We have still not lived long enough

Testimony from the 1939 and 2009 fires suggests there is one thing we never seem to learn from history, writes Tom Griffiths

16 February 2009


This essay is the winner of the Alfred Deakin Prize in the 2009 Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards


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Above: Bushfire-ravaged countryside in Steels Creek, near Kinglake.
Photo: Simon Mossman/ AAP Image/ 11 February 2009

WE SHOULD have seen this coming. We did see this coming. Yet we failed to save lives. We have still not lived long enough.

They had not lived long enough were the words that Judge Leonard Stretton used to describe the people who lived and worked in the forests of south-eastern Australia when they were engulfed by a holocaust wildfire on “Black Friday,” 1939. The judge, who conducted an immediate royal commission into the causes of the fires, was not commenting on the youthfulness of the dead: he was lamenting the environmental knowledge of both victims and survivors. He was pitying the innocence of European immigrants in a land whose natural rhythms they did not yet understand. He was depicting the fragility and brevity of a human lifetime in forests where life cycles and fire regimes had the periodicity and ferocity of centuries. He was indicting a whole society.

In 1939 Australians were deeply shocked by what had happened in their own backyard. Rampant flame had scourged a country that considered itself civilised. As well as shock, people sensed something sinister about the tragedy and its causes. Judge Stretton tried to find the words for it in his fearless report. Of the loss of life at one sawmill settlement, he wrote: “The full story of the killing of this small community is one of unpreparedness, because of apathy and ignorance and perhaps of something worse.” The “something worse” that he tried to define was an active, half-conscious denial of the danger of fire, and a kind of community complicity in the deferral of responsibility.

There is something sinister also about this dreadful tragedy of 2009, although the character of it is different. Those of us who know and love these forests and the people who live in or near them are especially haunted. In 1939, some of the ignorance and innocence was forgivable, perhaps. “Black Friday” was a late, rude awakening from the colonial era of forest exploitation and careless fire use, and it demanded that people confront and reform their whole relationship with the bush. When the 1939 fires raged through the forests of valuable mountain ash (Eucalyptus regnans), settlers did not even know how such a dominant and important tree regenerated. In the seventy years since 1939, we have lived through a revolution in scientific research and environmental understanding and we have come to a clearer understanding of the peculiar history and fire ecology of these forests. We have fewer excuses for innocence. We knew this terrible day would come. Why, then, was there such an appalling loss of life?

VICTORIANS LIVE ENTIRELY within what the international fire historian Stephen Pyne calls “the fire flume.” It is the most distinctive fire region of Australia and the most dangerous in the world. When a high pressure system stalls in the Tasman Sea, hot northerly winds flow relentlessly down from central Australia across the densely vegetated south-east of the continent. This fiery “flume” brews a deadly chemistry of air and fuel. The mountain topography of steep slopes, ridges and valleys channel the hot air, temperatures climb to searing extremes, and humidity evaporates such that the air crackles. Lightning attacks the land ahead of the delayed cold front and a dramatic southerly change turns the raging fires suddenly upon its victims.

There is a further ingredient to the chemistry of the fire flume. Across Australia, eucalypts are highly adapted to fire. Over millions of years these trees have turned this fragment of Gondwana into the fire continent. But in the south-eastern corner – especially in the forests of the Victorian ranges – a distinctive type of eucalypt has evolved. Ash-type eucalypts (the mountain and alpine ash) have developed a different means of regeneration. They do not develop lignotubers under the ground like other eucalypts and they rarely coppice. They are unusually dependent on their seed supply – and, to crack open those seeds high in the crowns of the trees and to cultivate the saplings successfully, they need a massive wildfire. Ash-type eucalypts generally grow in even-aged stands. They renew themselves en masse. These particularly grand and magnificent trees have evolved to commit mass suicide once every few hundred years – and in European times, more frequently. Not all the communities that were incinerated in 1939 and 2009 were in or near the forests of ash, but many were, and the peculiar fire ecology of the trees is another deadly dimension of this distinctive fire environment. These are wet mountain forests that only burn on rare days at the end of long droughts, after prolonged heatwaves, and when the flume is in full gear. And when they do burn, they do so with atomic power.

