Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Fire and the future

We had an anxious weekend waiting to hear how a friend of my wife's had fared in the fires. The area where she lived, not far from here, had at least ten deaths and her place was in dense bush. Yesterday my wife spoke to her. She and her husband were OK but had lost everything except her business, which fortunately was in a big neighboring town untouched by the fires.

When the first Europeans explored the coast of this continent they remarked on the columns of smoke rising everywhere which seemed to be a feature of the landscape. The aboriginal people's fire-stick management of their country was a characteristic of their culture and produced a certain form of vegetation, which in heavily treed areas meant a thinner undergrowth as the easily combustible fuel on the forest floor was removed regularly.

The early European colonists lived in the cities of the coast and in small towns or on farms where the first task was the removal of as much native vegetation as possible to make way for pasture. There were people who did live in the bush — timber cutters being the most numerous. The dispossession of land from the aboriginals meant their cultural practice of regular burning no longer happened and another pattern of landscape and vegetation emerged, where dense growth took place, burned at longer intervals by much larger fires.

Despite this change, fire has not been a serious impediment to settlement in this country until recently. Fires when they occurred could be devastating for those directly affected but these were usually farmers and other rural dwellers in thinly populated areas. The fires of 1939 were a turning point though, because it was realised that isolated timber harvesting settlements in the dense forest were just too vulnerable and that way of settling the landscape came to an end.

But here we are seventy years later, with the most sophisticated fire fighting organisations and equipment which have ever been devised and yet we have suffered terrible loss of life and property. Is it climate change? Too many arsonists? Or as some creepy religious types allege, God's punishment for abortion law reform?

One thing that has changed noticeably over the past few decades, principally since 1970, is that very large numbers of people have built houses in rural settings, often surrounded by trees. It has become a widespread ideal of the Australian way of life. I was one of the early settlers of this type, and I remember looking at a forested block in the hill country behind Ulladulla on the New South Wales south coast back in the early seventies when not many houses were being built outside of towns on bush blocks, before finally building on ten acres near Waratah Bay in southern Victoria in the late seventies, by which time there was what amounted to a boom in small acreages all over the country.

Very few of the houses built on these bush blocks took the risk of fire into account. I know the place I built at Waratah North certainly didn't, and not until we had a fire emergency of our own there (caused by my three-year-old son setting fire to 120 bales of hay stacked in the carport next to the house!) did I do anything about it. I rushed out after that and bought a Honda fire pump which lived in its own enclosure on the north side of the house yard, with a hose long enough to reach any building on the property, all fed from a dam at the top of the block. And I ran it every day in summer to water the garden, so at least I knew it would work when needed.

Our house was some distance from any dense stands of trees and was relatively easily defendable (once I had the Honda pump!) against the grass fires which were our greatest threat. I hardly know how one would cope in a bush setting. Perhaps if the bush is not too dense, the house is well designed and all rubbish and leaves are removed to stop sources of ignition, you're relatively fit and confident and have fire-fighting gear on hand, then you can sleep peacefully over summer.

Why has this new pattern of settlement grown up in the past thirty years and become all-pervasive? Because it could! Once car ownership had become near-universal in the nineteen-sixties, and the suburbs which had been the pinnacle of the Australian dream for an earlier generation had become dull, ugly, conventional and constraining for their children, the stage was set for an explosion of rural living. And so we have a vast section of the population now hostage to fear of fire every summer. It is obvious that this problem is not going to go away quickly or easily.

The recriminations have begun. The hunt for the arsonists who are no doubt responsible for a lot of the fires is on. Much learned pontification will fill the airwaves explaining the psychology and motivation of these people. The call for more severe punishment has gone out. But even if arsonists were to be publicly hung, I doubt if that would solve the problem. My own feeling, purely subjective, is that the young men mainly responsible for these crimes are not types who think too deeply about future consequences. And in any case young men tend to wear risk lightly, which is why they make such good soldiers. And what about lightning strikes? They also cause many fires and are not particularly amenable to draconian legislation either.

Three years ago we sold our dream property overlooking Wilsons Promontory and Waratah Bay and moved into Foster town. Not because of the fire risk, but because we were paying a fortune in traveling costs and it was a sellers market with prices at an all-time high. As for my wife's friend, I very much doubt if she and her husband will return to build on the site of their burnt-out home. No doubt there will be many others rethinking their lifestyle choices. Slowly our culture will change and fall in line with the imperatives imposed on it by the nature of this country and by the declining availability of fossil fuels, which in the past have have made thinly-spread patterns of settlement possible and a matter of somewhat casual and careless choice.

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