The language of catastrophe

by Tom Griffiths

THERE ARE ENOUGH Black days in modern Australian history to fill up a week several times over – Black Sundays, Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays – and a Red Tuesday too, plus the grim irony of an Ash Wednesday. Yet we keep being taken unawares. There is something personal about fire, something frighteningly irrational and ultimately beyond our comprehension. It roars out of the bush and out of our nightmares. It makes its victims feel hunted down and its survivors toyed with. Why did the fire destroy the house next door and leave mine unscathed? As one bushfire survivor confessed: 'I felt as if the fire knew me.' A book about the 2003 Canberra fires takes as its title a child's question: How did the fire know we lived here? The great international fire historian Stephen Pyne keeps telling us that fire 'isn't listening to the rhetoric, the research, or the parliamentary resolutions. It doesn't feel our pain. It doesn't care. It just is.' Why does he need to reassure us of this?

The Black Saturday fires in Victoria, according to the fire ecologist Kevin Tolhurst, released energy equivalent to fifteen hundred times that of the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima. Of the 173 people killed on Black Saturday, two-thirds died in their own homes. Of those, a quarter died sheltering in the bath. There were relatively few injuries: the annihilation was total, and the day after brought an awful stillness and silence. The wind change was a killer, but if it had not arrived when it did the Kilmore East fire might have swept into the thickly vegetated suburbs of Melbourne's north-east.

Managers and scholars of bushfire have observed that our society experiences a heightened awareness of the danger of fire after a tragic event such as Black Saturday, but as the years pass complacency sets in and the memory of the horror dims. Yet there is another psychological pattern that is more troubling and that we can observe at work in the months immediately after a great fire. The forgetting of the recurrent power of nature is immediately and insidiously embedded in the ways we describe and respond to disaster. Our sympathy for the victims of bushfire, the surge of public financial support and the political imperative to rebuild as swiftly as possible conspire to constrain cultural adaptation. Such sacrifice of life cries out for meaning, and for a kind of unbending resolution in the face of nature. There is often an emotional need, as people return and rebuild, to deny the 'naturalness' and therefore the inevitable recurrence of the event. Black Saturday, we quickly reassured ourselves, was 'unique', 'unprecedented', 'unnatural' – and it was a 'disaster'. We must never let it happen again! Culture can – and will – triumph over nature.

There is an irresistible tendency to use language that describes bushfire almost wholly in terms of tragedy and destruction. Not only do we talk in crisis language: we also use military metaphors and comparisons – partly because, in the face of an awesome natural force, they offer some comforting human agency. We refer to the authorities hunkered down in the Melbourne 'war room'. We revere the heroism of the firefighters and compare them to Anzacs, linking the domestic fire front to the nation's grand narratives of overseas war. At the national memorial service to the victims of Black Saturday Prime Minister Kevin Rudd spoke of 'a new army of heroes where the yellow helmet evokes the same reverence as the slouch hat of old'. We describe forests as destroyed, even if they are highly evolved to burn. We yearn to send out better technology to suppress the fire front. We bomb the flames with water. We talk of hitting the fires hard and hitting them fast. Arsonists are 'terrorists'. The fires are 'a threat to national security'.

But the military metaphors, however apt and enabling, make us believe that we can beat fire, somehow. They define heroism as staying and fighting. Leaving early, in such a culture, might be seen to be cowardly. At the memorial service many speakers, in honouring the dead and their heroism, were also unwittingly cornering another generation. 'Courage,' Kevin Rudd declared, 'is a firefighter standing before the gates of hell unflinching, unyielding with eyes of steel saying, "Here I stand, I can do no other."' Yet one of the triumphs of the Black Saturday tragedy was that not a single firefighter died on the day. In the face of that horror fire officers knew when to retreat. It must have been a shocking decision to make but it was the right one, or the death toll would have been much higher. We all have to learn better when to retreat – and we have to find a word other than 'retreat'.

