Burning questions about the bushfires

Guy Rundle asks if the fraying and isolation of communities in Victoria worsened the impact of the ferocious flames.

Guy Rundle

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Topics Politics

‘I thought he’d gone up the hill and I wasn’t going to leave without him, so I thought well, this is where our lives end together, here.’

The woman, speaking to Australian TV cameras in central Victoria, was sobbing with relief, holding the husband she thought she’d lost to the fires that have engulfed the state over the past four days. The image has gone around the world as a motif of the disaster, a rare good news story amid the primal horror of a fire which has, at the time of writing, cost 200 lives, consumed 300,000 hectares of land and razed to the ground a number of small, country towns.

Stoked by a week of the highest temperatures south-eastern Australia has ever seen, with the mercury hitting 47 degrees Celsius, and sparked by a combination of lightning strikes, broken power lines and arson, the firestorms have been unprecedented in their power, filling the air in seconds, and outrunning the cars of those trying to escape them. Survivors have reached deep into the archive of human experience and myth to try to describe the experience, talking of Dresden, Hiroshima and Hell.

The arsonists whose actions exacerbated the fires have been described as ‘terrorists’. Debates have begun about climate change, prevention strategy, demographic change – followed by meta-debates about whether such discussions politicise a moment of shared tragedy, which should be greeted with a period of silent, or at least non-contentious, mourning. Others have suggested that such an approach is a passive capitulation to events that lie at the border of nature and human society.

It may however be that rational and irrational responses to fire cannot be so easily distinguished – that the attempt to explain or understand such events is more an attempt to tame its power in the imagination as it is to deal with its full reality. With story after story of terrible deaths – whole families caught on the roads, girls going back for their horses, elderly couples overwhelmed – the temptation to think about anything other than the how and why is easy to succumb to.

A brief history of bush fires

What are now being called the ‘Black Saturday’ fires appear to have begun almost simultaneously, after a week in which the tinder-dry foliage of central Victoria had been baking in 45-plus degree heat for up to 10 days. In contrast to the dry and sparse landscape of much of Australia, much of central and eastern Victoria is heavily wooded and (comparatively) densely populated. It’s an area that Captain James Cook found so familiar in his 1770 encounter that he named it after south Wales.

The area’s recent high temperatures and dryness arising from persistent drought are unusual, but devastating fires are not. Every 10 or 15 years, a major series of bushfires rips through one or several parts of eastern Australia; every quarter or third of a century, a truly massive conflagration engulfs the state.

In 1983, the ‘Ash Wednesday’ fires cost 80 lives, and consumed a number of coastal towns, the flames coming right to the edge of the beach, driving the local population into the sea for refuge. In 1939, the ‘Black Friday’ fires consumed 1.5million hectares, affecting three quarters of the state, and killing the same number as ‘Ash Wednesday’. The 1851 ‘Black Thursday’ and 1898 ‘Red Tuesday’ fires were similarly devastating – as bushfire expert Frank Campbell noted, the fact that almost every day of the week has a major fire named after it is a sign of the permanent nature of such conflagrations in Australian life (1).

Indeed, bushfires are an annual event, usually resulting in land and property loss, but no fatalities, which is at least partly due to the fact that almost every eastern Australian gets some instruction in basic survival techniques.

Surviving, and understanding, the firestorm

Some elements of survival training are small details – piling on woollen clothing, for example, to minimise burns – but everything hinges on one key strategic point: the decision to leave the area or to stay and fight the fire has to be made well before the fire reaches the area. The latter strategy involves clearing the land around the house or area, wetting down whatever structures one can, and then digging a trench and covering yourself over with whatever you can find of fire-resistant materials (most Australian bush homes lack cellars).

Crawling into what may become your grave takes a measure of self-discipline, but the worst thing, by common consent, is to make a run for it too late because bushfires do not move as a continuous front – the air around them is so heated that arches of flame leap from one treetop to the next. Eventually, sap and air pockets heat to the point where the trees explode, sending fireballs raining down. Windshifts turn the side of a fire into its front, trapping anyone who had relied on it going in a certain direction. Smoke fills the air and the noise is earsplitting. Staying and digging in maximises survival not only because the fire is less likely to pass across cleared ground, but also because the intensity of the experience undermines the capacity to think clearly – at some point, panic and terror take over, as the awful pictures of burnt-out collided cars attest. Over the decades since such techniques were adopted, thousands of people have saved their lives by such measures.

Quite possibly some of those who died in flight over the past few days might have saved themselves thus – but also quite possibly not. Such techniques are developed for the survival of smaller, less ferocious fires, and every indication is that these most recent fires were of a ferocity rarely seen. The TV footage of the fires is confronting enough, but it needs to be remembered that these are taken from outside the fires, at a safe-ish distance – the feeling of being in the middle of them can only be imagined.

