“People Could Rely On Us”: Reporting From The Frontline Of Australia’s Bushfires

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“People Could Rely On Us”: Reporting From The Frontline Of Australia’s Bushfires

Words by Mr Mike Christensen | Photography by Mr Levon Baird | Styling by Ms Angie Smith

14 December 2020

There are certain signals Australians are acutely aware of. Discovering dozens of kangaroos in the garden at the crack of dawn is one of them. Television news reporter Mr Hamish Macdonald and his partner, Mr Jacob Fitzroy, were in the small town of Tathra on the south coast of New South Wales, enjoying a well-deserved Christmas holiday among friends. On what was meant to be the last sunrise of 2019, the sun didn’t rise. Instead, Mr Macdonald was woken early by numerous messages, missed calls and notifications from family and friends. Something was wrong.

“It was clear from the colour of the sky, the smell of smoke and the dust in the air that things were changing pretty rapidly,” remembers the 39-year-old. “The kangaroos on the front lawn had obviously fled the bushfires.”

Bushfires come with the territory Down Under, but 2019/2020 was different. The Black Summer, as it was known, has gone down in history as Australia’s worst season. As the world watched, a real-life apocalypse burned through a nation normally associated with blue skies, Test cricket and idyllic beaches at that time of year. The first week of January was particularly terrifying. Satellite images showed thousands of fires burning from Perth to Sydney, Adelaide to Darwin and front pages across the world displayed heartbreaking images of whole families seeking refuge wherever they could find it.

In total, 46 million acres of land, thousands of houses and more than a billion animals were lost in the flames. Something potentially as dangerous was also ignited: a frenzy of disinformation capable of spreading faster than the fires and just as difficult to extinguish. It wasn’t only on social media. Certain mainstream media outlets were also guilty of giving a platform to climate change deniers spouting claims of an arson epidemic without any evidence to suggest that was the case.

Back in Tathra, Mr Macdonald and Mr Fitzroy heeded advice and left for the safety of a tiny town called Bega, 10 miles inland. It was here that Mr Macdonald began the most important work of his career, having spent the previous 17 years reporting on everything from the Iraq War, the Boxing Day Tsunami and the London and Madrid bombings to people smuggling in Indonesia and Chernobyl for channels such as Al Jazeera, ABC US, ITV and Channel 4 in the UK and Network 10 in Australia. This, though, was different – a story that was unfolding in his childhood home. As the man on the ground, he quickly became the face of that story.

On arriving in Bega, it was clear this was a major emergency. The evacuation centre was filling up and people were gathering to share stories about what had happened overnight in the surrounding hills. Mr Macdonald hadn’t started his new job with ABC (the Australian Broadcasting Corporation) – he was due to take over as the host of Q+A, a popular current affairs show – but quickly found himself on air. “They wanted to get on top of this story, so found a way for me to start broadcasting from there,” he says.

“People were able to rely on us when making decisions that could mean life or death. There isn’t any more important calling for a journalist”

“There wasn’t anything particularly unusual about what we did, but in that moment, because we had such a big footprint on the ground and anchored all the coverage from location for days and weeks on end, people were able to rely on us when making decisions that could mean life or death,” he says. “There isn’t any more important calling for a journalist.”

Mr Macdonald’s measured presence in front of the camera was what an anxious nation craved. It also masked the drama of what was happening behind the scenes as the reporter tried to co-ordinate his father’s evacuation from his home while helping as many other people as he could.

Thinking back to those first days of the year makes Mr Macdonald emotional and he falls quiet. After a pause, he confesses that what really struck him about the experience was learning about the physical dimension of what was happening in the environment while hearing the human stories of people losing their homes and finding themselves with nowhere to go.

Four days later, he found himself standing in a makeshift evacuation site in Broulee, New South Wales, in front of dust-covered mobile homes and caravans. It was before 9.00am and it was already scorching hot. Next to him stood a grandmother, two mothers and four children aged between five and 11. That very morning, the two families had fled their homes, leaving behind the men of the households to try and protect their livelihoods. They were live on air and the emotions were raw. Mr Macdonald put a supportive arm around one of the women who was crying.

“The heat that comes off a fire like that, you’ve never experienced anything like it,” the woman recounted. Her two daughters were looking at the floor, holding back the tears. Mr Macdonald gave her time to collect her thoughts. “And the sound… You’d never imagine you’d hear a sound like that. It’s like a wave of fire,” she added, before breaking down again.

It was a poignant moment and one that encapsulated the importance of ABC’s rolling coverage from the frontline of the bushfires, as well as the human quality of Mr Macdonald’s on-the-ground reporting. It propelled him into Australia’s collective conscience. For his part, he insists he was just honoured to be doing the job to the best of his ability.

“In journalism, there can be a tendency to walk in, cover the big disaster or the big story for a brief moment in time and then walk away and go to the next story,” he says. “But when it’s your own community, you know you can’t do that. It actually serves as a reminder of why you should never do that. I’ve always tried to go back to stories I’ve told before and make sure I keep in contact with the characters and the people I’ve met along the way.”

“If you remember that humans are the centre of the story, then, as the journalist, you have a human connection with that story”

Mr Macdonald proceeds to share some of these stories, such as that of Peter and Vanessa from Mogo, New South Wales, who lost their home and pottery studio. “I found their courage in the face of all of this quite incredible and inspiring,” he says. “I’m grateful for them sharing their story with me and I suppose I want to pay them their due respect by keeping in touch. If you remember that humans are the centre of the story, then, as the journalist, you have a human connection with that story.”

Almost a year on, there is still a large number of people in the hills around Bega living in tents or camper vans on their properties where their homes burned down. Many are still waiting for approvals to start rebuilding. Some, such as the couple from Mogo, have been forced to move away from the area. “It’s been slow and challenging and tougher than many imagined,” says Mr Macdonald. “People that I speak to there do feel a bit forgotten, so that’s really unfortunate, but there is a royal commission looking into the bushfire and its impact and I think a lot of those recommendations will be implemented, which will make a difference. But those communities aren’t seeing or feeling that yet and we’re already back into the next bushfire season.”

If there were a positive to come out of the deadly bushfires, it was that overwhelmingly Australians turned to trusted factual reporting of the story. “That speaks really loudly about where Australians stand on the importance of the science on these matters,” says Mr Macdonald. “They went to the place that they knew would deliver the facts, no matter what they were. No matter the temptation, people didn’t succumb to any of the ideology or misreporting of the time.”

With his new role as the poster boy of ABC, this was always set to be a big year for Mr Macdonald, but no one could have predicted just how big. He’s covered the bushfires, Covid and a messy US presidential election and openly admits that, at times throughout the year, he found things extremely challenging. He’s also said it’s helped to clarify his purpose. “To not pull any punches, to hold power to account and to report the truth in a full and frank fashion, no matter what it is, or how uncomfortable it might be,” says Mr Macdonald. “To me, that’s of more value than ever.”