find crews, conduct interviews, take photos and get advice about where we could see firefighting efforts without getting in the way or getting too reckless. Then we’d park the car for half an hour, file to Guardian Australia’s live blog or the news desk, and do it all again somewhere else.

In Kurrajong Heights, photographer Jessica Hromas and I met a strike team waiting for a fire to come up from the gorge and into the suburbs. A firefighter told us where to park our car – facing out and with doors unlocked – and said he’d give us a radio so he could tell us when to escape.

Again and again I saw the short-lived relief in people’s faces as a wind change saved their home, before they realised it meant someone else would likely lose theirs.

From a personal point of view, it has been heartbreaking. The scale of the disaster, the fear and anger and sense of powerlessness on the ground is palpable, and it’s the moments that are hard to write about in the usual news style that I will remember the longest:

  • The sound of thunder in Nowra rolling overhead from dirty brown clouds, knowing it was one of three storms generated by a nearby fire.

  • The feeling of guilt having firefighters check on our welfare and make sure we weren’t hungry.

  • The steely bravery on the face of a 12-year-old kid who wasn’t evacuated before the roads closed and was now helping their mum put out spot fires in the backyard.

  • The overwhelming desire to hug interview subjects, either because they’d just gone through something horrific or they’d just done something extraordinarily selfless, and because this isn’t just a news story, this is home.

Graham Readfearn, environment reporter

There has been a lot of anger and politics swirling around Australia’s bushfires, as well as a lot of facts – some relevant, some not, and some fake.

As an environment reporter, one of my main roles during the bushfire crisis has been to get into that swirling mess and come out with something that gives people a clear picture of what’s going on.

So while some of my colleagues have been delivering blistering and heart-wrenching narratives from the fire grounds, I’ve been knee deep in academic papers about bushfires, and conversations about the Forest Fire Danger Index and the Indian Ocean dipole.

I have been talking to ecologists to work out what the environmental impact of these fires will be – the answer is unfolding, but the experts say they’ll be amazed if we don’t see species becoming extinct.

We’d had warnings this bushfire season was going to be bad – rainfall had been at record low levels in many areas, and temperatures at record highs.

As the fires took hold in NSW and continued in Queensland, a blame game emerged. These fires had little to do with the climate crisis, some were saying, but were down to “greenies” and their “policies” to stop hazard-reduction burning in forests and national parks.

Australia has plenty of academic expertise on bushfires because it’s part of our lived experience. One of the first people I spoke to, Prof Ross Bradstock, gave an almighty sigh when I called him up to ask if this really was all the fault of the Greens.

This was “conspiracy stuff”, he said, an accusation that almost always came up after major bushfires. I later took a further look at hazard-reduction techniques and their limitations.

I tried never to leave the climate question unanswered.

I’ve spoken to I don’t know how many experts in their field over the last few months. I’ve disturbed conservationists and scientists on their holidays. One ecologist on Kangaroo Island was telling me what was going on while she and her children evacuated her house from the threat of a fire. The climate crisis comes up in every conversation.