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The Wildfires Changed How She Sees Life

Carol Duncan’s father almost died in Australia’s fires. Now, she's angry at the government—and has quit her job to focus full-time on relief work.

A firefighter walks past burning trees in New South Wales, Australia, in 2019.
Fires rage in the Australian state of New South Wales in December 2019.

Close to 200 bushfires ignited in Australia in early October 2019. They torched nearly 15 million acres of land and destroyed more than 2,000 homes in the states of Victoria and New South Wales along the country’s eastern and southern seaboard. Twenty-four people lost their lives, and an estimated one billion wild animals perished in the flames.     

Carol Duncan wasn’t sure her father would survive. She was in Newcastle, New South Wales, and her 83-year-old father, John Duncan, lived about six hours north, in the small village of Rappville.       

“My father called me around 3 o’clock in the afternoon to say that they were a bit worried about the approaching fire,” she said. Duncan tried to persuade her father to evacuate to the local school, but he and his partner were thinking of sheltering in a steel shed they used for storage, instead. “He believed that it wouldn’t burn down.”

Moments later, a local fire department posted advice to Twitter: All Rappville residents were urged to leave their houses immediately. Duncan tried to reach her father, but his phone connection didn’t seem to be working.   

“I sent a tweet to the local fire service saying that my father was sheltering in his shed,” said Duncan, a 53-year-old former radio journalist. The deputy commissioner called her. He “asked me where my father was and said that they would radio up north to send some firefighting volunteers to rescue my father.” They got him and his partner out. The shed melted.

“My father lost his house, his shed, his car, everything; he escaped only with his clothes on.” The evacuees were driven away on a bus, unsure where they were going to end up. “When you’ve been through any sort of terrible experience, you just want to go home and relax and put your feet up and have a cup of tea. But of course, they couldn’t do that because there were no homes to return to,” Duncan said. “My father said to one of my elder brothers, the week after the fire, that he wished he hadn’t actually survived.”

Duncan visited her father after he had returned to his village and was staying temporarily in a friend’s house that overlooked his lost property. She started a GoFundMe campaign to collect relief money for him. The prime minister and the premier of New South Wales visited Duncan’s father’s village, but it didn’t lead to the kind of relief residents were hoping for.       

“In one day, we raised $13,000 for my father because Australians want to help and signal that they care,” she said. “Government representatives did nothing, even though they made promises to the fire victims that they wouldn’t be forgotten.” Months later, she noticed burned blocks still strewn with rubble, residents still unhoused, and one man living in a chicken coop. “That is unacceptable.” 

Duncan felt she had to change her life. She quit her latest profession as a digital communications specialist in Sydney to spend her time supporting her father and the other fire survivors. Being absent from her husband and two teenage boys five days a week didn’t feel right anymore.  

“The fire was a catalyst to say to myself: ‘I just cannot be away from my family,’” she said. “My boys are 16 and 18. They are quite big, almost men, and I want to be with them when they are still around. Also, my mother-in-law wasn’t doing so well. Being away just wasn’t worth it.”    

Duncan doesn’t recognize the country she grew up in. “I grew up with bushfires, but this wasn’t even a fire season yet,” she said. “As a child, we had over 100 degrees once in a summer. This year, we’ve had over 100 degrees in five to six consecutive days. Australia has been in a grip of drought and extreme heat for the last 10 years now, but the government has ignored all warnings and reports about the changing climate. Not too long ago, 30 leading fire chiefs advised the government about increased fire risk during the bushfire season. Even my father believes that the weather patterns have changed, even if he wouldn’t use the words ‘climate change.’ ... And people are angry with the government. They give millions to the coal industry instead of fire prevention. So people are fundraising and doing what they can to help bushfire and wildlife services.”

Duncan plans more volunteer work with the fire survivors and other relief-related organizations. She has also decided to be very vocal and express her displeasure with the government’s actions before and during the bushfire crisis.

“Now Australia has its own 9/11,” Duncan said. “We are at a tipping point. From here on, everything is going to change, and I don’t quite know where that is going to land us. One thing is sure: I don’t want to hear my father’s words, ‘I wish I didn’t survive,’ again.” 

Voices From the Future is a series from the front lines of climate change and extreme weather, in collaboration with the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Futures Laboratory at Arizona State University.