 

TASMANIA'S TERRIBLE DAY was a Black Tuesday. It was another 7 February fire, but in 1967. On that day a 'fire hurricane', as survivors called it, stormed through the bushland of south-eastern Tasmania and invaded Hobart's suburbs, coming within two kilometres of the CBD. It caused what was then the largest loss of life and property on any single day in the history of settler Australia.

There had been good rains in the winter and spring of 1966, producing a profusion of growth in the forests and grasslands, and the rains were followed by very dry conditions in the late spring and summer. Drought was settling with a vengeance on southern Australia; the bush became brittle and parched. There was not a drop of rain in the first week of February 1967. On 3 February a high-pressure system moved across the state and off the eastern coast, and the northerly winds freshened. In country areas fires continued to be lit – 'burning off' was a rural ritual. It was done casually, to bring on a green pick, or for clearing. Sometimes people, when seeing smoke on the horizon, would throw a match over their back fence, because a newly burnt home paddock was like a safety blanket. It was common before February 1967 to see spirals of smoke rising from the foothills of Hobart's mountainous skyline, and 'no one worried about them too much.' Temperatures continued to climb and the winds strengthened.

On the morning of the 7th, the Hobart Mercury's headline declared: 'Bush Fires Menacing State: Danger Today Could Be Critical'. By the time children were making their way to the first day of the school year it was already hot. As the fire scientist Phil Cheney told Moira Fahy in her film Black Tuesday (Bushfire CRC, 2005), the eighty-eight fires that had been burning for some time – the overwhelming majority of them deliberately lit – began to move about 10.30 am, and new ones sprang to life. From Hamilton and Bothwell in the midlands to the Channel in the south, 110 separate fires were licked into ferocity by the northerlies and many surged together by 3 pm. One fire suddenly penetrated Hobart's north and west. Communication was cut to northern Tasmania and mainland Australia, and three out of four local radio stations were put off the air. A Japanese fishing trawler approaching the port of Hobart that afternoon turned around in the Derwent estuary and headed for Melbourne instead, and the captain later reported that the whole coastline was aflame and he despaired of finding life and order remaining. Premier Eric Reece was in Sydney that day, representing Tasmania in an inter-parliamentary bowls tournament. While he was away, in five hours more than half a million acres and thirteen hundred homes were burnt, and sixty-two people died.

Fires of such scale and ferocity generate inquiries, and this was the case in Tasmania in 1967. One of the most useful responses came from the work of RL Wettenhall, a reader in political science at the University of Tasmania, who began researching and writing a detailed study of Black Tuesday, which was published in 1975 and called Bushfire Disaster: An Australian Community in Crisis. I have drawn some of my account of the fire from his book. Wettenhall positioned his academic inquiry in the field of 'disaster studies', looking at overseas theories and examples, and then turning in detail to Australia and ultimately to his own backyard. And also to his front yard, for on 7 February he and his wife had evacuated their children and then fought side by side, successfully, to save their home. 'Such warnings as we received in Hobart...were still not for us, not for city dwellers at least, though we conceded that a few in isolated country townships might well be endangered,' he wrote. 'How surprised I was, and how ill-prepared, to find myself fighting fire that afternoon...in my own suburban front garden and backyard.'

Wettenhall, as a political scientist, was interested in the way his society had responded to the crisis, how its political and fire-fighting institutions had stood up to the test. 'Very few of us in fact saw a fire brigade that day,' he recalled. 'Hobart was grossly ill-prepared.'

Drawing on the international scholarly literature of disaster, Wettenhall argued that the most significant thing about disaster is not the suffering or loss, nor our capacity to recover from adversity, but rather the 'extraordinary optimism, common to most people, that we ourselves will not be stricken; or that, if indeed disaster should strike, it will not recur'. The other insight that illuminated his case study of disaster was drawn from the American social scientist Kenneth Boulding, who observed that humans have always tended to regard disaster control as 'a problem in engineering rather than in sociology'. So Wettenhall noted of Tasmania: 'Though officialdom had taken some pains to analyse certain material elements in these [disaster] experiences and had thereby effected improvements in, for example, firefighting and flood-protection techniques and resources, the broader social issues had received scant attention.'

