Currowan: How journalist Bronwyn Adcock wrote one of the defining books on the Black Summer bushfires | HerCanberra

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Currowan: How journalist Bronwyn Adcock wrote one of the defining books on the Black Summer bushfires

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Currowan is a moving insider’s account of surviving one of Australia’s worst bushfires—and how we live with fire in a climate-changed world. It’s a portrait of tragedy, survival and the power of community.

Award-winning journalist and South Coast resident Bronwyn Adcock pens an immersive account of the time—taking you into the firestorm and the lives of many who were on the frontline, picking apart the policy failures in the lead-up as well as deep humanity and the strength of community throughout. It’s a gripping read and a powerful glimpse into a new, more dangerous world—and how we build resilience.

The book started as an article in The Monthly, how did you approach the transformation of article to book?

The article was written while the fires were still burning—I could see smoke and hear trees falling as I wrote the final paragraphs. With the book, I wanted to keep that same sense of immediacy and urgency of living with a fire, but with a deeper understanding of why and how things unfolded the way they did.

I started by going back and methodically re-examining everything that happened—first the years leading up to the fire, and then from the moment the bolt of lightning that started it came down. I tried to track every move of the Currowan fire over a two-month period, following it across the landscape and speaking to many dozens of people.

When it came to writing the book, it wasn’t hard to drop back into the ‘moment’—it was still all very raw for me—but now I could do it with a deeper understanding of why things had happened as they did.

Currowan contains so many personal stories—how hard were the decisions about which to hold onto and which to leave out, when all the stories must have seemed so vital?

Incredibly hard. Every person’s story is often worthy of a book in itself, as is the story of each individual community.

I just had to keep my focus on the bigger picture of what I was trying to accomplish, which was to tell the story of the entire Currowan fire and keep moving on in my story-telling—even though it often involved leaving more incredible stories behind.

How hard was it to revisit this traumatic time?

It was both hard and helpful. I certainly found the revisiting of parts of my own experience very difficult—sometimes I just had to walk away from the computer for a day, other times I’d notice I was avoiding tackling certain parts of the story because I knew it was going to feel uncomfortable.

But hearing the stories of so many other people helped in that it really reminded me that this was a collective experience—there was hardly anyone not touched in some way by the fires—and this made it easier to accept in some ways, because we were all in it together.

I was also constantly in awe that there were so many capable, brave and resilient people in my community.

There is an overwhelming sense of community throughout the book – can you tell us a little about that?

People really came together and helped each other during the fires—whether it was the RFS volunteers, or farmers with their water ‘cubes’ saving other people’s properties, neighbours helping each other either during the fires or in the aftermath, or people who were not fire-affected but offered their homes to those who were, no one really stood back.

I uncovered so many stories of incredible generosity. One of my favourites was a woman in Conjola Park who emerged from where she had been sheltering to discover her home being hosed down by a young man who had already lost his own home. This kind of thing was common.

Are you aware of any positive changes to policies/actions around fire management/response since the fires?

The NSW Bushfire Inquiry handed down a bunch of recommendations that the state government accepted, so change is underway.

The Royal Commission into Natural Disasters also handed down recommendations and the federal government has accepted some, but not all of them.

Some of the most important recommendations were to do with scientific research about fire. Due to climate change, fires are now behaving in ways we don’t fully understand, so the race is on to learn more and thus equip ourselves better.

In my view though, we—and by this, I mean government and the community—have still failed to grasp the urgency of the situation we are facing.

A warming climate means that many other Australian communities are going to face a version of what my community faced over that summer and so we must act quickly and decisively across a whole range of areas to try and mitigate as best we can.

Currowan provides evidence of what we all know about climate change and the effects on our region (and globally), and can paint a dire picture, but what do you feel positive or optimistic about?

I feel really optimistic about all the really clever, innovative people out there who are coming up with ways that we can transition into a future that doesn’t rely on fossil fuels and also one that adapts to the changing climate.

For example, scientists and inventors who are doing amazing work on renewable energy, farmers who are developing innovative new ways of doing things, architects and urban planners who are re-imaging how and where we build.

I think the human ingenuity is there, we just have to use it.

What’s on your TBR pile?

My TBR pile has quite literally formed into a small tower on my bedside table! Writing Currowan consumed so much time I haven’t been able to read as much as I would like, so I am really enjoying diving into it now.

I’m reading Full Circle by Scott Ludlam right now and I’m looking forward to Firestorm by Greg Mullins.

I’m also relaxing with lots of fiction: Lanny by Max Porter, Jane Harper’s books that I’ve only just ‘discovered’, and I’m re-reading Gillian Mears who is one of my favourite authors, in anticipation of her biography Leaping into Waterfalls by Bernadette Brennan coming out.

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