Christian Living

How the Black Summer of 2019/2020 prepared me for the pandemic

It was October, November, and I was anxious. I was trying to do several things at the same time – plan my move to Sydney for College, finish up a ministry apprenticeship, hand over my ministry responsibilities and begin to think about saying goodbye well, and several times an hour, I’d open the Fires Near Me NSW app to tell me where the fire had spread to.

I lived in Newcastle, but the place I grew up in was burning. Crowdy Head was alight, and the Lake Innes fire, which had begun near Port Macquarie, was starting to make its way south. I called home every few days to news of my parents stopping up and filling their gutters with water, of evacuating my grandparents from their home in the bushland just south of the road that cut through the burning forest. There was a Tuesday where I checked in with a friend who’d come from the same area, whose family had had to evacuate. He shared that he wasn’t sure if their house would still be there the next day. We paused, and we prayed, lost in how helpless we felt.

Black Summer was dreadful, and Covid followed so hot on its heels that the first cases arrived in Australia when the country was still blanketed in choking haze.

Fire seasons haven’t been a stranger to me. Growing up outside of major cities, in areas with a lot of flammable material, you kind of just have to learn how to live with the risk.

There are certain things you do to mitigate the risk of a bushfire: backburning in the winter so that there’s not as much dead or dry stuff to burn in the summer, clearing the land around your house so that the fire has a harder time spreading, keeping your gutters clean, having access to water and a way to pump it, hosing down your roof, having an evacuation plan, knowing when it’s time to evacuate – all of these things can help keep a fire from your house, and some of them help with dealing with the cleanup should it burn, but none of them will totally assure you that you’ll be safe.

Black Summer meant that all of us saw how quickly a bushfire can catch, can spread, can turn or change direction depending on the wind. The fires also showed us that there wasn’t really a quick solution – it wasn’t until the heavens opened in February and we received a year’s worth of rain in two weeks that the last of them went out. As badly as so many of us wanted to wake up tomorrow and it would all be sorted, a million-hectare bushfire didn’t, and couldn’t, have a simple solution.

Some days, the only thing that you could do was pray. And you knew it. You could prepare as much as you liked, try as hard as you could, but there were no promises. There were no illusions about my lack of power to change or fix the situation back then in 2019; all that I could do was ask God to be merciful, intervene, keep my family safe, and help us trust that he was still good, and still in control, even in the face of so much destruction.

And then Covid arrived. We saw videos of the sick and suffering in other countries as it spread like wildfire, and then it was here. 2020 came and went, and we did our best to cope. We were pitched a variety of ways to mitigate the spread of the virus, and we clung to them as we waited for the hope of a vaccine. Surely, this would be the solution to it all.

I don’t think I need to tell you how things went for the next bit – the ups and downs, restrictions, lockdowns, vaccine mandates; it’s been a long and tiring slog as we try to get out of the hole. Where we are now, with the Omicron strain running its course, for better or for worse; something in my thoughts returned to that Black Summer and the ways we cope with the threat of fire.

I wondered: had I bought into the idea that there was going to be one simple solution to Covid? The world is certainly looking for a solution! The ‘solutions’ we’ve come up with so far have been lockdowns, and then vaccinations, and then good testing, and now we’re in uncharted territory. (Not to say that any of these were ineffective; I think there’s enough evidence to say that we’re still doing better than we could have been.) But I’m so very tired, and the idea that there’s a simple solution is appealing. It’s very easy to place our hopes on one solution, or on a few. For things like mask-wearing, or vaccination, or social distancing, it feels like I am personally contributing to the solution. Then it’s easy to fall into thinking that any failure of the solution is a failure of other people’s effort, a failure of the people who don’t believe in the solution or a failure in how the solution was administered, rather than the solution itself. But there isn’t a simple solution, and many of us have been left with feelings of disappointment and powerlessness as we try and work out what life looks like now.

There wasn’t a one-size-fits-all instant solution to the fires. The fires brought me to my knees, and I prayed, because I understood how far out of my control everything was.

And I wonder now, as we try and navigate what life is supposed to look like on the other side of lockdowns, becoming frustrated that there wasn’t a simple solution to this, if maybe the unexpected gift of Black Summer was that I learned that I needed to ask for God to be merciful, to intervene, to keep my family safe, and to remind me that he was still good, and still in control, even in the face of it all.

I needed to bring my present trials to God in prayer and wait on his timing to deliver us. He delivered us from the fires. I have reason to believe he’d do it again.

And so, as we continue to navigate these unknown waters, the action to consider and follow through on ought to be prayer. Not in absence of other precautions, but knowing that even the best precautions can’t promise us deliverance. What am I trusting in to deliver me from Covid? What are you trusting in to deliver you from Covid?

I am exhausted and feeling pretty burnt out, the terror of impending lockdowns still fresh in my mind. I worry for my friends and family with compromised health, for those who have chosen to put themselves at greater risk of getting sick, and for those whose jobs don’t give them much choice. But there’s something beyond this that’s worthwhile, and I am trusting that God will deliver us for it. He’s reminding us that we cannot save ourselves; that there is no simple solution we can offer. It’s of far greater worth for us to put our trust in his ability to save us from greater things.

“For God alone, O my soul, wait in silence, for my hope is from him. He only is my rock and my salvation, my fortress; I shall not be shaken. On God rests my salvation and my glory; my mighty rock, my refuge is God. Trust in him at all times, O people; pour out your heart before him; God is a refuge for us.”

Psalm 62:5-8