These, then, were the two insights that shaped Wettenhall's study: that people, through optimism and forgetfulness, generally fail to believe that disaster will recur, and that understanding the social origins and impact of disaster nearly always comes second to addressing its material or physical dimensions.

The history of bushfire is full of shocking recurrence – and of recurrent shock. The litany of Black days alone tells us that. Hobart had already experienced its very own Black Friday, as it was indeed called: Friday, 31 December 1897, in which similar areas to those ravaged by the 1967 fire burned, but in an era when the mountain valleys and slopes were less populated. Six people died, and dozens of houses and other buildings were destroyed. After one of fire's regular visits to the slopes of Mount Wellington, in March 1940 an old resident was reported in The Mercury as saying that fire had occurred in the same way twenty-five years before and twenty-five years before that, and in 'twenty-five years hence the same thing would happen again'. As Wettenhall noted, 'He was two years out in his prediction.' Fire, like flood, tends to revisit the same places. Vegetation, topography and climate conspire to invite it back, no matter what humans do.

But humans intersect with the physical and biological chemistries of fire in fundamental ways, and thus history combines with physics and ecology to produce a powerful natural-cultural amalgam. Hobart's Black Tuesday of 1967 had old and new cultural elements. It was a turning point, because it was perhaps the last fire of a kind that was typical of settler Australia and the first fire of a new type that has proliferated since. It was an old fire in the sense that it was deliberately lit – not maliciously, by arsonists, but carelessly, by rural settlers. In those days it was called 'burning off'; these days we would call it criminal negligence. Most of the fires running that hot February morning had been lit and allowed to stay alight by farmers and graziers. This was the same scenario that had led to Victoria's Black Friday fires of 1939, which burned 1.4 million hectares and killed seventy-one people. Judge Leonard Stretton's shocking finding in his subsequent Royal Commission in 1939 was, 'These fires were lit by the hand of man.'

On Black Tuesday, because of these traditions of rural burning, fire had roared into Hobart's suburbs. The bush had come to town. But the town had also come to the bush. This was the way in which Hobart's Black Tuesday was a new kind of fire in Australian history. It was the first big Australian fire to invade the expanding suburbs of a city. As Wettenhall put it, 'no other Australian disaster had ever knocked so hard at the doors of an administrative capital – indeed, virtually put it out of action for a time.' The city had penetrated the bush, insinuating its suburbs among the gums. Tasmania's black day anticipated other dramatic fires of this growing urban interface with the bush: Ash Wednesday 1983, Sydney 1994, Canberra 2003 and Black Saturday 2009.

 

ROGER WETTENHALL'S IMPORTANT book set out to make sense of how he came to be fighting a fire hurricane in his suburban yard, and it was also an attempt to generate an Australian sociology of disaster. What kinds of writing and reflection have the 2009 fires so far produced?

It is three winters now since the Black Saturday bushfire brought its terror. In the last year soaking rains have inspired grass and forest growth that is both heartening and frightening. New houses have sprouted like lignotubers where their predecessors were gutted. Other homes – razed, flattened and cleared – are haunting absences. The Royal Commission, which cranked through 155 days of evidence, has finished and reported, and already its recommendations have dust on them. After the last summer of disasters – floods, cyclones and earthquakes – bushfire survivors are sharing their experience with new victims of nature's wilfulness. And from the ashes, from the regrowth and renewal, from the pain and the horror, there now comes some wisdom.

