Dreamy blue skies, genuine smiles, and an unmatched sense of love and care for the environment are some of the many reasons that I fell in love with Sydney, Australia nearly a year ago.

But as I returned to visit after a long six months, I couldn’t help noticing a once flawless coastline tarnished by thick and heavy smoke. Sunsets, if even visible behind a thick layer of fog, turned fiery and eerie. Dangerous air quality forced many to stay inside instead of enjoying the usual beauty that an Australian summer has to offer. Many of those who did decide to face the chillingly smoky days wore masks, fueling the apocalyptic tones that simply couldn’t be avoided. The positivity and high spirits that once defined the magic of the city to me began to diminish. Since September, the entire country of Australia has been burning, and Sydney has undoubtedly been feeling the repercussions.

Though Australia has a bushfire season every year, record-breaking heat and persistent drought have exacerbated conditions, making it arguably the worst bushfire season the country has ever seen. The facts alone are unfathomable: 15.6 millions of acres have been burnt, an estimated 3,000 homes have been damaged or destroyed, nearly 30 people and an estimated 1 billion animals have been killed. And bushfire season isn’t even close to being over.

As these overwhelming numbers, punctuated by emotionally raw photos and stories, have populated social media in these past few weeks, the rest of the world has joined Australians in their devastation and confusion. How could we have let this happen?

For Batemans Bay local, 21-year-old Ella Bandur, the effects of the bushfires this year has been more than just hazy skies and hazardously contaminated air: they’ve nearly engulfed the town and community she grew up in.

“You’d think we’re on the coast and it’s a proper town with 60,000 people so we must be fine. It’d never happen to us. Even when they were coming toward us, we were like there’s no way they would let it reach Batemans Bay… and then Batemans Bay burnt,” said Bandur.

Bandur’s family got lucky in that firefighters were able to reach their home before it went into flames. But many people in her town, just four hours south of Sydney, have lost everything to the fires; the community’s morale as a whole has diminished as their beautiful hometown, known for its sparkling blue beaches, is now entirely covered with ash.

“It’s crazy how many people I know who have lost their homes… it’s still really shocking but it’s almost normal now. Everyone knows someone who has either lost a house, or died or lost a pet or anything. Everyone’s just trying to put back the pieces together,” said Bandur.

To make matters worse, local businesses all throughout affected areas such as Bateman’s Bay struggled to recover from the economic gap left by their once prominent tourism industry.

Without visitors coming, these businesses miss out on a season they rely on to make money which supports them throughout the year.

“Everyone is focusing on putting the fires out which is obviously so important but then there’s all these people who are going bankrupt. They’re all just families running businesses and they need to get back on their feet,” said Bandur.

Although Bandur is a student currently living in Sydney, the apocalyptic nightmare going on in her hometown could not be escaped.

“It definitely hasn’t been a normal summer in Sydney. The sun has been red for months. I had a sore throat and sore eyes for weeks because of the smoke. I hadn’t breathed in fresh air for weeks… I work at an after-school care in the city and the kids were constantly complaining about how much trouble they were having breathing. For weeks they weren’t allowed to play outside because it was too dangerous. It’s affecting everyone in one way or another. Everyone’s just kind of acting differently,” said Bandur.

During my two weeks in Sydney I experienced many bad – but some good – days. On my first day back, the beach had nearly disappeared into the fog. The air quality in Sydney was ranked as hazardous: the worst it had ever been. I tried to buy a face mask to protect myself from the pollution, but everywhere I checked for them had already been sold out.

I had two-three days where the gleaming blue skies and water returned. The smoke was nowhere to be seen, and everyone began to feel nostalgic for past Sydney summers. But with just one look at the sun, which constantly appeared to be lit on fire, the remainder of the tragedy taking place remained salient.

While climate change is the primary factor that allowed these fires to reach the magnitude they have, many note other considerations: the lack of government initiative, for starters. Many fire chiefs had suspected that this fire season would be particularly horrific and sent many letters to Prime Minister Scott Morrison starting in April, to discuss the issue. They were ignored; failure to focus on hazard reduction activities for the fires further provoked the problem. Back in November, Morrison even proposed banning climate change protests as many criticized the fact that Australia is the world’s largest exporter of coal.

“I am not going to write off the jobs of thousands of Australians by walking away from traditional industries,” Morrison told Australian media.

Arson may have also played a part in the issue as 24 people in the state of New South Wales were charged for “deliberately-lit bushfires.” However, many other people faced legal action for failure to comply with the total fire ban and worsening the fires by lighting a cigarette or match on the land.

Regardless of whatever led up to this tragedy, it’s now our responsibility and job to fix it. It’s our job to prevent something like this happening in the future.

“Even if people will argue that climate change isn’t human caused or anything, no matter how it’s caused we have to take action to get it back to normal. We need to think bigger picture and work to get the actual climate back to normal,” said Bandur.

In terms of immediate relief, I’ve been deeply moved watching so many communities come together in light of this tragedy. My entire Instagram feed has been people from countless different countries spreading awareness and pleading for donations. Each day, volunteer firefighters are risking their lives. People genuinely seem to care, and people seem to want to do better.

Being back in Sydney during this time has been bittersweet. As sad as it has been to watch a group of people – who are so defined by a love of their environment – suffer so deeply, it’s been equally beautiful to witness the love, care, and passion that is bringing everybody together. Nearly every local coffee shop or boutique had a day where they donated all profits to the fires. Nearly every bar or restaurant dedicated a night to raising money for the fires. The opera house was lit with images of firefighters one night – a gesture of thankfulness.  While sitting at the beach one day, and firetrucks drove by, nearly every beachgoer stood up to applaud and pay their tributes to the firefighters.

“The spirit of Australia is so phenomenal. People come together; people care about the land. This is our home …  you’ve grown up learning about the land … To have that threatened; to have my entire culture threatened because of fires is crazy. So much of the spirit of Australia was being burnt away and that was bringing people together. This is our country we all need to fix it,” said Sydney native and USC junior Maddy Ledger.

Amidst the smoky skies and endless panic, there’s a glimpse of hope, unity, and optimism returning: the very things that may have gotten me to fall so in love with Australia in the first place.