Mostly due to the fact that I was twelve and this happened on the other side of the world, I was unaware that in January 2013, a bush fire ravaged the small community of Dunally, Tasmania and a picture of a family seeking refuge in the water went viral. Later that year, The Guardian published the insider story of the family and how those pictures came to be.
But this is not your average article.
Firestorm is a multimedia publication that uses sensory immersion so much that you really feel like you are there in Tasmania watching this fire roar. Writer Jon Henley focuses on a tight, vivid narrative of Tim and Tammy Holmes, while the rest of your screen is filled with the sights and sounds of what they thought would be a normal summer day.
When explaining the context of the land and what makes Tasmania a place so prone to fire, we find that the eucalyptus plant is not only created to withstand fire, it also encourages it by being extremely flammable. Meanwhile, behind the text is a beautiful, serene looping, moving image of eucalyptus swaying in the gentle breeze with the occasional bird chirping somewhere nearby.
Side Note: this really interested me, so here’s a video that explains how eucalyptus trees catch fire.
This is the case on every single screen while you journey through the Holmes’ day realizing that the home and land they built by hand with love was going to be consumed by fire.
Now I know what you’re thinking
“That’s a lot of scrolling, I don’t want to read that much”
Well me neither, and we’re both in luck.
There are several clips of the Holmes themselves describing what that day was like, and listen when the fire firefighters explain that they had never seen a fire quite like this one.
It was really like when you were growing up in school and the teacher blesses you by saying you were going to watch a movie that day. And you can sit back, relax, put your head on your desk, and let the information float into your eyes and ears without having to do a single thing.
So there are plenty of times when you don’t have to interact with the story if you don’t want to. However, there aren’t really any opportunities for you to dive deeper into a certain aspect.
For example, we learn that for some reason, fires spread faster uphill than downhill. I think a little demonstration off to the side would have been really cool to see, but the story just moved on.
When tragedy divides, people come together
One part about Firestorm that I loved, was getting to hear the Holmes’ story through Jon Henley’s narrative, their own words, and the surrounding facts given by the fire firefighters, fire behavior specialists, and forest ecologists. It shows you that one voice is not enough to tell a story, but you need several different perspectives to really understand what’s happening.
And, the last two chapters of the text really talk about the resilience of the community. Even though 60/180ish houses in Dunally were destroyed, the local pub served breakfast, lunch, and dinner for free to anyone who asked, and turned every free space on the floor and “paddock”-or porch if you’re not Australian- was filled with cots for people whose beds were burned.
Firestorm really does allow us as readers to experience the story alongside those who were there, pouring water from helicopters and running to the jetty. It also reminds us that amidst great tragedy comes great resilience. And just like the eucalyptus was created to withstand fire, we were created to withstand far more than we believe we’re capable of as long as we’re together.