The most enduring wisdom forged by the Black Friday 1939 fire came in the form of Judge Leonard Stretton's Royal Commission Report. It was also the greatest literary legacy of that fire. There were no other published words about Black Friday that compared with the biblical power of Stretton's report. He described 'balls of crackling fire' that 'leaped from mountain peak to mountain peak': 'for mile upon mile the former forest monarchs were laid in confusion, burnt, torn from the earth, and piled one upon another as matches strewn by a giant hand.' Of the innocence of Australians living and working deep in the bush in high summer, he declared: 'They had not lived long enough.'

Judge Stretton's report was celebrated not only as a political statement but also as literature. For many years it was a prescribed text in Victorian Matriculation English, and politicians and fire managers consulted it. In 2002-03, as the Alps burned, Victorian Premier Steve Bracks borrowed Stretton's 1939 report from the Parliamentary Library for his weekend reading. Bruce Esplin, head of the Victorian bushfire inquiry of 2003, said he could feel Judge Stretton looking over his shoulder. Stretton's words still resonate with poetic and political power: he was fearless.

Justice Bernard Teague's Royal Commission Report into the most recent Black Saturday fires is earnest and thorough but too careful and comprehensive to make memorable literature. It is becoming clear that Black Saturday is shaping a different and more diverse literary legacy. Black Friday 1939, followed so quickly by years of world war, did not generate any notable books, although it did induce lifelong trauma, become embedded in folklore and language, and seed political and bureaucratic reform. But Black Saturday 2009 is quickly germinating a forest of impressive writing: perceptive essays by John van Tiggelen, Robert Manne, Robert Hillman; Danielle Clode's A Future in Flames, Roger Franklin's Inferno, Peter Stanley's forthcomingBlack Saturday at Steels Creek. And Adrian Hyland's Kinglake-350 and Karen Kissane's Worst of Days, two impressive books that focus on the Kilmore East fire and together offer a powerful portrait of how a disaster unfolds – and of its political and emotional aftermath.

Adrian Hyland's Kinglake-350 (Text Publishing, 2011) takes us into the world of the Kinglake Ranges as they are about to be consumed by the fire that is storming unheralded towards them. The story's main character is Acting Sergeant Roger Wood of the Kinglake Police, and his call sign is Kinglake-350. We follow him from dawn on 7 February; learn what he is doing, thinking and fearing; and feel the drama of Black Saturday explode around him. Through him we meet the people of Kinglake, and gain a visceral sense of the caprice and violence of a firestorm in the ash range. Adrian Hyland knows these people because he lives with them. This is superb non-fiction writing: dramatic, full of tension, deeply researched, true.

Karen Kissane's Worst of Days (Hachette, 2010), published before the Royal Commission into Black Saturday's final report, has its foundation in her work as the Melbourne Age's chief reporter on the commission. Like Hyland, Kissane structured her compelling narrative around selected individuals, but her book is also a piece of sustained investigative journalism. Daily immersion in the hearings and evidence of the Royal Commission is transmuted into history and literature with perspective and punch. She seems determined to find a voice that is stronger and tougher than the 'disapproving puzzlement' and 'neutral, non-condemnatory tones' of the commission's interim report. As Kissane puts it, 'the commission's [interim] report reflected the evidence before it, in which so many emergency workers and bureaucrats using phrases right out of Sir Humphrey Appleby's mouth had smoothly declined to take responsibility for any failures: it was not their job, or they were working at a higher level, or their underlings should have told them if there was a problem.'

The historian, speechwriter and brilliant analyst of language Don Watson has described Black Saturday as 'the day words fell short'. Seven months after the fires he reflected on the evidence that fire managers were giving to the Royal Commission about what they called 'communication': 'One CFA manager described the business of telling the public as "messaging"; "communicating the likely impact"; "to communicate the degree of the circumstance"; providing "precise complex fire behaviour information"; "to communicate more effectively in a timely manner not just that it is a bad day, but other factors as well." He spoke of his task as "value-adding" and "populating the document". He and other managers talked a good deal about "learnings", "big learnings" and even "huge learnings".'

