I have often joked darkly that people with chronic illnesses are unlikely to fare well in the climate apocalypse, but this summer it stopped being funny.
While the nightly news here in Australia is ablaze with smoke haze every time a capital city is affected, fire season is more familiar to country folk. As a teen I huddled with my family around an omnipresent radio, young hands slapped away for attempts to tune it from the public broadcaster. One year we watched a ginger glow not-so-gingerly making its way across the hilltops surrounding our valley, snuffing out embers with wet mops and water-filled wheelie bins. Similar summers came and went. Wet mops were upgraded to a superhero-like water pump backpack. Shrubs were removed from around the house. We eschewed the old radio for an ever-pinging smartphone. And after 2009’s Black Saturday, when terms like flying fireball entered the communal lexicon, we realized that staying and defending might be an out-dated idea.
I grew up and moved away, as many bush bumpkins do. My brother briefly joined the volunteer fire service before also moving to the city to become a climate activist. My agricultural scientist mother steered her career towards environmental conservation, my aunt upskilled in fire management and the government department I worked for moved buildings to make space for an emergency control center. Then five years ago, I got sick. Too sick to work, study or live independently, I moved home to my beautiful but bushfire-prone hometown in northeast Victoria, where my parents became my full-time carers. This summer I am bedbound.
We are in a pizza slice of land between fires to our east and south. On the fire maps it looks like the jaws of a monster about to clamp down, and as the space between the jaws diminishes we make our plans. My condition convinces even my father that if needed we should leave and leave early. It’s the first time he has agreed to this out loud, and I don’t mind being the one providing the impetus to go.
I suggest packing my parents’ caravan instead of the car, so if we evacuate there’s a portable bed. My evacuation bag is filled not with clean underwear or mementos, but medication. When a fire causes the highway connecting us to the city to close, I make a note to ring the Melbourne hospital that supplies vital medicine to fill another script once the roads re-open. I tell my folks that if things really heat up they should drop me at a hospital, as I’ll simply be of no use to anyone. They agree, but we all know there is no hospital in our small town and getting to one might involve driving through a fire.
I have an autonomic nervous system disorder, and my body is often stuck in “fight or flight.” We joke about it being a body primed for an emergency, with its constant flooding adrenaline, racing heart and tendency to send blood supplies to my vital organs. The reality of this constantly stressed state means any activity or stimulation drains me, including sitting up, eating, talking or others talking around me. I demand doors be shut to drown out the incessant emergency app updates of fires started, responded to, controlled or not controlled. I use earplugs to block the sound of the fire-suppressant plane flying overhead for the sixth time today. I turn off the television, as coping with shared anguish is difficult without access to counteractive collective healing. Too sick to participate in community efforts, too sick for social media and too sick to hold a conversation, my phone too is switched off.
Instead I focus on my immediate needs: rest, medication, hydration, nutrition and appointments. The smoke that has blanketed our home for a month ratchets up a notch, and I wake with eyes crusted shut, a tight chest, and blow half a campfire out my nose. Most of the practices to coax my body down from sympathetic nervous system response involve deep breathing, but the air outside is neon orange and thick enough inside to obscure the end of the hallway. I think I’ll skip the yogic breathing for now. The irony of trying to teach my body it is safe to rest and heal while a real danger looms is not lost on me.
In my half a decade of severe illness, I have come to dread summer. Heat is a vasodilator, exacerbating problems with blood pooling and low blood pressure. Yet this year — perhaps the year we will remember as the one in which everything changed — I feel I’m not alone. A thrum of dread in the background tells me others too are wishing summer would end.
So I call for another vinegar-soaked towel for my homemade smoke filter, shut my eyes and lay back to rest. I’m just a sick woman with a basic enough understanding of climate science to know this bushfire season is the equivalent of standing waist-deep in the fabled canaries of the coal mine. For those of us with chronic illnesses, pushing through the endless mire of lifeless canaries feels just that little bit more difficult.