February 2013

Arts & Letters

Next Time

By Robyn Annear
The lessons and literature of Black Saturday

After years of drought and a record heatwave, bushfires in Victoria on 7 February 2009 killed 173 people and destroyed more than 2000 homes. The fires were fiercest and their force most felt in the ranges north-east of Melbourne. These bushfires were a once-in-a-lifetime event, but that may not mean what you think it does. Fires like these accord not with your lifetime or mine, but with the lifetime of a mountain ash forest.

Environmental historian Tom Griffiths has been writing for more than 20 years about these forests and how fire is the key to their existence. In a stand of mountain ash (Eucalyptus regnans), every tree is the same age. They grew from seeds sown by fire. And no ordinary fire: only a massive blaze reaches the seeds stored in the crowns of these tall eucalypts, releasing them in an explosive burst of gas and flame. For mountain ash can regenerate only by fire. If they die without burning, their place in the forest will be filled by other species. Fire is life to a mountain ash forest; it is programmed to burn.

Firebrands from the mountain ash canopy, propelled across kilometres, carried the first flames to Steels Creek late on the afternoon of Black Saturday. Not so far beyond Melbourne’s suburban fringe, Steels Creek was home to roughly 200 people in dwellings dotted about the shallow valley and slopes. It was sparsely settled by farmers and wine-makers in the 19th century, but since the 1970s had drawn its share of tree-changers. There was no shop or pub or school (thanks to Jeff Kennett’s closures in the 1990s) so that, on a Sunday drive, you might not have recognised Steels Creek as a distinct place, as a community. That it was and is a community, and one that exists in thrall to fire, is a story told in two new books.

A couple of months after Black Saturday – which cost the valley community ten lives and two-thirds of its houses – an approach from Steels Creek residents seeded an unusual bushfire-recovery project, one involving a group of historians. Memories and scenes of devastation were still raw when Tom Griffiths and his colleagues began visiting and listening to survivors. “How can we live with fire?” and “How can we live together?” emerged as their project’s guiding questions.

Living with Fire: People, Nature and History in Steels Creek (CSIRO Publishing; $49.95), co-authored by Griffiths and Christine Hansen, is the project’s first fruit, with Peter Stanley’s Black Saturday at Steels Creek (Scribe; $27.95) due out in April. (A documentary is also in the works.) Read together, the two books form not just a case study but a unique work of record and reflection. Stanley’s book deals chiefly with people’s experiences on and after Black Saturday, while Living with Fire considers the valley’s past (both human and environmental) and what it might take to build a future there. The books overlap, offering readers a range of nuanced perspectives on bushfire and community.

A military historian, Stanley seems at ease with platitudes of remembrance. Of a couple who, through a fair measure of luck, escaped with their lives and their house, he writes, “But this experience will stay with them, and the valley’s other bushfire survivors, forever.” And elsewhere: “We can never forget how terrifying it was to face such a fire.” Hansen and Griffiths aren’t so sure. In Living with Fire they seek to address an issue highlighted in the final report of the 2009 Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission: the difficulty of maintaining “community memory and awareness” of bushfire over time.

Here was an echo of another Royal Commissioner’s words, 70 years earlier. “They had not lived long enough,” Judge Leonard Stretton said of bush workers who died in the path of fire on Black Friday, 1939. “The experience of the past could not guide them to an understanding of what might, and did, happen.” Research into Black Saturday fatalities found “no evidence that prior experience of bushfires was an advantage” when it came to surviving the 2009 fires. So how long is “long enough”? A generation? A human lifetime? The life span of a mountain ash? A century or two of white settlement?

“The current generation of Steels Creek residents,” writes Hansen, “are now the lineage holders of a truth about their home that no amount of accumulated social history can overwrite: the essential biological imperative of the place is to burn.” But to embed that “truth” – Judge Stretton’s “understanding” – under a community’s skin will take more than time (or more time than we have: ancestral, geological time) and calls not only on memory but imagination. Living with Fire shows us how a start might be made. Looking forwards, looking back, looking inwards and outwards from Steels Creek today, Hansen and Griffiths explore creative, meaningful ways of memorialising the experience of fire – through art, through history and through engaging with the environment – so that next time it comes, it may not be so unexpected.

‘Unexpected’ is a knotty problem and, as in other accounts of Black Saturday (Adrian Hyland’s Kinglake-350, Karen Kissane’s Worst of Days and Roger Franklin’s Inferno), in Black Saturday Stanley looks at how it happened that the fires took people so unawares at Steels Creek and elsewhere. Playing no small part was the apparent inability of the Country Fire Authority (CFA) to let people know what was heading their way that day. Still, when reading (admittedly with hindsight) bush-dwellers’ accounts of how Black Saturday unfolded for them – tennis matches and shopping trips and preparations for parties, interspersed with some hosing around the house and wondering if they had petrol for the fire-pump – I find myself wanting to yell, “What were you thinking?”