Watson concluded: 'It was not that they did not do their very, very best. More likely, when it came to telling people what they had to know, their management training made their best inadequate. Telling people requires language whose meaning is plain and unmistakable. Managerial language is never this.'

Karen Kissane and Adrian Hyland have thrown off this blanket of bureaucratic blandness and set out to distil a very different kind of language of disaster. They have tapped into what Robert Hillman, writing in Griffith REVIEW 25: After the Crisis in 2009, called 'the vernacular of Australian catastrophe': spare, vivid storytelling, full of people doing things, full of verbs, full of agency and responsibility. Hillman, who lives near Warburton and found himself caught within a horseshoe of the fire, was spellbound through the night of 7 February by radio accounts from survivors, by 'the terrible beauty of tales in which there is no exaggeration, no sentimentality', and which were as gripping in their brevity 'as the verses of an ancient ballad'. He confessed that he became 'absorbed by the way in which disaster restores the vigour of language', just as the fire cauterised the forest itself, ridding it of excess and reducing it to a weirdly beautiful austerity. Hillman felt that the best memorials to the victims of Black Saturday would not be the secular and religious services imbued with hyperbole and cliché, but the 'unrehearsed narratives' of those who escaped.

Adrian Hyland, especially, feeds off the lean poetry of these unrehearsed narratives by weaving a tapestry of stories in the present tense. This enables us to see that, even as people are overwhelmed by an unbelievable force of nature, there are still tiny interstices of time and space in which they can exercise their will, understanding and wisdom. Inevitability and luck are two dominant metaphors for explaining and coping with disaster, and they play large roles in Hyland's narrative, too, but his focus on people doing things – especially the policemen at the centre of the drama – reveals how individuals can still make a difference in such a crisis. Hyland creates room for heroes without diminishing our understanding of the ecological and climatic forces within which they were trapped.

There are heroes in Worst of Days too, but also more death and inevitability. Having sat through the Royal Commission hearings, Karen Kissane understandably grapples more directly with the 'managerial language' of the bureaucrats, and its consequences. There is a more sustained analysis of the systemic failures, and an impressive demolition of the 'Prepare, Stay and Defend or Leave Early' policy, abbreviated to 'Stay or Go' and often distilled in the official mantra that 'People save houses. Houses save people.' The Stay or Go policy evolved mostly out of experiences in other Australian fire regions but was also influenced by Ash Wednesday 1983, when so many people died fleeing fire in these mountain forests. Kissane declares this policy 'the final victim of Black Saturday'.

 

IN THE WEEK after Black Saturday I argued on Inside Story and in The Age that the 'Stay or Go' policy was a death sentence in these Victorian mountain communities on a forty-something-degree day of high winds after a prolonged heatwave and a long drought. Although the policy has guided people well in most areas of Australia and has demonstrably saved lives and homes, it misled people in this distinctively deadly fire region to believe that they could defend an ordinary home in the face of an unimaginable force. Clearing the backyard, cleaning the gutters and installing a better water pump cannot save an ordinary home in the path of a surging torrent of explosive gas.

The policy – through its enshrinement of the defendable home in any circumstance – also implicitly sanctioned the gradual abandonment of community fire refuges over recent decades. The fire refuge dugout was a distinctive cultural response to the history of fire in these tall Victorian forests, and developed in the era of bush sawmilling in the early twentieth century. Few dugouts were built in other forest regions of Australia, but those that did exist in these Victorian ranges saved dozens of lives in 1939.

It is a clue to the emerging bush wisdom of the humans dwarfed by the giant trees of these distinctive forests. But it was an insight we forgot, or perhaps felt we had outgrown. There are hardly any official dugouts in the region today – many of the forest refuges collapsed or decayed, and some were deliberately destroyed because they were seen to be unsafe: casualties of our ever more litigious society. But they are making a comeback. The Black Saturday Royal Commission recommended the designation of community refuges in high-risk areas and, in October 2011, the building of the state's first official fire refuge in the region was announced.

