It may have taken until the last week of the last month of 2019, but I think we’ve found the photo that most defines the year and quite possibly the decade.
Eden Hills Country Fire Service, a volunteer fire department in South Australia, posted a photo on Sunday showing a firefighter confronting a wall of flames and smoke as a structure starts to go up in flames. A koala stands next to him, in the remnants of a puddle of water ostensibly leftover from the dripping fire hose. It’s one of the most gripping images of the Australian bushfire crisis, but it’s also a shocking metaphor for the climate chaos we face as the world enters a crucial decade.
In a Facebook Messenger message, the fire service told Earther the photo was taken near Lobethal, South Australia, last week. The community sits about 16 miles east of downtown Adelaide, the state’s capital city. While the bushfire crisis has centered on the state of New South Wales (and around Sydney in particular), South Australia has also seen catastrophic fires.
Video shot on a flight into Adelaide at night last week show the countryside lit up orange and red as far as the eye can see. At least 86 homes and 500 other structures have been burned to the ground in the state as of Monday morning, with the State Premier Steven Marshall telling ABC News Breakfast that “the catastrophic conditions we had on Friday were just extraordinary.”
The flames have been fueled by record-breaking heat across the country. The country’s average daily high last week hit 105.7 degrees Fahrenheit (40.9 degrees Celsius) on Tuesday to set the record only for a new record to be set on Wednesday, which saw a high of 107 degrees Fahrenheit (41.7 degrees Celsius). Add in intense drought, and you have a recipe for catastrophe.
As the country burns, koalas have been central to the story of Australia’s fires. Motorists have stopped to offer them water and save them from the flames. Even dogs have joined the cause. Not all of the adorable marsupials singed by the flames and roasted by the heart has survived, though.
That’s what makes this photo so instantly iconic, defining the bushfires’ impact on both humans and wildlife. Even as firefighters—many of whom are volunteers—have done their best to turn back the flames, the conditions on the ground have just been too overwhelming. People and wildlife have lost their homes as a result, and their lives may never be the same after the summer of 2019. The pathos on display in this photo neatly captures all of that.
But the photo is also a microcosm of the climate-fueled chaos gripping the world. This year has made it clearer than ever we are living through a climate emergency that threatens everything we hold dear. The flames are at our collective doorstep, and yet the world has so far been hamstrung from making any meaningful moves to address it largely due to the influence of large fossil fuel corporations and a few governments looking to wring the final bits out of the fossil fuel-driven economy. (Australia is one of those countries).
There’s an uprising underway to combat this inaction and put the world on a pathway toward a future that balances human existence with nature. But right now, it’s staring at the wall of flames. To me, this photo is a snapshot of our present.
What we need are reinforcements to turn the tide on the advance fire. Whether they arrive in time will be the story of the next decade. We know what that picture needs to look like. How it develops is up to us.