People can survive weeks in the snow, at sea in an upturned fridge, for days buried by an earthquake. Fire, unique among the elements, once it is fully upon you, offers no chance, no exception, no moment to act freely on your own behalf. The domestication of fire marks the very beginning of humanity distinguishing itself from nature – a meaning marked by its primary role at the root of most religions, from the first monotheism of Zoroastrianism through northern European pagan and aboriginal beliefs. This history gives fire an inherently metaphorical, symbolic presence. Domesticated fire is life; a fire front out of control is the very face of death.

With this status, it is inevitable that people find themselves at a loss to describe or assimilate the experience they have been through, and reach out both for images from the European mythical heritage, or from historical acts of firestarting, such as carpet-bombing. Such fires produce varying types of atavistic behaviour – for every person who runs too late, there will be others who firefighters have to physically haul out of their homes, paralysed not by fear but by a desire to die rather than contemplate the loss of everything they own or have lived with for decades.

The language, the metaphors slide around, but in post-traditional societies there is no overarching framework to give the event a supernatural meaning as punishment or displeasure of the gods. The randomness at the heart of the event – a sense exacerbated by the knowledge that it is partly caused by pointless arson, most likely by someone with a fire fascination – must be borne unmitigated.

New fires, same old debates

In the face of that, every major bushfire of recent decades has been not merely a debate about whether particular policies have contributed to it, but a meta-debate about whether such a debate should even be held. ‘Our Darkest Day – state of mourning’, reads the current online headline of the Melbourne Age. Anyone venturing an opinion as to what, if anything, might have contributed to the ferocity of the current events, tends to preface their remarks by acknowledging that many will find remarks at such a time ‘insensitive’, but that they have a duty to speak. In fact, the idea of a period of mourning has become more honoured in the breach in the past 24 hours, as all sides have brought out their version of events.

For the green movement, the fires, and the heatwave that had preceded it, were a confirmation that climate change was occurring and was beginning to generate extreme weather events. ‘This disaster challenges the government to accept evident truths’, wrote Freya Matthews in the left-leaning Melbourne Age, under the heading ‘Fires the deadly inevitability of climate change’ (2). In the online daily Crikey, the head of the Australia Institute think tank, Clive Hamilton, quotes a 2007 report from the Australian Bureau of Meteorology’s Bushfire Cooperative Research Centre, as to the likely increase of extreme fire danger in a changing climate. Hamilton concludes that the current fires were ‘global warming made manifest’ (3).

On the other side, an equal certainty has been built up around the notion that these fires have been vastly exacerbated by the build-up of fuel (bracken and detritus) on forest floors. In rural newspaper the Weekly Times, the green-sceptical MP Wilson Tuckey blamed the over-preservation of national parks and forest in a bid for green votes, arguing that roads and clearings in worked forest areas offer firebreaks (4). In the Australian, bushfire specialist David Packham argues that there has been insufficient fuel removal – achieved through controlled burning of selective areas – a procedure neglected due to a currying of similar votes by condoning ‘extreme spot fires which generate nutrient distributing mudslides’. Packham may be overrating public attention to his speciality (5).

The last time such a debate was had in earnest was during badly managed bushfires that threatened the national capital, Canberra, several years ago. Then, a lack of fatalities and the nearness of averted disaster gave licence for an unrestrained proxy war. The horror of current events do not seem to have restrained people’s desire to load highly technical material with moral narratives.

To deal with the forest fuel issue first. This has become a fetish of green-sceptical campaigners, presenting a picture of an overload easily remedied with an occasional fire. Such campaigners, such as Packham, often buttress their arguments with reference to the back-burning practised by aborigines in managing the landscape, and suggest that we have follied by abandoning their ways.

But all of this is hopelessly oversimplified. Fuel reduction is complex. The controlled burns, to be effective, must be done in the same hot, dry conditions in which uncontrolled fires occur. Furthermore, the burns not only remove fuel, but also regenerate it; much Australian flora is dependent on fire for seed regeneration. Indeed, this was the principle purpose of aboriginal back burning, as Germaine Greer notes, and the practice was a continuous labour-intensive process of much smaller burns, a utilitarian process wrapped up in ritual myths of service to the land and regeneration. Aborigines were not immune from out-of-control fires; the techniques of fire survival now taught were all employed by them, but largely ignored until chauvinist attitudes began to dissipate in the 1950s and 60s.

Nor does the alleged absence of roads and clearings versus wilderness and parks hold much sway, at least in terms of casualties. One of the reasons for the high death toll is because the bulk of the current fires have occurred in developed and populated areas, cut with the sort of landscape breaks Tuckey is referring to. A much larger fire in 2002-3 was without casualties (and barely remembered) because it occurred entirely in national parks. The intensity and speed of the current fires made breaks like roads irrelevant – the fires simply leapt over them, a reason for the high number of road casualties. In general, the fuel reduction debate is a complex technical one, admitting of no easy answers, employed as a symbol of a larger political narrative (6).