Controversially, the Stay or Go policy underpinned the lack of warnings issued by authorities to local residents about the movement of the fire front. Partly this was due to error and bureaucratic paralysis, but I believe it was also because of a conviction that late warnings would precipitate late departures, and that people are most vulnerable when in panicked flight. The logic of the policy is that, once the fire is on the move, it is best to keep people at home.

And it's not just that people weren't warned. They were falsely reassured – by the policy; by the advisory literature, which made defending a home in this region on such a day seem a reasonable option; and by the slow, vague and misleading official information that was released about the fire front. Kissane observes that at the same time as the Stay or Go policy insisted people take on an adult responsibility for their fates, it 'also infantilised them by withholding key information'. Her analysis of 'the official mind' is devastating. 'While the CFA was arguing over who should run the Kilmore fire,' she writes, 'the fire came and went.' In the public messages issued there was 'deadly oversight of the bleeding obvious'. The defensive managerial language observed by Don Watson was doing its work.

Disturbingly, this defensive language has, at times, also been assertive in undermining local experience and observation. People who live in Victoria's ash ranges have developed special words and phrases for the extreme fire behaviour they have witnessed. But many fire scholars and professionals forgot the force of fire in tall, wet forests and began to doubt what people said they saw in 1851 or 1926 or 1939 or 1983. According to this view the unrehearsed narratives of survivors were actually exaggerated fictions or 'myths' that needed to be dispelled by calm professional education, fire science and 'the laws of physics'.

As recently as 2008 thoughtful fire officers – drawing on the science of grassfires! – argued that there were no such phenomena as 'exploding houses' or 'firestorms' or 'fireballs', and that these were just the delirious words of people unfamiliar with fire. And they suggested that such untutored and emotive words also falsely implied that 'bushfire is something beyond human control'. Nothing shows the psychological blinkers of the Stay or Go policy more powerfully than this professional disparagement of eyewitness accounts of fire in a distinctive forest. Dugouts and 'fireballs' were material and verbal evidence of local cultural adaptation, and yet both were abandoned and disparaged by authorities seeking universal solutions and national policies.

 

IN HIS CLOSING reflection in Kinglake-350 Adrian Hyland asks: 'So how does contemporary Australia respond to the dilemma of fire?' His answer: 'With lawyers.' It is hard for a 'profession whose primary function is to find somebody guilty or innocent' not to be drawn into the blame game. But if there is blame to be assigned here, we all share in it. Hyland regrets 'the trophy-hunting convolutions that surrounded the Black Saturday Royal Commission', and the way barristers and journalists 'circled for the kill'. These distractions meant, he believed, 'that there was little attention left...for an examination of the nation's soul'.

The former Victorian Emergency Services Commissioner Bruce Esplin observed in a radio interview in August 2010 that a Royal Commission 'can be a very legal process and it can be a process that thereby stifles proper debate because people are concerned about the implications of what they may or may not say.' Perhaps the commissioners themselves were frustrated by these constraints, for their final recommendation (no. 67) is that 'the state consider the development of legislation for the conduct of inquiries in Victoria – in particular, the conduct of Royal Commissions'.

The Black Saturday Royal Commission had some conspicuous strengths: it was consultative and exhaustive. In particular, it took very seriously its emotional and political commitment to the victims and their families – 'We have been conscious of your pain and loss throughout our work.' The commission made a priority of travelling to suffering communities for its initial consultation sessions, and shared its city proceedings with the general public through webcasts. It also convened special hearings into the circumstances of every death, sessions that were as much therapeutic as investigative. Family and friends of the deceased were welcomed, and invited to participate. Justice Teague explained to those present that it was 'a different kind of hearing', one that dispensed with some of the legal formalities and aimed 'to get the information we need but in a way that will save you having to be exposed to a great deal of detail'. This was part of the commission's very impressive commitment to 'securing the memories of the fires'.

