MALLACOOTA, Australia – Flying with gut-churning force over miles of charred bush land, the military plane had a vital load to deliver: 500 gallons of fuel, to help power a town cut off from the world.
On the ground below, residents had become desperate for the suddenly scarce resource, and some were taking their frustration out on gas station attendants forced to ration it. With the only road in or out blocked for two weeks by fallen and smoldering trees, the usually laid-back beach town, Mallacoota, had grown tense with the hardships that come with isolation.
“People are starting to get angry and frustrated with the lack of supplies, being stuck here and the power is still off,” said Tracey Hargreaves, the owner of a cafe on the main street. To keep business going, she has had to serve long-life milk and carefully preserve her pastries. “It’s surreal,” she said.
Since wildfires began ravaging huge expanses of Australia late last year, about a dozen communities have become isolated to some degree, authorities say. Some are completely cut off, accessible only by planes or helicopters, which have been dropping water, food and satellite phones, and even carrots for wildlife. Along the roads to others, arborists and engineers are working shifts of up to 14 hours to remove “killer trees” that are at risk of falling.
The crisis, which has stranded thousands of Australians, exemplifies the growing danger of inhabiting the world’s forests as climate change makes wildfires more frequent and intense.
“More people are living in high-risk bush fire areas, emergency services are stretched and the climate is rapidly changing,” said Andrew Gissing, an emergency management expert with the Bushfire and Natural Hazards Cooperative Research Center, a nonprofit supported by the Australian government.
“Future crises are inevitable,” he said. “We must consider the prospect of a monstrous bush fire season, the likes of which we’ve never seen.”
A sense of that dystopian future has already come to Mallacoota, where images of thousands of people evacuating to a beach focused worldwide attention on Australia’s calamitous bush fires months after they began.
In normal times, the town, surrounded by lush eucalyptus trees, is a haven for wildlife, including kangaroos and koalas. It has a magical quality: Many people return year after year for their summer vacations, and on New Year’s Eve people often take a dip in the lake, which lights up with bioluminescent microorganisms.
But this year, a fierce inferno swept through the community, destroying homes and severing power lines. Four days later, more than 1,000 people and their pets boarded naval ships that took them down the coast to safety. Many others, residents and vacationers alike, decided to remain.
Help has come slowly by air and sea, in the forms of water, fresh fruit and vegetables and, perhaps most critically, fuel.
Those leaving, and those staying behind, said they felt confident that new life would eventually sprout from the scorched landscape. But they acknowledged that fires could one day tear through again.