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‘I Still Call Australia Home’

  • UMES’ Catherine Hanssens-Passeri reflects on menacing fires Down Under

    Wednesday, January 22, 2020
    Catherine Hanssens-Passeri

    Editor's note: UMES' Interim Director - Center for Instructional Technology & Online Learning shares thoughts on watching from half a world away as her native Australia endures devastating wildfires.


    As my New Jersey husband says “you can take the girl out of Australia, but you can't take the Australia out of the girl.”  Watching the news, Facebook, and keeping in touch through those sources these past few weeks has made me really homesick.

    Fortunately, none of my family and close friends have been injured by the fires, but some had close calls.

    It's the summer holidays over there.  As many Australians do, they go tripping around.  One of my best friends narrowly escaped the fires.  On New Year's Eve, as their son was kicking around the football amongst the kangaroos, they were told to evacuate their camp site immediately.

    An hour later their campground was ablaze.  They traveled to Canberra, Australia's capital, but by the next morning they had to leave there as well because the smoke was so bad.  They drove 400 km (248 miles) to get to a location just to be able to air out their camping gear from all of the smoke.

    My friends made it back home safely.  “This is a trip (they'll) never forget,” they said, not only being chased by fire, but also seeing so many animals fleeing.

    Some 1200 km (744 miles) away from Canberra, in my home town of Brisbane, the smoke had traveled north and was bad.  Fortunately, that is the city and suburbia.  The fires did not reach there, but one of my sisters and her husband lives closer to the bush areas.  The smoke there was bad.  They and many others had respiratory issues due to the smoke.  They are now ok - after treatment.

    Kangaroo Island, a favorite tourist destination, has been hard hit by fire.

    Many of the areas I saw on the news are places I've visited.  Whether it was where I camped as a child or I vacationed with my husband on trips back home, it's difficult to see these places so devastated and all those animals killed.  They are our icons!

    If I was living back in Australia, I'd take time off to go help out.  That's what we do; we all band together to restore after devastation.

    Like California, Australia is no stranger to bush fires.  They occur regularly, but this summer has been by far the worse.  One reason is they are having one of the driest seasons.

    Australia often has water restrictions during dry seasons and this does not help with the fires.  Some fires are lit by accidents, some by kids playing around, some by arsonists and some are burn offs.  Burn offs are usually kept under control. 

    I've had several people here in the U.S. tell me “It looks like the entire country is on fire.”  That's not true. Australia is a little smaller than the continental United States, but most of the center is bare. 

    The major fire region would be the area from northern Florida to the Carolinas.  As one Australian said “the fires are bad enough, let's not blow it out of proportion.” 

    Nonetheless, it is heart-wrenching to watch half a world away.


     The headline is inspired by the late singer-songwriter Peter Allen's composition about his native country.