The 2009 fires were “unprecedented,” as many commentators have said. They erupted at the end of a record heatwave and there seems little doubt that this was a fire exacerbated by climate change. But it is the recurrent realities that are more striking. For those of us who know the history, the most haunting aspect of this tragedy is its familiarity. The 2009 bushfires were 1939 all over again, laced with 1983. The same images, the same stories, the same words and phrases, and the same frightening and awesome natural force that we find so hard to remember and perhaps unconsciously strive to forget. It is a recurrent nightmare. We know this phenomenon, we know the specific contours of the event, and we even know how people live and how people die. The climate change scenario is frightening. But even worse is the knowledge that we still have not come to terms with what we have already experienced.

The Bureau of Meteorology predicted the conditions superbly. The premier issued a warning. Fire experts knew that people would die that day. History repeated itself with uncanny precision. Yet the shock was, and still is, immense. It is the death toll, and not the weather, which makes the event truly unprecedented.

The recommended survival strategy of “leave early or stay and defend your home” 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. There is no identifiable “early” in this fire region on the fatal days. We understand why this policy has evolved and it has much to recommend it. It is libertarian; it recognises the reality that people prefer to stay in their own homes and defend them if they can; it seeks to minimise late evacuation which is so often fatal; it encourages sensible planning and preparation; and it has demonstrably saved lives and homes. It will continue to guide people well in most areas of Australia. But I fear that it has misled people in this distinctively deadly fire region to believe that they could defend an ordinary home in the face of an unimaginable force.

We need to be wary of “national” fire plans and to develop ecologically sensitive, bioregional fire survival strategies. We need to move beyond an undifferentiated, colonial sense of “the bush” as an amorphous sameness with which we do battle, and instead empower local residents and their knowledge of local ecologies. The quest for national guidelines was fatal for the residents of these Victorian mountain communities on such a day; it worked insidiously to blunt their sense of local history and ecological distinctiveness. 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 in the fire flume.

A “stay and defend” option is only realistic in such places and conditions if every property has a secure fire refuge or bunker. A bunker at the shire hall or at the end of the street is not good enough – people will die getting to it. I welcome the prime minister’s promise to rebuild these communities “brick by brick” – and I would like him to add: “and bunker by bunker.” Many people built bunkers in their backyards in the second world war and most, thankfully, were not used. But we know for certain that any secure bunkers built in these Victorian forest towns will be used in the next generation, and they will save lives. This is an appropriate challenge to the design and construction industries of the fire continent.

Fires inflame blame. Arsonists will be rightly condemned, but they will also distract us from addressing the reality of fires mostly caused by lightning. There were arsonists in 1939 and 2009 and there will be again in 2069; they are a sickening factor mostly beyond our predictive control. Water-bombing helicopters will again be promoted and in some areas they will be effective. The environmental and protective impacts of systematic control burning of our forests will be debated even more vociferously. Climate change will be correctly identified as a new factor in fire behaviour. But none of these policies or issues will ultimately save lives in these Victorian mountain communities on a holocaust day. Deep in the forests on Black Friday, 1939, with flames leaping kilometres ahead of the fire front, there was only one way to go – down. Well-built dugouts saved lives.

THERE WAS ANOTHER meaning to Judge Stretton’s declaration that they had not lived long enough. He was saying that lived experience alone, however vivid and traumatic, was never going to be enough to guide people in such circumstances. 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.

There is a perennial question in human affairs that is given real edge and urgency by fire: do we learn from history? Testimony from the 1939 and 2009 fires suggests that there is one thing that we never seem to learn from history. That is, that nature can overwhelm culture. That some of the fires that roar out of the Australian bush are unstoppable. As one fire manager puts it, “there are times when you have to step out of the way and acknowledge that nature has got the steering wheel at the moment.” It seems to go against the grain of our humanity to admit that fact, no matter how severe are the lessons of history. •

Tom Griffiths is Professor of History in the Research School of Social Sciences at the Australian National University and the author of Forests of Ash: An Environmental History (Cambridge University Press, 2001).