I heard the warnings issued on the day before Black Saturday as: People, this is really serious! If I’d lived in the mountain ash ranges rather than in my (fire-prone, but less so) part of Victoria, what would I have done that day? Left early, before any fire got started? Set my well-drilled fire plan in action? Or would I, as many (most?) people seem to have done, have kept in mind the three successive days of 43°+ just over a week earlier and told myself, “Well, it didn’t happen then, so …” One Steels Creek resident told Stanley that a fire on the nearby ranges a few years earlier “did us a disservice”, since on that occasion the sight of flames “came to nothing” – making it easy to believe that this time would be no different.

One chapter of Living with Fire is devoted to charting 150 years of Victorian bushfires, “to try to secure the memory of these recurrent experiences”. Why not declare an annual public holiday, National Fire Day, in late spring, asks Griffiths, “to remember the peculiar power of fire” and to start planning for the summer ahead? Andrew Campbell, a natural-resource manager trained in forestry, agrees that Australians need to develop ‘fire literacy’, to inculcate a sense of the place we’re living in and understand that bushfire is not an aberration. “If we react to each [major fire] as if they are unprecedented, then we can assume we do not have to plan for them again.”

Together, these two books about one small valley make a strong case for building community memory – a kind of muscle-memory – as the best preparation for the inevitable next time. Because, as Griffiths writes, “Fire … tends to revisit the same places. Vegetation, topography and climate conspire to invite it back, no matter what humans do.”

What should humans do? If, as Hansen says in Living with Fire, “fires will not happen often but when they do, the resulting firestorm will likely be of an unsurvivable magnitude,” what difference will ingrained fire-memory make to Steels Creek when ‘next time’ comes? In fire conditions like Black Saturday’s – Griffiths distinguishes them as “firestorms” – the best plan would seem to be: get the hell out of the way. What humans do instead, mostly, is wait and see.

 

*

 

Long before Black Saturday, Victoria’s CFA was aware of a critical flaw in its flagship policy of ‘Prepare, Stay and Defend or Leave Early’ (better known as ‘Stay or Go’): that it took little account of human nature.

After the fires of 2009, Royal Commissioner Susan Pascoe, AC, was not alone in questioning the “heroic assumptions” built into the Stay or Go policy. The accompanying slogan, “People save houses and houses save people”, had the ring of a truism: of course you could – should? – stay and defend your home from bushfire. And yet faced with a hypothetical choice between ‘staying’ and ‘going’ in the event of a fire warning, 60% of respondents to a 2005 survey chose neither, opting instead for a strategy that amounted to ‘wait and see’.

We are forever making calculations of risk versus benefit. In this case, most of those surveyed sought an option that balanced the risks to life and property. But the prevarication inherent in ‘waiting’ was inimical to the key element of Stay or Go: preparedness. Householders could not be expected to commit fully to preparations for active property defence if they thought they might leave; and ‘Go’ meant leaving before a fire threat emerged, not when flames reached the fence. Evidence presented to the Royal Commission following Black Saturday suggested that for many in danger that day the CFA’s message acted not as an imperative but as a nagging interrogative: stay or go?

Now, four summers on, something has changed. A postcard in my letterbox from the CFA cautions: Wait and it’s too late. If you’re in two minds, leave early. Press advertisements carry the same message: … Plan to leave early, before you see smoke or fire ... Don’t wait and hope for the best.

This new approach reflects the findings of research conducted a year after Black Saturday and considered by the Royal Commission. Asked how they would respond to bushfire warnings, almost 80% of householders surveyed in high-risk areas said that they would reach a decision about abandoning their homes only when faced with a direct fire threat – leaving late, not early, in other words. Historically, most of those killed in Australian bushfires have been in the act of fleeing, or leaving too late. Yet, if ‘Stay or Leave Early’ sought to counteract that, it could be said to have succeeded to a tragic extent.

Research into the record 173 deaths resulting from the Black Saturday fires found that “the intention to stay played a significant role in fatalities”. Besides their tendency to wait (too long) and see, people apparently had taken to heart assurances that their homes could be defended and relied upon as places of safety. Remember? “People save houses and houses save people.”

Something else that’s new in the CFA’s warnings this summer is the advice that, in high-risk areas like Steels Creek on the rare days designated Code Red (the highest fire-danger rating), “you won’t be safe to stay and defend your home – no matter what”. Here, surely, is a recognition not only of the murderous conditions on days like Black Saturday, but also of human nature. If the CFA told us instead, “You may not be safe to stay and defend your home,” we’d zero in on that conditional may. We’d wait and see.