The equation of the current events with climate change is no more persuasive, but more easily dealt with – the one-off nature of the event leaves no basis for any hypothesis of a trend. The 1983 ‘Ash Wednesday’ fires had wind speeds higher than those in the current events; the 1939 fires came out of temperatures as high as those last week. The physical spread of the current fires barely puts them in the top five in terms of the area affected, and the last high-casualty fire was a quarter of a century ago. So it’s not as if one was likely to be surprised by it. Were the heatwave and firestorm to occur again once or more in the next few years, one would have to turn more attention to climate shifts, but its single occurrence is no proof of anything, no matter how dramatic or confronting the event.

Australia’s changing society

What does need to be urgently investigated is the high loss of life, given the relatively small amount of territory consumed. A number of commentators have pointed out the demographic changes in the area. Many of the rural areas in the centre of the state hit hard by the fires are former country towns that have increasingly become exurbs of Melbourne, after a gap following the decline of agricultural life (7). Quite aside from changing the volume of population, it has also changed the community form, into one of greater separation and isolation (8). Towns oriented around rural production were interconnected in material ways that may have formed a basis for a more collective defence, or collective decision-making, which gave them greater resilience in the face of such momentous challenges, whereas people living in more atomised circumstances may be easily overwhelmed. This may be one explanation for what appears to be the root cause of many of the deaths – the sudden decision to make a run for it, provoked by the terror of the fire.

Indeed, one of the things that is remarkable about the impact of fire on people is the degree to which a collective response can mitigate the terror. The Country Fire Authority (CFA), a largely volunteer force in which many rural people – farmers, students, shopkeepers, exurban commuters – participate, will regularly drive directly towards the fires that everyone else is fleeing from, and slow their progress with great courage and often with fatalities. In 1983, an entire truck of 12 CFA firefighters was killed, and most have stories of lucky escapes.

Yet what is most remarkable is that the people leaving the fire and the people running towards it are the same people – they are not sustained by the professional firefighter’s heroic social role, the sense of an elite standing for the community. They are the community, and there is no doubt that the more organised and rational response that was seen in these fires – as compared to, say, the collapse of New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina – has much to do with those residual collective structures.

But increasingly, as Lionel Elmore notes in Crikey, the community that subsists beneath this collective project has been frayed and does not mirror the ethos, even though it was from rural community solidarity that the CFA was developed and formalised. Elmore argues convincingly that the lack of collective shelters, and the individual address of the ‘stay or go’ decision, is simply overwhelming for many, especially urban transplants who have little day-to-day connection with directly acting in a rural setting.

If the Royal Commission of Inquiry into the disaster, announced yesterday by Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, is to be effective in minimising future deaths, it will need to go below the surface and asks questions about deep social and historical change that may have unwittingly led us into this impasse, or at least made it worse than it might otherwise have been. But it will need to be a process that avoids easy blame or pseudo-explanation, the mythical incantations of a confused culture.

Predictably, one response to possible problems with the ‘stay or go’ policy has been to advocate compulsory evacuations, a simply unworkable policy (quite aside from any other objection) which turns firefighters into cops and ties up resources. Another response to the fact that the fires are arson has been an urging for increased rural surveillance, of an area greater than the size of England but just five per cent of England’s population (9).

The need for easy solutions is understandable, for the sheer horror of death by fire, of the number of children and teenagers killed, is hard to contemplate. But the plain fact is that nothing short of clearing the state of its timber from coast to coast will ever remove the possibility of sudden catastrophic fire. If the living owe anything to the dead, it is that we not make the assuagement of our grief the focus or pretext of our actions, in place of a determination to face the situation and the challenge clear-eyed, and scorning easy consolations.

Guy Rundle is an Arena (Australia) Publications Editor and the author of Down to the Crossroads: On the Trail of the 2008 US Election. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

Previously on spiked

Frank Furedi argued that the authorities’ panicky reaction to Hurricane Gustav threatened to undermine the community’s response. Kirk Leech described the moral posturing over the Burma floods. Rob Lyons mocked a TV disaster movie about flooding in Britain. Stuart Derbyshire said it was only mankind that could solve the problem of hurricanes. John Brignell noted how climate change is to blame for everything. Jack Shenker described the rebuilding of New Orleans. Or read more at spiked issues Natural disasters.

(1) Looking for answers in the ashes, the Age, 9 February 2009

(2) The deadly inevitability of climate change, the Age, 9 February 2009

(3) Don’t talk about the warming, Crikey, 9 February 2009

(4) Forest fuel load to blame for fires: Tuckey, Weekly Times, 9 February 2009

(5) Victorian bushfires stoked by green votes, the Australian, 10 February 2009

(6) Playing the blame game, the Age, 29 January 2003

(7) Melbourne’s outskirts are exposed to natural disaster, Herald Sun, 10 February 2009

(8) Re-evaluating fire-safety individualism, Crikey, 9 February 2009

(9) Looking for answers in the ashes, the Age, 9 February 2009

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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