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12 Comments

  1. David Mackenzie added this comment on 16 February 2009 | Permalink

    This is a welcome article. Too much of the comment, letters, quotes, articles, that inevitably follows calamitous events such as these we have just witnessed are not carefully thought through, is uninformed or is unfortunately self-righteous, knee-jerk and bigoted. This is not to demean the efforts of those trying to come to terms with the shock of their or others’ losses. Wide dissemination of the more balanced material such as Griffith’s article above can go a long way to defusing some of this wild rhetoric. Most of all, if it manages to prevent a ‘one size fits all’ bushfire management plan being imnposed on the nation or even any one state, then it has served us well. Too many people fail to understand that there’s nothing we can do to beat big fires like Canberra 2003 and Victoria 2009. Neither do many people appreciate the immense spatial and temporal variability that exists across the nation in terms of how a fire is set up, how it behaves and hence, how best we can prepare for each event. Thank you Tom.

  2. Stephen added this comment on 16 February 2009 | Permalink

    Based on the above information, then the idea of a class action by residents against power companies is not appropriate.

    I have believed for a long time, since the Blue Mountains fires of the mid 1990s, that all houses in such areas should be equipped with water tanks with a minimum capacity decided by local fire authorities.

    But even such a measure would not have helped in these fires, when the utter destruction to property is seen.

  3. Avril McQueen added this comment on 17 February 2009 | Permalink

    I agree with David, this article is awesome and actually puts it in all its contexts.

    I would like to send it to the head of the Royal Commission and will attempt to do so.

    Thank you Tom for saying it like it really is.

  4. paul walter added this comment on 17 February 2009 | Permalink

    Far be it for me to take the pith out the article, but on googling up the history of bushfires, I discovered that these bushfire events have been occuring since at least 1858 at ten or twenty year intervals.
    But it’s a great article and a change from the silly hysteria of the tabloid media.

  5. Anne Beggs Sunter added this comment on 18 February 2009 | Permalink

    Thank you Tom for an article that explains clearly that this disaster is, sadly, not ‘unprecedented’ as we keep hearing. Victoria’s history as a state began in 1851 with the ‘Black Thursday’ bushfires of 6 February that affected approximately 5 million hectares of the state. This article must be compulsory reading for the Royal Commissioners.

  6. Jeremy Maddox added this comment on 19 February 2009 | Permalink

    Your thrust is that people don’t learn, or they forget. But you need to take into account that numbers of people did heed the warnings, and got out of forest areas well before the fires started. It would be hard to judge how many and who, but from limited personal knowledge I think those with young children may have been more likely to leave on Saturday morning.
    This is not in any way to blame those who stayed put, and anyone with a little empathy & insight can think of a dozen reasons why they did. Certainly, people forget: few have the imagination to remember the intensity of the 1983 fires, and after all, for most of us it was second-hand experience then too. It’s a combination of individual and collective memory we’re talking about, as well as rational action to avoid an event that after all, most people escaped by doing nothing.

  7. Francis added this comment on 20 February 2009 | Permalink

    It is refreshing to read a factual analysis of the long history of Victorian fires without the mantra of man-made climate change rearing its populist head. Indeed scientific evidence of recent decades links the desertification of central Australia to vast recurrent fires wiping out its lush forests in the distant antiquity.

    It is very true that houses will be reduced to ashes if they are caught in the Russian roulette path of an intense wildfire. But it is also true that our firefighters must battle bushfires and not merely allow them to burn out when they exhaust the supply of Victorian trees.

    The 16 February comment condemning “self-righteous, knee-jerk and bigoted” responses to the 2009 tragedy probably refers to equally factual articles by Miranda Devine and others. Her contention is that Green politics have sidelined the chief recommendation of every previous national inquiry and Royal Commission, which was to reduce the intensity of the inevitable bushfires by managing the fuel load with firebreaks and low-intensity backburning in a mosaic pattern. The inquiries have shown that this will make more fires containable and also ensure the survival of the habitat for fauna.

