Sunday, May 8, 2011

"We have still not lived long enough": Fire and history

… Try, at every step, to expose the lie of terra nullius, and so move towards a post-colonial Australia that is truly at home with its environment and history, where the Aboriginal and the Asian and the White Australian can believe in the truth of history, and the justness of a future, that is so much more than a beautiful lie.
- Tim Flannery,
in the concluding line to his 2003 Quarterly Essay
Beautiful Lies: Population and Environment in Australia

Two brown paper packages arrived on my desk at work a fair few months ago now. In the first, the 1986 first edition print of Joan Webster’s Complete Australian Bushfire Book; in the latter, three heavy volumes of the 2009 Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission Final Report. Two texts, different in design and style, but more or less charged with the same unenviable task of answering that plaintive question asked after one surveys the scorched earth, the smouldered homes, the vacated family Christmas seats and names stricken from the community listings – “why?” Why did these fires, these apocalyptic fires, happen? Or, perhaps more tellingly – why did we let them happen?

It was around a week and a half after the February 7th Bushfires of 2009 that Tom Griffiths, a Professor of History at the Australian National University penned an award-winning article entitled We have still not lived long enough. His title was inspired by a phrase uttered by the 1939 Black Friday fires Royal Commission Judge Leonard Stretton – that they, the people who lived and died in the forests that were hellishly consumed on Friday the 13th January, 1939, had not lived long enough.

As Griffiths points out, Stretton was not so much commenting on the youthfulness of the dead, but rather lamented the lack of environmental knowledge of both the victims and survivors – “the innocence of European immigrants in a land whose natural rhythms they did not yet understand”, and “the fragility and brevity of a human lifetime in forests where life cycles and fire regimes had the periodicity and ferocity of centuries.”

In reviewing that unfortunate naivety that cost so many lives in 1939, Griffiths suggests that the most haunting aspect of the tragedy that is the 2009 Black Saturday fires was not so much their death toll, but rather, their familiarity. The forests burned in 1939 were in essence the same ones consumed in 2009 – the wet sclerophyll stands of Mountain Ash (Eucalyptus regnans) surrounding many of the towns that suffered the highest damage and casualties.

Furthermore, historical accounts of the days leading up to Black Friday freakishly mirror those we experienced at the start of 2009: drastically low rainfall for months on end, low humidity, and new heights for recorded temperatures. Though the Queensland floods of 2011 may have caused temporary amnesia, it is worthwhile to remember that at the start of 2009, a vivid contrast to Victoria’s meteorological conditions was set by our cousins to the north, where tropical downpour unleashed floods upon townships. This too was the case in 1939.

This is not to suggest that the Black Saturday fires were merely the product of a rigidly predictable cyclic pattern, set to recur every seventy years. Let us not be so naïve. What it does say, however, is that as Victorians, we have been here before. Reasonably, one could argue that these fires were unprecedented – but they were not necessarily unheard of. The problem is that their predecessor was beyond the reach of the current.

Griffiths, as a historian, mounts his case on the theme of not living long enough - we are not able to survive in circumstances as Black Saturday on mere experience alone:

They also needed history. They needed – and we need it too – the distilled wisdom of past, inherited, learned experience. And not just of the recent human past, but of the ancient human past, and also of the deep biological past of the communities of trees. For in those histories lie the intractable patterns of our future. There is a dangerous mismatch between the cyclic nature of fire and the short-term memory of communities. These bushfire towns – where the material legacy of the past can never survive for long – need to work harder than most to renew their local historical consciousness. The greatest challenge in fire research is cultural.

Webster’s Complete Australian Bushfire Book was painstakingly written in the aftermath of the 1983 Ash Wednesday fires to serve as a guide to curb the unacceptable number of lives lost to flames in towns across the nation.

She, too, quotes Stretton and invokes the memory of 1939. In her introduction, she reproduces large chunks of the Royal Commission of that year, almost in exasperation, asking “Why bother to write fresh descriptions now? The weather, the terror, the pain and sadness are the same.” What follows is nearly 300 pages of guidelines, diagrams, suggestions and explanations on how one can attempt to survive a bushfire in Australia. It is comprehensive, to say the least.

Equally comprehensive, we can argue, is the 2009 Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission. Nearly one thousand pages in all, it covers everything from the individual accounts of the last moments of the 173 people who died, to the mechanics of automatic circuit reclosers on the aging state-owned powerlines, now privatised, that buckled in the roaring winds of the February 7th.