An unflinching apostle of the Stay or Go doctrine is Joan Webster, OAM, author of Essential Bushfire Safety Tips (CSIRO Publishing; $29.95). In the book’s recent third edition, not only does she dispute the CFA’s new, more cautious position on stay-and-defend (“The hope-destroying position … that ‘If you live in a high-risk bushfire area, your home will not be defendable on a Code Red day’ is absolutely incorrect”), but she cites Black Saturday fatalities as exemplars of unpreparedness:

 

Had those who died sheltering known the rules for safe sheltering? … Only 5% of those who died at home on Black Saturday were engaged in any kind of active defence …

 

“Homes and lives are not saved by miracles,” asserts Webster, “but by the well-planned acts of people.” Long on certainty and short on compassion, her book makes no allowance for extreme fire conditions or messy human lives as lived.

 

Black Saturday research confirms the findings of every previous post-bushfire investigation. That almost every loss is caused not by ‘catastrophic’ weather, nor lack of official warning, nor by divine displeasure. Nor by ‘staying’ or ‘going’. But by apathy, ignorance and confused understanding.

 

As her authority for that statement, Webster cites the ‘Review of Fatalities in the February 7, 2009, Bushfires’, and thanks the study’s authors for “taking the time to verify my interpretation” of their research. Yet, as the report acknowledged, “There is more than one way of interpreting the results.”

What is apparent from every account of Black Saturday is that even the best-laid fire plan can easily come apart, whether for reasons within human control or beyond it. The study of the fires’ fatalities found that “there are many links in the chain of bushfire preparedness, and any one of them breaking can lead to serious consequences”. Webster, though, is intransigent. Either commit to thoroughly prepare and follow through a bushfire plan, she says, or “consider moving to a large city”. But humans – most of us – are programmed to respond to tangible danger, not warnings; to react, rather than prepare. Farmers at Kinglake, asked at the 1939 Royal Commission about their bushfire strategies, had nothing better to offer than “I mainly hope for the best” and “It is a case of waiting until it comes”.

That’s not to say that there is no constituency for Webster’s didactic approach. One in ten householders surveyed in fire-prone areas after Black Saturday declared themselves determined ‘stayers’, and even the rest of us can do much ahead of time to improve our properties’ and our own chances of surviving a bushfire. For those prepared to study, implement and practise the tips – which prescribe in dot-point detail everything from building materials and design to the correct choice of cushion-stuffing, bedspreads and garden plants – or for anyone wanting to know what thorough preparedness might entail, Essential Bushfire Safety Tips is indeed the authority.

It makes no mention, however, of luck. In Stanley’s book, a Steels Creek resident who was among the best prepared, his house designed to withstand fire, attributed its survival and his own on Black Saturday to 70% preparedness and 30% luck. Others also acknowledged the part played that day by luck – good and bad – and cautioned against a belief that people survived and saved their houses because “we knew what we were doing”. Nothing, they said, could have prepared them for fires of that magnitude.

At the Royal Commission, Professor John Handmer, the lead author of the Black Saturday fatalities report, was asked whether, for many people, a fire plan might be “a nebulous concept”. “It might be worse than that,” he said. “It might be something that gives people a misguided sense of security.” How many households in the path of fire on Black Saturday, I wonder, had on their bookshelves an earlier edition of Essential Bushfire Safety Tips – not followed to the letter, but kept as a talisman, a token of preparedness?

 

*

 

For most of us, living in the bush has as much to do with lifestyle as with life. Lifestyle abhors inconvenience; and if bushfire – or any force of nature – is an inconvenience, then planning for its possibility is yet more so. Fire-preparedness, as Webster’s book makes clear, is a lifestyle in itself: vigilance, all the time and forever, even if bushfire never comes. It’s another approach to living with fire and, when you think about it, entails a lifelong habit of imagination much the same as that advocated by Hansen and Griffiths. One is prescriptive, the other holistic. One makes promises, one makes none – except that there will be a next time.

The foregoing has been written during a heatwave. For days, there have been sirens swirling round our town, smoke gusting in. That postcard from the CFA addressed me directly: Dear Robyn, Victoria is one of the most fire-prone regions in the world, and the CFA considers your location one of the state’s most dangerous areas for fire … Still my fire plan amounts to: wait and see, and hope for the best. And if fire comes close – and only then – I’ll seek a safer place.

It’s not that I don’t remember Black Saturday; I do. I remember Ash Wednesday as well. But being human means that we never live long enough to know our limitations, the lies we tell ourselves, how small we are in the scheme of things. To admit that we are nothing to nature, except in its way.

Robyn Annear

Robyn Annear is a writer and historian based in Castlemaine, Victoria. Her books include A City Lost and Found: Whelan the Wrecker’s Melbourne and Fly a Rebel Flag: The Eureka Stockade.

Black Saturday, Kinglake. © Dean Sewell / Oculi
Cover: February 2013

February 2013

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