Bushfires and the Culture War. Part 1

Jan 10, 2020

The bushfire culture wars have already begun. For some the current crisis is apocalypse now, for others it’s just an extreme example of business as usual on our incendiary continent.

Debates range over hazard reduction burning and the effects of global warming. What does history tell us? Has 2020 introduced a new era of fire?

Nowadays ‘traditional’ Aboriginal fire practices are much in vogue although, I suspect, without much insight into their underlying purpose. Pre-1788, the First Australians were essentially trying to maintain stasis in the landscape. Their whole cosmology and religion aimed at keeping the landscape exactly as it had always been. They were, in Bill Stanner’s words, trying to ‘defeat history.’ The ideal was the ‘Dreaming’, a timeless world without duration, without beginning or end, before or after. Again, Stanner is right when he calls it ‘everywhen’.

The Aboriginal fire regime was not to improve the land, or to ‘farm’ it in a modern sense. While probably not consistent across the continent, it was light burning in open grassland and savannah, but usually not in forests.

The first group of Europeans impacting Australia were the squatters. These were people that who saw the landscape as limitless. For them farming was an industry and were inspired by the mercantile dream of infinite profits riding on the sheep’s back.

Their aim was to change the landscape and the most potent instrument for that was fire which they introduced on an industrial scale. The result was Black Thursday, 6 February 1851. Confined largely to Victoria, it burnt some five million hectares.

With the 1850s Gold Rushes Australia’s population more than doubled to a million. By 1860 colonial governments  were faced with finding work for disappointed gold seekers. The various land acts of the 1860s allowed them to select small holdings and become yeoman farmers, thus creating ‘Britannia in the Great South Land.’

For selectors bushfire was the enemy. As Henry Lawson’s poem The Fire at Ross’s Farm shows, fighting wildfire together broke down ‘the deadly feud of class, creed and race.’

But the irony was that wildfire was the product of fires lit by the selectors themselves. They used fire as the primary instrument of clearing. Forests were in the way of development and the best way to get rid of them was to burn them.

A vicious cycle was set-up: you lit fires to clear and the best time to do this was mid-summer with high winds. When they got out of control they had to be fought, and in the process a kind of ritual emerged in which Australian manhood was forged and the ethos of mateship developed in the struggle with nature. The rural myth was established that you had to burn to stop burning.

The classical fire of the selector age was Red Tuesday in mid-January, 1898. This conflagration was the central act in the on-going destruction of one of earth’s last remaining cool temperate rainforests. Of the original half million hectares in South Gippsland, nowadays only about 2500 hectares of rainforest remain in two tiny national parks.

Perhaps the most famous of all fires was Black Friday, 13 January 1939. Conflagrations swept across Victoria, southern NSW, including the Snowy Mountains, burning two million hectares and killing seventy-one people.

What followed was Justice Leonard Stretton’s Royal Commission, the most comprehensive study up to then of fire in the landscape. In pre-European times, Stretton said, ‘the forests had not been scourged by fire. They were in their natural state. Their canopies had prevented the growth of scrub and bracken. They…were safe.’

Then came the Europeans. They destroyed the canopy by logging and burned forests to clear land. ‘They burned the floor to promote the growth of grass and to clear it of scrub,’ Stretton said, ‘[and] the balance of nature was broken down. The fire encouraged…scrub growth far more…[when] fire was used to clear it, the scrub grew faster and thicker…and again the cleansing agent, fire, was used.’ It was a vicious circle.

After 1945 it wasn’t this notion of a protective nature that was taken-up. Many ‘bush-men’ witnesses had loudly complained to Stretton about ‘the failure of authorities to reduce the fuel load.’

Two key figures post-1945 are Alan McArthur and Harry Luke. Both were ‘practical men’ with little patience for theorists and environmentalists. Their book Bushfires in Australia (1978) explains how bushfires ignite and develop and how fire-fighters and land-holders should respond to them. They were especially strong on ‘reducing the fuel load.’ Essentially, they were primarily concerned with the economic value of landscape, not environmental issues, let alone flora and fauna.

McArthur and Luke notwithstanding, bushfires returned every year, sometimes becoming massive events like Ash Wednesday 1983 in Victoria and South Australia, when 103 people were killed and over 2000 houses burned. Many of the major fires between 1968 and 2002 were on the urban frontier and were often deliberately lit.

In 2002-3 south-eastern Australia was hit by the worst fires since 1788 across Victoria, southern NSW, the Snowy Mountains and Canberra. The Canberra fire roared out of the Brindabella range on 17 January 2003, killed four people and destroyed over 500 homes and much infrastructure. Most previous fires lasted only a few days, or at most a fortnight. These fires lasted from late-September to late-February and burned more than 3.8 million hectares. In the same period 2.1 million hectares were burnt in Western Australia.

Summer 2002-3 heralded a new era in Australian fire. Then on Black Saturday, 7 February 2009 Victoria was again hit with a fire that roughly followed the same trajectory as 1939, but its velocity and intensity was far worse than any previous fire. Climate change was now impacting, and combined with worse droughts, high winds and intense summer heat, south-eastern Australia will increasingly become ‘a global climate hot-spot.’

While global warming is a fundamentally important new element in the mix, there is a sense in which we are now reaping the results of 230 years of massive vandalism in the landscape. Non-Aboriginal Australia has defied and fought nature and now nature is responding. We simply can’t continue to act as we have in the past.

In 2020 we face a complete re-assessment of our relationship to nature and specifically fire in Australia. Based on the history recounted here, in my next piece I will try to tease out some of the parameters of this new relationship.

Paul Collins is the author of Burn. The epic story of bushfire in Australia (Allen & Unwin, 2006 and Scribe, 2009).

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