It also accounts, in the Plain English so indicative of Government documents, some of the most extraordinary circumstances, so much so that they seem to deserve more dramatic settings – for example, the account of a pilot of a fixed-wing aircraft dropping fire retardant near Narbethong:

On arriving back at the air base, one of the pilots discovered that his emergency locator transmitter had been activated on his last drop. An emergency locator transmitter usually activates in the event of a crash, to send out a signal to help search and rescue crews find the aircraft. It appears the transmitter had activated because the turbulence the aircraft was experiencing resembled the impact of a crash.

I don’t wish to sound melodramatic, but actually stop and think about that above quote. Imagine the turbulence you’ve experienced on a regular commuter flight. That feeling in the pit of your stomach that awakens as the plane vibrates in the air – as it loses a number of metres of altitude that you can only vaguely approximate by the movement of your lunch in your belly. Now, imagine that turbulence being of such a nature that it makes the plane think it’s just careered into the earth.

In the opening paragraphs of her preface, Webster writes:

Every year, after public interest has cooled with the ashes, government funding dries up like the countryside. Every time, reports are written and put in bureaucratic bottom drawers.

Despite the profile of the report, despite the media coverage, I have a very confident sentiment that 2009 Bushfires Royal Commission, in all it’s analysis, recommendations and observations – however accurate, however flawed - has been criminally under-read by the constituents for which it was written: you and I.

The people who, on that day more than two years ago now, watched in horror, in awe, as tall forests committed generational suicide, resetting themselves to ever-hopeful seedlings; as towns collapsed in on themselves in fiery combustion; as people died in a haze of smoke, dehydration and heat; as we collectively asked "why?".

We have now had two Royal Commissions (1939 and 2009), essentially, on the same topic – fire in the mountain forests that lie on the northern backdoor of Melbourne. And as Feburary 7th, 2011 passed this year, I couldn’t help but think I could hear the sound of the reports being dumped in bottom drawers and beginning to gather dust on bookshelves.

Nearly every second person has criminally misquoted the poor bastard, and so I sincerely apologise to George Santayana, the Spanish-American philosopher, who first coined the phrase that I am about to once again re-arrange at my pleasure. But the sentiment stays true:

Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to be caught off-guard by its repetition.


NB: The first image in this post is of the Wallaby Creek forest in December 2010. It was roughly 300 years old when it was burned in the 2009 fires. This picture shows the dense regrowth returning nearly two years after the fires. I have written on this forest elsewhere. The second is an aerial image of Strathewen two weeks after the Black Saturday fires. A thin strip of green is barely visible of the cricket pitch of the oval.


  1. Wow, Tom, seriously this was a fantastic article, realty thought provoking and I think there's some real wisdom here.

    I don't know if short attention spans are an inherently human thing or a symptom of modern life with its endless distractions and novelties... but it does seem like we are too quickly forgetting such a huge event (with the exception, I'm sure, of the people most closely affected). I mean, we all saw the sky fill with smoke so that the sun turned that terrifying red, we all had that eerie, apocalyptic sense that the entire state was on fire, we all had our hearts go out to all the people and places that were lost or changed forever... And then we moved onto the next thing.

    I also think that because so many of us live in urban areas, we feel and are so separate from nature, we don't understand so much about it and that strikes me as so incredibly sad but so incredibly dangerous because we are so damn intertwined with nature, much as we try to deny that to ourselves and create bubbles of plastic, disinfectant and bug killing spray. What you said about looking to the past really struck a chord with me, I often feel as if we could learn a lot from indigenous people with their much longer history of living with the land and understanding it intimately and once again, I feel it's so sad that we are so separate.

    Wow ok I am kind of rambling here, sorry, don't mean to be the crazy person hijacking your blog entry! But truly, this really got me thinking and reflecting so I think that's a good thing, right? I'll be sure to do my best to spread this article around, I think you've discussed something really important here and not just in regards to the bushfires, but the way we interact with and understand the entire planet.

    Ok, crazy person rambling again. Stopping now.

  2. Nicely written, Tom. I was having the same conversation with Leon B yesterday about the floods, neither the magnitude or the extent of which, here or in Queensland have been unprecedented.

    The challenge is how to capture and distribute knowledge of these infrequent events when we are such a transient society. I think the answer lies not in 300 page manuals but in stories, legends, poems, comedy, visual art and film.


  3. Couldn't agree more with both JNgaio and Rod, especially regarding the need for story telling.