Australia –– “WE get a fire in those steep hills and gullies at the back of the Gold Coast, packed with fancy houses, we’re rooted. We get a fire in that Channel Country, loaded with frost-burnt grass as fuel, we’re rooted. We get a fire in the dry western suburbs of Brisbane, chockers with growth since the big flood, we’re rooted.”
That’s Bob, a 68-year-old ex-firefighter and former member of the Rural Fire Service, who cornered me and bent my ear at the recent Brisbane Writers Festival.
Recognising a theme, I ask about a possible blaze in the Sunshine Coast inland. “Rooted.”
An old sub-editor years ago thumped it into young reporters never to start a story with a quote but I’ve made the exception with Bob.
Standing surrounded by wordsmiths, it was his voice that had that rhythm and repetition often belonging to bushies of a certain age.
In Pygmalion, when dustman Alfred Doolittle says “I’m willing to tell you. I’m wanting to tell you. I’m waiting to tell you”, Henry Higgins muses: “This chap has a certain natural gift of rhetoric. Observe the rhythm of his native woodnotes wild … That’s the Welsh strain in him.”
I can’t vouch for Bob’s ancestry but he was willing, wanting and waiting to tell someone and had a certain natural gift, not just for rhetoric but for stating the bleeding obvious.
I tend to trust people like Bob. He has a long memory that comes with decades of experience. He has no agenda, no barrow to push and no reason to spin.
Bob was a firefighter in NSW for 20 years, Rural Fire Service member for 10, now neither, thanks to two bung knees and several near-fatal melanomas from years of sailing.
He has a sailor’s lips and crow’s feet-like axe marks. This man’s done plenty of squinting into the distance.
Bob’s tracked me down because he’s furious and worried. He believes the Queensland Government isn’t doing enough squinting into the distance and planning long term, and instead is looking no further than rushed cutbacks for short-term gains.
Just to recap: until five minutes ago, Emergency Services Minister Jack Dempsey thought it was OK to cut 56 Rural Fire Services jobs and close regional offices.
Seriously, who is he taking advice from? Clearly no one who lives more than five minutes from a CBD cafe.
Met with an outcry, he’s subsequently backed down and ordered a ministerial review.
Ministerial reviews are handy creatures. They are pollie-speak for: “Holy cow, the s— hit the fan. I’d better push this into the future and make it look like we’re just following the recommendations of a review.”
It’s not reassuring to be starting the bushfire season with the Government picking a fight with firefighters. With rural firefighters saying the Queensland Government was hoodwinked into making bad budget decisions by the Department of Community Safety. And with urban firefighters worried that rural firefighters will stop supporting them. All because of a rushed decision by a new inexperienced Government.
The facts are this: We’re in peak fire season. An emerging El Nino weather pattern plus a massive fuel load from three wet seasons make Queensland bushfire nirvana.
That’s echoed by Bernard Trembath, Rural Fire Service rural operations regional manager, who told radio recently it’s not so much the weight of the fuel but the continuity of fuel. Queensland hasn’t had a bad fire season for about four years, which dims the our memory.
We want to move to rural areas, build houses among trees – and then someone to save us when things get hairy. And we want someone to blame when it all goes wrong.
We don’t talk about fire and we don’t talk about the people who start fires, writes Adrian Hyland in his book about Victoria’s Black Saturday fires, Kinglake-350.
Remember that police believe some recent bushfires in north Queensland were deliberately lit.
Hyland writes: “There are around 54,000 bushfires in the nation each year. Experts now believe 20-30,000 of these are deliberately lit … You live in the most fire-prone region on Earth, and 20-30,000 times a year one of your fellow citizens sneaks out and puts a match to the scrub. And he (for most are male) tends to do it in places where his handiwork will wreak the maximum amount of havoc.”
Arson is the simplest of crimes, he writes, especially when considering the damage it inflicts. It needs little more than a box of matches, a lonely road and a twisted mind. We have a critical problem in our midst and it’s not going away any time soon.
“Arson is a manifestation of complex societal problems and it can only be resolved by society-wide responses – a comprehensive program, for example, targeting at-risk communities and supported by all relevant agencies,” Hyland writes.
I’m re-reading Hyland’s book with Bob’s warning ringing in my ears: Rooted. There’s a recurring theme in Hyland’s writing – from the people who were burnt in their homes as they sat staring at computer screens telling them they weren’t in danger, to governments not listening and learning from fire experiences.
It’s there in a quote by Australian scholar and writer McKenzie Wark: “We no longer have roots, we have aerials.”