The Black Saturday Royal Commission was less successful in guiding the adversarial legal style of the courtroom away from the pursuit of personal blame. At times – most notably in the cross-examination of the former Victorian Police Chief Christine Nixon, by senior counsel Rachel Doyle – the commission allowed its proceedings to be hijacked by another agenda. Stronger moral guidance from the commission to counsel and to the media might have engendered greater public attention to the significant systemic and cultural flaws it unearthed. The shocking point about Christine Nixon's whereabouts on the evening of 7 February is that, even if she had spent every second of that night in the newly established Integrated Emergency Coordination Centre ('the war room'), she wouldn't have known much more about the unfolding disaster than she did sitting in a North Melbourne pub.

Could Justice Teague have controlled the distracting media frenzy of blame? Possibly not. But it is worth recalling again that earlier Royal Commission in 1939 – admittedly a very different era in terms of media morals and power, but still an instructive example. Judge Leonard Stretton began proceedings with these words: 'I wish to make it clear at the outset that this is not an inquisitorial Commission. I do not represent any punitive or detection arm of the law; I am here merely to arrive at the broad causes of the recent fire disasters and to make recommendations later, if any suggest themselves to me, for future assistance. If any person feels embarrassed by being asked to give evidence, or if he feels that he may incriminate himself, he has only to say so, and he will be given the protection which the law affords him.'

Stretton constantly monitored and guided his proceedings to ensure the investigation of broad causes rather than individual blame. 'I want to get to the truth, but I do not want to embarrass anyone,' he explained at his first country hearing, in Healesville. But he did not hesitate to excoriate the daily newspapers when they threatened his search for truth. He blasted them for their 'blackguardly lies' in reporting his commission and its witnesses, especially – he added with typical wit and mischief – 'that section of the press which is printed for the more unintelligent, who can absorb their news only in picture form apparently'.

In Worst of Days Karen Kissane identifies 'a great historical truth' that was somehow lost in the state's bushfire response on Black Saturday: 'some fires are so extraordinarily fast and intense that, in the face of their fury, even the best prepared and well-defended home is doomed to ashes.' She adds: 'Education campaigns skirted this brutal fact.'

I agree – and these were not just 'some' fires, but specific types of fires in a particular region on predictable kinds of days. The Royal Commission has gone some way towards being more discriminatory about the variety of bushfire, weather, topography and ecology; but not far enough. There is still insufficient recognition of the distinctiveness of the fire region through which the Black Saturday bushfire stormed. I find it astonishing that no vegetation map appears in the Royal Commission's interim or final reports. The forests enter the report mostly as 'fuel'. 'The natural environment,' the commissioners explain in their introduction, 'was heavily impacted.' I can see Don Watson wincing.

Adrian Hyland comments poignantly that on the day of the bushfires people 'perished because they were staring at a screen and not at the sky'. Kissane found that 'the evidence suggests the CFA was resistant to making warnings as high a priority as firefighting: its operational focus has been on trucks and crews rather than towns and residents.' The commissioners concurred, and in their final report recommended that 'fire agencies...attach the same value to community education and warnings as they do to fire-suppression operations'. Let us hope that this recommendation is followed. It will involve deep structural and philosophical change, and the signs so far are that things are moving very slowly.

 

OVER MILLENNIA IN Australia, Aboriginal people used tame fire to confine feral fire. 'Fires of choice,' as the historian Stephen Pyne put it, 'replaced fires of chance.' We are still engaged in that exciting and scary negotiation: what shall be our fires of choice, and to what extent can they tame our fires of chance? This is a good debate to have, and my only certainty is that the best answers will be local, ecological and historical. In the wet mountain forests of Victoria and Tasmania the fires of choice are fewer and the fires of chance more fatal.

There will be more Black days, and we have to accept them and plan for them, like drought and flood. We should aim to survive them, even if we can't hope to prevent or control them. And we should celebrate, as I think we are already beginning to do, the stimulus that such fires give to community.

