Australia — FIRE. For the Victorian ecosystem, it’s the defining element. It is to our dry, hard-leaved forests what water is to the Daintree, wind to the Sahara. Those gum trees among which we so cheerfully build our homes are pyrophiliacs, addicted to fire. They have achieved their dominance of the ecology through an alliance with fire: through it, they are nourished, defended, propagated.
For the most part, they’re paradise: you sit on the porch and watch the possums play, the robins flit. But when the conflagration comes they can be hell on earth, as we were reminded a year ago this weekend.
These three books present a portrait of the Black Saturday disaster from differing, but complementary, perspectives.
Jane O’Connor’s Without Warning is perhaps the least ambitious, the most straightforward. But it’s also the most graphic; O’Connor lived through the firestorm, and came close to dying in it.
She and her family were better prepared than most: members of a close-knit Community Fireguard group, they carried out regular burns, they had pumps and plans, they listened to the radio for warnings. But when the flames came racing up the Kinglake escarpment, their defences were swept away in seconds.
O’Connor is particularly vivid in her description of what it’s like to be trapped in a house as it is engulfed in flames: the bitter, blinding smoke, the alarms shrieking, the blistering heat. The terror: crawling around on your hands and knees searching for an exit. Our own dark awareness, as we read, that so many others in her situation never found that exit.
She also gives a telling account of the eerie netherworld through which the survivors moved after the fire: stunned, grieving, touched by the support of friends, courageously struggling to rebuild their lives. And demanding answers: “One thing we all agree, though, is that there is no warning, that we were already burning well before Kinglake was first mentioned. We felt angry and abandoned. How could they not have seen a firestorm like that coming? Sean asks, incredulous.”
Age writer Karen Kissane’s Worst of Days provides many of the answers to that question. They did see it coming, but due to bureaucratic and equipment failures within the emergency services, the warnings came too late. Her criticism of the upper echelons of the CFA is as brutal a shellacking as you are ever likely to encounter, but it is her sketches of those who fought, survived and perished in the disaster that are the heart of the book.
She captures the speed, the rush, the chaos of the day brilliantly. Kissane was on the ground in Kinglake almost as soon as the flames died down, and her empathy with its victims and heroes is palpable.
There are images and scenes in Worst of Days that will sear themselves into the memory. The Strathewen CFA volunteers fighting on foot to reach people trapped in an isolated farmhouse. The family saved by a piece of cement sheeting flung across a window. The critically burnt woman snatched from death by a friend who had belted through kilometres of burning bush to reach her. The captain of the Whittlesea CFA who found the updates from his 78-year-old farming father of more use than those provided by the official network.
Kissane’s treatment might have benefited from a deeper examination of the systemic problems that led to the catastrophe: the planning laws that allow people to build in suicidal locations, the lack of controlled burns, our culture’s fundamental failure to come to terms with its environment. They may not make headlines, but are perhaps more fitting subjects for investigation than individuals such as the embattled Chief Officer of the CFA, who was struggling to deal with some 600 outbreaks on a day like no other.
But Black Saturday was a hydra-headed monster, and Kissane does tackle an impressive number of those heads the history, the fire science, the ecology, the recovery in what must rank with the most comprehensive studies of any Australian disaster.
Danielle Clode has thought long and hard about our flammable landscape, and A Future in Flames not only places the February fires in context, but offers a way forward.
A Rhodes scholar, academic and award-winning natural history writer, she cuts through the myths and controversies that have sprung up around this issue with a laser-like intelligence. There are no simple answers for this woman. The book opens with a beautifully considered study of the role of fire in the environment, and then works its way through the complex issues that confront those who choose to live within it.
Is cutting down trees the safest option? Not necessarily; experienced firefighters know that fire can be sucked into a gap in the forest, and trees can act as an ember break. There were houses with hundreds of metres of cleared space around them that were destroyed on Black Saturday; others in the middle of the bush survived. Stay or go? Either, but the trouble is that so many will choose to stay and then change their minds at the last moment. The paradox of the escape route: if you need one, chances are you’ve left it too late. The disconnect between what authorities think they are saying and what the public is hearing.
If we are going to live in a combustible environment, we need to understand it. We have to know the risks and take responsibility for our own safety. Clode’s book is the perfect guide for those rural folk, tree-changers and outer-city fringe dwellers who find themselves on this journey.
She describes the relentless process of making her own property as safe as possible: how to build, how to balance the desire for gardens and the need for cleared space, how to choose a home site. And how not to choose.
In one chilling interlude, she describes a TV show in which a house that had narrowly escaped the Canberra bushfires is rewarded with a “backyard blitz”. She watches in disbelief as the team installs a range of improvements mulch, flammable trees at the back door that make it horrifyingly more likely that the house will go up in smoke next time.
Clode is no armchair commentator: she lives in the foothills of the Kinglake Ranges, and her partner, Mike Nicholls, captain of the Panton Hill CFA, was one of the frontline fighters on the day. She writes movingly of his arrival home that night, exhausted, harried, aghast at what he had seen.
If ever there was a book for its time, it is A Future in Flames. There are half a million Victorians living within striking distance of what is sometimes called the Red Steer. They would all be a lot safer if there was a well-thumbed copy of this superb volume in their homes.
Three books, three takes on a tragedy, three rings in a pool, each wider in its scope. All valuable in their different ways.
And running like a ground bass beneath the surface of all of them is the terrible question: in this age of global warming, will such conflagrations occur more frequently? Will they stop being freaks and become the norm?Will our bush environment even be habitable in a generation’s time?