    She has every right to make this point without being subjected to clumsy ad hominem attacks. Indeed it is only the less sophisticated elements of the environmental establishment in Australia that have failed to adopt forest fire fuel load management as one weapon in their arsenal for protecting habitats and fauna in the long term.

    Professor Griffiths is quite right to question the wisdom of homeowners in forests staying behind to fight wildfires, and his article is very welcome. And we must also give our firefighters and native animals a chance by reducing bushfire intensity when we can.

  8. Alistair Stewart added this comment on 22 February 2009 | Permalink

    The vat of history swirls with symmetry. 1851 Feb 6th, the Port Phillip Gazette reports that after one fortnight of stifling heat fires swept down through the northern district at lightning speed, the flames fanned by searing winds destroying everything which stood in its path; including those brave men who attempted to “impede the flames and avert the ruin of their hopes” leaving them charred and lifeless lumps where they had stood. The fires were reported to have started in Kilmore. The winds swung violently in the afternoon to the south west… the flames ripped back up into the hills and burned for weeks. And what of the deceased? No one could determine a figure as there were few remains and the numbers working in the area were unknown. Moving forward, what can we learn from history? Time swirls with symmetry reeling backward.

  9. Anne-Marie Stranger added this comment on 25 February 2009 | Permalink

    Here, here Tom. At last someone has the balls to say it how it is. For too long we have let the so-called “know alls” have their voice at the expense of doing the right thing for the land. Fires are a natural and essential part of keeping our planet alive and productive we just need to respect this and learn to live with nature in a sensible and sensitive way. We can go on blaming climate change when deep in our hearts we know this planet has been evolving for millions of years through the natural processes of fire, earthquakes, extremes of weather and temperature changes even before known settlement, so why can’t we adjust to it and get on with living without the blame game.

  10. Jon Hunt added this comment on 2 March 2009 | Permalink

    To be honest I found all the patriotism surrounding the bushfires something of a paradox. To me we aren’t really “Australian” because we still have this air of indifference and lack of appreciation of the Australian environment, which after all is what “Australia” is.

  11. Gregg Muller added this comment on 2 March 2009 | Permalink

    A great piece, Tom, I was hoping someone would write it. Noble’s ‘Ordeal By Fire’ is required reading for those who claim these events are unprecedented. ABC radio in Melbourne didn’t want to know – to put such views to air they thought would be “inappropriate”. Yet their own website has a fantastic amount of material on the ’39 fires.
    The accounts reported in Noble could be the events of the past weeks. Even the rolecall of destroyed and threatened settlements is the same – many of which at the time were ‘never to be rebuilt’.
    The role of the media in the public’s perception of the ‘fightability’ of bushfire should also be scrutinised. Unless you’ve been in a wildfire, it’s hard to comprehend the chaos – the choking smoke, fires exploding at random around you seemily without regard for the flamability of the objects, the extreme heat that makes you cringe involuntarily – the idea of a neat ‘fire front’ which passes over in a wave is not the reality of the experience at the scale of a human confronting bushfire. Still, the TV news images show neat ‘fire fronts’ from the chopper, presumably because the news director needs a visual image that reflects the term…

  12. Clive Banson added this comment on 3 September 2009 | Permalink

    Dear Sir/Madam

    Tom Griffiths’ article is outstanding, as much for its sticking to the issues and eschewing emotionalism as anything else. And the associated comments are also enjoyable with a singular exception. The favourable mention of Miranda Devine was the amber light. Then, right on cue three lines later, the almost incredibly complex and valuable range of flora and fauna on the forest floor were described as a ‘fuel load’. Fair enough in GW Bush America but we’re in Australia mate – get a grip.

    Best wishes

    Clive

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  1. [...] historian Professor Tom Griffiths sought to address in his impassioned essay for the online journal Inside Story. Written just days after the fire, he proposed: “We should have seen this coming. We did see this [...]

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