In early 2011 two residents from Steels Creek – a small community in the Yarra Valley that lost ten lives and two-thirds of its homes in Black Saturday – jumped in a car and drove north to the Murray River, to visit victims of the summer's floods in Kerang. It was a spontaneous, heartfelt sense of kinship between disaster survivors. 'The people all wore the shocked, stunned, enduring looks on their faces – which we recognised,' wrote Dorothy Barber, one of the fire survivors. 'Governments can do so much, but nothing replaces the random acts of kindness that we experienced when the volunteers turned up with help.'

Steels Creek offers a microcosm of the history of settler Australia, for it has evolved from a pioneer site of rural industry to a home for commuters, retirees and hobby farmers. Hardly any historic buildings survive in the valley, because bushfire has swept up and down it at regular intervals – and what was not destroyed by bushfire was burnt down from the inside as domestic fire escaped. Aboriginal people, squatters, farmers, miners, sawmillers and now vignerons, weekenders and retirees have all had to learn to expect fire.

After Black Saturday an old friend who is a resident of Steels Creek wrote to me about 'how we might work to achieve a really worthwhile community benefit from the apparent disaster. We have lost friends, friends have lost homes and the community is still in shock. There needs to be a project to understand the community experience, the community response and the way forward to the future.' A month after the fire the people of Steels Creek didn't want any more hugs, soft toys or material things. As Roger Wettenhall would have put it, the fire for them was more than a problem in engineering – their little community had never depended much on infrastructure, anyway. They wanted help in their search for meaning, and in telling their stories. And they wanted answers to these questions: what exactly happened on the day? How did people die and how did they survive? What does 'community' mean in such a crisis and how does it work – or not? (This was one of Wettenhall's central questions.) What is the emotional aftermath of the event and how are survivors reinventing their lives and their places? What does it mean to rebuild, knowing that your house may be vaporised at some time in the next generation? What kind of society evolves in conditions where investment in material culture is so insecure? I think it is a society that invests instead in social and intellectual capital, in the sinews and fabric of community, in the capacity to put life ahead of property.

Contemporary Australian society, like Australian nature and like Aboriginal civilisation, will learn to see the positives about fire. We cherish the green growth that returns so quickly. We can be proud that key concepts of fire ecology and models of bushfire behaviour were developed in Australia, and that landscape-scale prescribed burning has been pioneered here as a method of bushfire management. These innovations grew from a realisation that fire was so much a part of the Australian landscape and character that it could never be eliminated or suppressed. It had to be accepted and used.

Perhaps we can even, sometimes, learn to see a fired landscape (of the right intensity and frequency) as beautiful – as 'clean' – as Aboriginal people do.

People who suffered in Black Saturday have surprised themselves by finding beauty in the burnt landscape. In the months after the fire survivors often said: 'I really shouldn't say this, but there's some beauty in that.' With a vertiginous and guilty sense of liberation, they could see the bones of the land and the tracts of country without 'all those fences we put in...suddenly you could see forever, that great sense of space!' And it put humans in perspective too: 'It's not really about us,' reflected one woman, Margaret. 'Once you see those contours of the land revealed by the fire, you realise it's a bigger story.'

The artists in Steels Creek ground the ash into paint and made use of black leaves, burnt wire, cauterised tools and the rust from the garden shed. Even the charred trees 'are like sculptures in themselves'. Jane, a member of the local Stitchers group, thought of black lace because it seemed to fringe every ridge. One painter, Robyn, said she had never bought black paint until 2009, and then went through tubes and tubes of it. Her art after the fire began with black austerity, the dark trees like prison bars. Then, in the spring of 2009, she introduced her first colour. By the following year her palette had exploded into wild, joyous profusion: 'This is what I see now...like a filigree, these gorgeous colours, the orange of the moss. I have burst into colour.'

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