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The True Story of the Fire Wombat

Renowned Australian writer Jackie French, AO talks about her book, climate change and fire

The Fire Wombat is a touching children’s story about a wombat sharing her burrow with other bush creatures during the fire - how in disaster all creatures come together to protect each other – prey and predator, people, mammals and marsupials alike.

It is also the story of adapting to climate change.

“When we first built here (in the Araluen Valley regional NSW) before climate change, this area had never burned,” French said. “We thought because of the rainforest and the kinds of trees around that we were safe from bushfire. Now we know nowhere is safe from bushfire.”

French recounts her experience of living through the fires. How she and her husband Bryan decided there was nowhere safe to evacuate to. The roads were dangerous and the animals needed them. Kangaroos, wombats and wallabies, even snakes, possums and powerful owls – animals that usually eat each other, all huddled together and shared the food and water left out for them.

“You couldn’t see anything except smoke, she said. “There was no daylight and there was no night. The sky was blazing red.

Torches can see through the darkness, but torches can’t see through black smoke. So we lived in this very, very small world for months where we could only see a few metres around us and it was pretty much completely filled with animals.”

Then one night in early January, 2020 when French was replenishing the food and water, a small, totally black wombat emerged from the smoke, staggered towards the water, then collapsed.

“She must have been travelling for weeks across country which had been burnt,” said Jackie. “She was just too weak to reach the water.”

So French carried the water over to the ash coated wombat and very slowly lifted up handfuls to her mouth. After about two hours the wombat was strong enough to get to her feet and eat. Another wombat, Phil, shared his burrow with her.

After the fires the rain came and the grass grew. Slowly the animals left the refuge and returned to the bush. The fire wombat went with them.

“I thought I would never see her again,” said French. “But late last year I was driving down the valley and there she was: this very fat, dark brown, glossy wombat. And next to her was this bushfire-black baby wombat just bouncing around and playing. The fire wombat gave me a grin. Wombats really do grin.”

After the fires, French heard of an architect who builds fire-proof houses. She had a fire-proof book bunker built and a fire-proof shelter for wildlife.

“Human beings are a very clever species,” she said, noting that we can build fire and flood-proof homes.

In Japan they have built curved walls to force tsunamis back to sea and in the Netherlands they have built a village where houses are held to the ground by enormous chains. As the water rises the houses and streets float.

But all too often, French notes, the people who make decisions about how we manage the land and how we build our houses fail to listen to the engineers, architects, planners and climatologists.

“I think they are more interested in making money than protecting people,” she laments.

Her home is a conservation area. French says she believes it is our duty to care for the world around us. She hopes others will do likewise – that we will all join wildlife groups and care for wombats and other native animals.

Part of the proceeds from sales of The Fire Wombat go to The Wombat Foundation.

The Jackie French Fire Wombat webinar was held in conjunction with Black Summer: Kangaroo Island After the Fires exhibition by Zoe Reynolds and Schools Strike 4 Climate poster making workshop by Gill Cameran held at Gallery East Sydney on March 6th.

You can watch a recording of the webinar on YouTube


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