Dust Storms and Surrealism

Looking at Stu Hasic’s blog on Wednesday’s dust storm reminded me of just how our poor stewardship of this planet’s resources is starting to deliver some quite disastrous and sobering signs.

Blue sun in Five Dock
Blue sun in Five Dock

The blue sun as, I drove to work that day, filled me with a sense that I was in some surreal cinema event, re-enacting the plagues of Egypt.  Perhaps my unconscious hope was that this was all a dream.  Salvador Dali had been on my mind after listening to a most stimulating program about his life on the ABC a few days before. I am sometimes apt to dream of cataclysmic events but unfortunately this was real. I reached for my digital camera, it was still on the dining room table, I grabbed the iPhone and captured the blue sun.

Ironically the last similar atmospheric event I’d witnessed was actually in Cairo. Here a combination of natural and anthropogenic factors, in simple terms desert dust and photochemical smog, produce a dense and toxic atmosphere. Our problems are both similar and different.

The event triggered many memories.  I remembered the El Nino year of 1997/98. That year the chaotic tinder box litter of branches and secondary re-growth left where forests had been clear felled in East Kalimantan, burst into a firestorm.

25 percent of the forests in the province were burned and  such was the severity of the fires that even the NSW Rural Fire Service was involved.  People from cities like Singapore and Kuala Lumpur developed respiratory conditions.

For me it was a tangible expression of overheated and unsustainable practices which heralded the Asian economic crisis and swept away the apparently immovable Soeharto regime.

The Canberra fires of 18 January 2003 came to mind.  That day I travelled south, to the Holy Transfiguration Monastery at Bombala, making a short side trip to do an errand in the suburb of Cook.  It was hot and crisp.  The cold beers offered by my host were most welcome. As a retired senior public servant he has some interesting insights about the interface of politics and bureaucracy.  Soon the conversation drifted into a kind of cynical dialogue about politicians one that might well have been well recycled as comic lines in Yes Minister. It was all very cerebral.

Now it was time to go, we stepped outside. The air was intensely dry. The conversation drifted to tennis balls, he’d have to put them in the guttering, after all this was bushfire weather.

About 300 metres down the street a huge white smoke cloud loomed over the next hill, against a blue sky.  White means very efficient combustion, in short a firestorm.  I drove on to Tuggeranong and spent 20 minutes in the Supermarket bunker, shopping for supplies.  I emerged to a black sky. The car radio on ABC 666 sounded a siren alternating with warnings that Canberra suburbs, including Cook, were now declared fire emergency areas.  My route to the south, the Monaro Highway, was already cut. I pulled onto a traffic island and waited.

Not long back from the volunteer effort following the Bali bombings of October 2002, I had a sense that I could be looking at the apocalypse.  I felt strangely unemotional. My travelling companions were very unsettled, so we drove to the coast through a gloom reminiscent of Wednesday’s dust storm.

We eventually reached our destination and spent the next five days living in smoke, erecting sprinkler systems, burying plastic water pipes, clearing gutters, erecting ember screens around water pumps and praying.  Finally we sat down for a beer while we listened to the cricket on the radio.  The Abbot smiled and said,  “Towards the end, a day like today will be a good day”.

5 thoughts on “Dust Storms and Surrealism

  1. It’s amazing how these events evoke memories of similar incidents in the past, but in between we continue as if it’s business as usual, not learning anything from the past. We might, through knee-jerk reactions implement some radical changes right after the event but we always seem to revert to complacency.


  2. I wonder how many Australians realised that it was our future prosperity and ability to sustain ourselves (namely our topsoil blowing away). I fear it will be a common occurrence in the years to come.


    1. Yes, Hurricanes and Tropical Cyclones often do a lot of damage and cause many deaths. Fortunately many of the really big ones we experience in Australia past over the sparsely inhabited north west coast, although sometimes they hit the northern and north eastern coastlines. About 70% of Darwin was destroyed by tropical cyclone Tracy, in 1974. Further north of Australia, the 2008 Hurricane that hit Burma did immense damage. Tragically, in the end it’s often the hazard response plans that are most significant in containing the magnitude of disasters. Unfortunately, as the planet warms we can expect more hurricanes, dust storms and wild fires. Often the greatest impacts are on the poor in places like Burma, nearby Bangladesh and even places like the one I mentioned in East Kalimantan.


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