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Edition 35

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Fire words

AT THE PUB in Kinglake, Victoria, a child approaches the fire and stares into it. Newly lit, the fire shoots out sparks as the wood catches. He turns to me and says, 'Look at the embers!', and leans into the large fireplace to understand more about the inner workings of the chimney. His language for fire is sophisticated beyond his age. It is obvious that he has lived through the Black Saturday fires and has learned a new vocabulary to describe what happened. He begins testing his words against the small hearth fire.

As a nation, we are like this child; we are trying to create and define words to describe the complex relationship the Australian environment has with fire. We need the right words to understand this relationship, otherwise we can't talk about it. Without the words we are in danger, because without the words we cannot create the stories, and without the stories how can we pass information between people and between generations? The horrible reality is that without the words we are less likely to survive a bushfire.

To understand why our language about fire is so poor, it is interesting to look at a history of how this language developed.

It was not unusual for sea explorers in the eighteenth century to comment on fires they saw on the shores of unfamiliar lands. Within two days of first seeing Australia, Captain James Cook wrote:

'Saturday 21st [April] Winds Southerly, a Gentle breeze, and Clear weather with which we coasted along shore to the Northward. In the PM we saw the smook of fire in several places; a Certain sign that the Country is inhabited.'

It is unclear what type of fire Captain Cook saw. Did he see a large bushfire in the landscape or small campfires, or signalling fires, or hunting fires, or fires of war?

In an interview, Dr Susan Butler from the Macquarie Dictionary said, 'In those texts, people would have assumed from the context that you would understand what they are talking about. But these assumptions sometimes don't hold true, particularly at a much later date.'

Through time we have lost clarity about what type of fires the explorers saw. At the time, the explorers themselves would not have had a clear understanding of what those fires meant. In The Victorian Bush (Polybractea Press, 2010), forest ecologist Ron Hateley points out that the fire Captain Cook observed may have been a form of communication for Aboriginal people. Did they signal, as Ron Hateley believes, 'Go away!' or was the message directed towards Aboriginal colleagues further down the coast saying, 'Warning! Strangers are sailing towards you'? Cook's use of the word 'fire' is not specific enough to convey real meaning across time and he would probably not have understood what the fire meant to the culture he was about to meet.

When the European settlers arrived in Australia in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries they encountered a landscape that was so foreign that they set about naming almost everything. Some of these words came from Aboriginal languages, however most were adapted from words already in use in the United Kingdom. Dr Butler explained that common words like 'creek' or 'paddock' were changed and adapted from their UK origins to suit the Australian situation. In the UK a creek is a tidal inlet and a paddock is a small enclosure near the farmhouse. In Australia, these words shifted their meaning and took on a vastness.

By adapting words from another landscape the settlers were applying a foreign underpinning to their understanding of current surroundings. Their words were imbued with a tradition built over centuries and included an implied meaning of how to interact with the land and how that land behaves. In an interview, environmental historian Dr Tom Griffiths said, 'Those first British colonists certainly came from a land where they had largely eliminated wild natural fire. They found themselves in a land where wild natural fire was endemic and rampant. That collision is one that we are still going through – we are still going through a long period of transition.' Even when the meaning of words was adapted to accommodate the Australian landscape, the landscape was being viewed through words with a mythical and cultural understanding from a very different place. Surely it is misleading to view the 'fire continent' through the words adapted over centuries to suit a 'green and pleasant land'.

In the nineteenth century the language for fire had not yet been formalised. According to Dr Butler, colourful and evocative terms such as 'red steer' were used to give fire a sentient, monster-like quality. In contrast, terms for domesticated fire were also adapted and applied, for instance 'furnace'. What is clear in the language used by the diarists is that they were shocked by the effect of the vast landscape fires.

There is a terrifying account of the Red Tuesday fires of 1898 in Land of the Lyrebird (Nabu Press, 2010): 'the women fighting desperately for their families, stripped off their skirts to beat out the rushing fire and save their children from being burnt to death, and at length, after a desperate struggle, in which many of them received severe burns, they succeeded in getting most of the children mounted [on a horse] and once more on the retreat.'

In the full version of this account, settlers who were in the path of the fire were referred to as 'victims'. Fire was already seen as something to 'fight', but not in the way we think of today. In this case, it was fighting to survive, not fighting against the fire to stop it. In the nineteenth century, there was next to no chance to do anything other than 'retreat' and absolutely no talk of 'defending' possessions. If someone or something survived, the words 'escaped' or 'saved' (implying by chance or by God) were used.

Interestingly, what was described in detail in these accounts is the weather that led to the fire and then controlled the fire through wind changes or rain. As early as the nineteenth century the relationship between climate and fire had been recognised by the settlers. AW Elm's account of Red Tuesday includes the weather that led up to and followed the fire event: 'Jan. 22nd – A slight fall of rain, 28 points, the first for the month.'

While this realisation of the relationship between weather and fire was taking place, a divide between rural and town dwellers was also developing. What this means is that the recognition of climatic causes for fire were primarily being discussed in rural environments and were not relevant to town dwellers, whose urban lives were no longer threatened by bushfire. This was clear to Elms who wrote of Melburnians: 'People who walk the paved streets or ride in trams or trains cannot appreciate the terrible calamity which has befallen this province.'

