Chances are you heard about the severe bushfires that swept through Tasmania a couple of months ago.
It was awful, a terrible combination of a hot dry summer and a day of searing temperatures and high winds. Perfect fire weather: all it needed was a spark…
Up at Lake Repulse someone left a campfire unattended in the pine forest. Near Bicheno and out at Giblin River, lightning struck the blazes. In Forcett the latent heat from a tree stump burn two days before was enough to set the flames raging. Over 80 000 ha, burning; anxious days of checking the emergency broadcasts and trying to contact missing family and friends while the sun blazed red through clouds of smoke, the air choked with the smell of fire.
The fires were devastating, the damage is heartbreaking. People have lost their homes and livelihoods, whole towns are gone, yet somehow, incredibly, no lives were lost. It seems impossible when you drive through the fire zones, with their scorched paddocks, blackened crops and kilometres of destruction, the eucalypt forests now deep black with a canopy of red dead leaves, slowly falling. People are camped next to the remains of their homes – twisted iron and brick chimneys – the tents the only colour in a sea of black.
It’s been grim, times are tough and it’s going to take years for these communities to get back on their feet, but I think they will, because something amazing has been happening: people!
The community response to the fires has been absolutely amazing. From the first day Tasmanians have been helping each other, reaching out and doing what they can.
In the initial chaos and confused response a few inspired (and inspiring) individuals stepped up and set up a comprehensive social media network, connecting people who needed help with those who could provide it and establishing a critically-needed conduit of information. A flotilla was organised to rescue people stranded on the Tasman Peninsula, critical supplies were obtained and shipped to where they were needed and messages were passed on to concerned loved ones. Thanks to these volunteers, working away at home under their own initiative, the initial emergency response was kicked off long before the slow wheels of government started turning.
The call for help went out and the Tasmanian community responded. people donated what they could to the cause, pulling together to help each other out:
It was amazing to see, the way people came together and acted as a true community, people caring & sharing, realising they have more than they need and lending a hand. Disaster seems to have a way of doing this, bringing out the best in people and pushing us together. We saw it in the 2010 Brisbane floods and the way the Mud Army formed and cleaned up the houses of complete strangers. Outside of Australia, there was the huge volunteer effort in US after Superstorm Sandy, when people were helping their neighbours to get back on their feet long before official services could be mobilised.
When it’s front & centre in their awareness, people are amazing; humanity is brilliant and beautiful.
So why aren’t we like this the rest of the time? What happens through our every-day living that results in us living disconnected, inwardly-focussed lives? Why, when people can be so amazing, do we have problems like road rage and harassment? Why do we see so much social isolation and dislocation? What makes us hoard for resources and consume more than we need?
Deep down, people seem to know what we need to live together well and create community. That’s not surprising for a species that relied on social organisation to survive and flourish. What is surprising is how we so easily lose our way. It makes me wonder if it’s something to do with the size of our cities and social structure, or the marketing messages that are constantly flung at us, urging us to collect more and more stuff as if we’ve somehow earnt it.
We live our lives behind closed doors and high fences, distrusting our neighbours and defending our castles and consider our independence a triumph until disaster strikes. It is then that we remember the truth: we’re all connected and we need each other in order to survive and keep the great wheels of civilisation turning.
Watching the recent fire response gave me hope for humanity, reminded me just how wonderful people can be, but it also made me wonder why we’re not like that the rest of the time. If there’s a lesson to be learnt from the horrors of the fires it is this: community matters. Be a part of it.