Australia — It’s one of our fondest contemporary fantasies that – in technology, in ideology, in taste – we’ve eclipsed the capacities of our forebears. The ancient Romans liked to speak wistfully of the “manners and morals of our forefathers”, as if that were sufficient recommendation in itself. We, on the other hand, like to imagine that our forefathers and mothers were rather dimmer than ourselves. Yet, because we respect the past so little, we learn little from it.
And what we do learn we forget too easily, in a haze of sentiment andcondescension.
If this is a sound enough general rule, imagine how strongly it pervades our habits of mind in the aftermath of bushfire catastrophe, when a sudden and unfeigned outpouring of sympathy and activity is almost always followed by a long fallow period of forgetfulness, complacency, buck-passing and neglect. It’s a fair bet that a robust independent inquiry will find grievous failures to act on the part of Victorian fire authorities, possibly leading as high as the Premier’s office. But if it does, it will simply be echoing the findings of so many past inquiries, inquests and commissions, each of which has attempted to point out basic failures of process, mostly to no end.
Time and again, if you wade through reports from across the country in 2003, or NSW in 1994, or Victoria in 1983 or 1939, the same issues leap to the eye. A persistent failure of co-ordination between rival firefighting authorities. Radios that don’t work properly, or which are set to different frequencies. A systematic incapacity to manage hazard-reduction effectively: a failure so intractable, it seems, that almost every inquiry of the past 70 years has been greeted by unfulfilled fuel-reduction quotas, as well as by lines of responsibility so blurred that it’s impossible to tell which agency failed to fulfil them.
In a recent retrospective on the 1939 Black Friday bushfires, ABC TV interviewed the chief executive of the Australasian Fire Authorities Council. This worthy gentleman finds the 1939 fires “interesting”, chiefly because they show how ill-equipped the old-timers were for the task. Theirs was “a fledging community” with “no effective fire-fighting techniques and no organisation”. They had no conception of traditional Aboriginal land management practices, and maintained outdated European attitudes towards the bush. We, with our strategic planning, infra-red scanning, and legions of trucks and aircraft, “are infinitely better off”. And we have acquired a veritable cornucopia of new management protocols, with their own distinctive vocabularies: occupational health and safety, risk management, “community partnerships” and so on. Clever us.
As it happens, the testimony of veteran sawmillers to the 1939 Stretton royal commission suggests that remote communities of those days maintained lively debates on the same issues that preoccupy us today. Like us, they pondered what the forest floors looked like in the days before white settlement, and what kind of hazard reduction was necessary to return them to that state. As in our day, there were sharp differences of opinion between advocates of more extensive burning and the view of what the old sawmillers called “the city men” that (in the commission’s words) “this burning off causes incalculable damage to the forests”. As in our own day, fire danger was exacerbated by a failure to hazard-reduce to agreed levels, on the one hand, and by ill-supervised back-burning on the other.
Battle-weary firefighters will tell you that they’ve sat through numerous public inquiries, coroners’ reports and royal commissions. On each occasion, governments and administrators seemed, miraculously, to fail to take their most important lessons to heart. And so the firefighters acquire an air of profound weariness and cynicism, like the demeanour of worn-down foot soldiers in World War I. They’ve heard the splendidly attired generals’ professional optimism a few times too often, and they no longer believe in it.
In NSW it’s fashionable to suggest that our firefighting methods are superior to Victoria’s on account of the sharp and timely criticisms advanced in the 1994 bushfire inquiry conducted by the NSW Coroners Office. Yet those who laud that report are highly unlikely to have read it (if only because nowadays it’s extremely difficult to obtain). If they had, they’d be aware that few of the coroner’s key recommendations were ever acted upon, and that many legislative changes were enacted before the report was released, as if in defiance of it. As a result, there is still no regular standing rural fire service; hazard reduction outside National Parks is still hit and miss; and communications between key agencies at times of crisis are not much better than they were then.
One of the timeless verities of bushfire disasters is that they will involve epic amounts of blame-shifting. This follows the same general principle of forgetfulness. Authorities know that for a few weeks and months after bushfires they are in the spotlight. But as the memory of disaster fades, so does the public’s attention. Inept administrators need only to ride out the moment of heightened attentiveness in a blaze of shameless opportunism, ham acting and buck-passing before they can repose in quiet for another five or 10 years.
Everyone is free to participate in this grand game of pass-the-parcel – except, of course, the victims. And so no doubt it’s natural that at present a good deal of the blame is being foisted upon them. There are too many people living on the city’s fringe; they love the bush too much; they’re well-meaning but unworldly, it seems. And yet it’s not obvious what the victims of these fires did wrong. They drew up their family fire plans, as they were asked to. They waited, patiently and in retrospect optimistically, for the necessary information on which to implement their plans: information that never came. Instead, they passed their final hours listening to radio stations that failed to issue warnings, or rang hotlines to be told that fires they could see with their own eyes didn’t exist.
It’s a fine mark of Australians’ sense of personal pride and independence that we choose to make decisions of this magnitude on our own responsibility. Indeed, personal judgment is probably the best and most efficient way of making these fateful decisions, since the necessary information is most easily available at the local level, and evacuations are best carried out voluntarily and on a local scale.
The anecdotal evidence suggests that Victorians were let down not by some misguided sense of their own personal capacity, but rather by the failure of responsible authorities to entrust them with the information they needed, and which they were entitled to as citizens. But then, sad to say, that’s hardly news.