This divide is significant because it means that words about bushfire become divided between those who are in the path of the fire and those who will only ever see or hear about it second-hand. By the nineteenth century, mainstream urban society had no need for a language describing the details of bushfire.

Over the last couple hundred years, migration from countries other than the UK has brought more words into common usage: think of the German migration to the Barossa – a significant number of South Australian words for food and drink reveal a German heritage. But where are the German words for landscape or bushfire? As rural famers living in the Fire Flume of South-East Australia they were definitely in the path of fire, and yet their language did not impact upon the mainstream language. Even later migrations from Mediterranean countries, which share a similar vegetation and climate to Australia, have not changed our language in this area. This paucity of addition to the language is interesting. Possibly it is because the migration occurred after the country/city divide had taken place.

A number of authors, including Tom Griffiths, have noted that in the twentieth century we started to use warlike terms to describe our interaction with bushfires. We created incendiary devices, conducted water bombing, fought on the multiple fire fronts, and admired volunteer fire fighters. We used decommissioned military equipment from two world wars in our attempt to eradicate fire in the Australian bush. We saw it as a military battle between us and the fire. The problem with this use of military language is that it implies that bushfire can be eradicated or defeated, as if it can be stamped out, like fascism or smallpox.

 

IN SECOND HALF of the twentieth century, as we began to develop an aesthetic and scientific appreciation of the Australian bush, we began to realise that we couldn't eradicate fire; instead we felt confident that we could control it. The word 'control' came to indicate a planned and monitored cool burn to reduce fuel load in the forests. Control burns are now called 'prescribed' burns, to distinguish them from the long tradition of Aboriginal people, graziers and rural settlers lighting illegal fires to clear or regenerate land, known as either 'cleaning up country' or a 'burn-off'. The 'prescribed' legal burn versus the criminal 'burn-off' created an ownership of who had the right to burn – an ownership of fire. It also placed control of fire into the hands of a growing specialised group of people such as forest ecologists and park managers.

By the mid-twentieth century a three-way tension had already developed between the scientific knowledge, the Aboriginal traditional knowledge and the local settler knowledge about how best to use fire in the landscape. This tension can be seen again and again, for instance in Justice Leonard Stretton's famous judgement on the 1939 fires, and now, with the debate about cattle grazing in the high country.

When it comes to language and bushfires, we have generated a tradition of naming the fire after the day of the largest devastation: Black Saturday, Red Tuesday, Ash Wednesday, Black Friday. This type of naming makes the event seem unique; it does not tie it to previous fires in that region. Through this use of language we fail to see a pattern that most fires in the Fire Flume share the same weather plot. We fail to see that typography, vegetation type and weather are all main characters in the fire story.

A realisation emerged in the twentieth century of a very particular weather pattern and climate condition that predicated devastating fires in the Fire Flume, or forests of South-East Australia. While this weather pattern remains unnamed, at least one element of it finally received a name in 2011: The Northerly Duster.

The Northerly Duster brings dry, hot air from the centre of Australia and desiccates the environment. If a fire starts in a drought period when the forest is dried out during a Northerly Duster, the mixture is catastrophic. The Duster is followed by the inevitable southerly cool change which fans the flames and pushes the fire in a new direction. Marysville was burnt after this unnamed cool change came through. It is a common story throughout our history that towns survive the initial fire front pushed forward by the Northerly Duster and are later consumed by the southerly cool wind change and resulting flames.

Naming this weather pattern (generally hot north-westerly followed by cool south-westerly winds) that is linked to our extreme fires is vital. Currently, each time it is discussed in accounts of the big fires, there is no way to link it to the previous time the same weather conditions existed.

Dr Butler says that every time they print a new edition of the Macquarie Dictionary there are more words in it to describe fire in the landscape and how we interact with that fire. She says, 'Bushfires have always been a part of the landscape but for most of us it's been the "out there" landscape, outback and in the country, in the bush. Bushfires have come much closer to home in more recent times. So there is a fire-front that has advanced, or realistically, we have probably advanced towards it.' She comments that there is a definite clash developing between where we want to build our houses and 'where the fire has always at some point come through.' In the twenty-first century, the sprawling suburbs and baby-boomer tree-changers are finally re-uniting the bush and the city. And as they encounter fire the mainstream language is developing to describe the experience.

Back in the Kinglake pub, the hearth fire in the lounge bar has taken and heat fills the room. The child has tired of examining the chimney and returned to his parents to wait for his Saturday night pub meal. Maybe this boy's generation will finally create the words and the stories that we need. Maybe they will find our language inadequate and expand it to help us understand bushfire. Hopefully they will straddle the city and the bush, Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal, and be the generation that ends our paucity of understanding about our own country. And finally, and importantly, they will sever the mythical underpinnings of our UK words from that green and pleasant land and allow the new fire-loving country to provide the meaning.


From Griffith Review Edition 35: Surviving © Copyright Griffith University & the author.

Griffith Review