The Gallipoli Syndrome
Five volunteer firefighters have died in four incidents so far this summer. Others may suffer a similar fate in the next few weeks.
Their deaths are typically explained as "freak accidents", "acts of God", and the result of "unforeseen fire behaviour". Their superiors sagely advise firefighters to "take extreme care".
At root, the cause of this annual tragedy is cultural: Australia's archaic and inappropriate understanding of wildfire.
Scientifically, Australia is well known as the continent which
burns more than any other.
Almost all of it is adapted to fire. Some plants and animals survive fire efficiently. The aborigines exploited Australia's combustibility in a masterly manner.
Yet for European Australians, bushfire has always been symbolic of utter devastation. Colonial artists, with no great battles to record, relied heavily on the lurid drama of the bushfire, wild-eyed snorting horses, the fleeing populace, and brave men beating back the flames. Australia's great human disasters have always been, apart from war, the Black Fridays and Ash Wednesdays that seem to occur every 20 years or so. The 1939 fires killed 71, 65 died in the 1967 Tasmanian fires, and 76 on Ash Wednesday 1983.
These catastrophes seem to justify the common labeling of wildfire as "the enemy". But behind this casual label, there is a fully developed theory, a conceptual straightjacket which entraps the firefighting services, the media and the public. It is a military analogy, which has fatal consequences. The enemy is fire, fire destroys, fire must be "fought". Fire means war. War requires a military command hierarchy directing troops on the ground. The top fire brass in some Australian states look like five-star generals, glinting with braid and epaulettes. Even the chaplains are in officer uniform. The official language reflects the mind set. Times are given in 24 hour time. Thus, "the fire broke through containment lines at 0600 hours". Information about fires is often referred to as "intelligence".
The military parallels do not end there. Before and during the Sydney fires of 1994, the received wisdom was that (a) a catastrophe was about to happen and (b) that it did happen. Afterwards, only two explanations were possible: either a catastrophe had occurred, or that it had been averted by heroic action. Given that hyperbole about the fires was grossly out of proportion to the modest toll of life and property, we had it both ways. A "catastrophe" had occurred, but it had also been averted. The response was an orgy of self-congratulation, massed bands, march-pasts and medals.
The reality was, and is, misplaced resources, unnecessary risk, and misunderstanding of the role and nature of fire in the Australian environment. The intensity of the response to both the threats of fire, real or imagined, and the tragic/congratulatory aftermath, are linked. This "sacrifice" is invariably explained as "defending the community". The community must be protected at all costs.
Repetitious bushfire clichés lard comments by victims, reporters and fire officials. A Department of Natural Resources and Environment spokeswoman described the current big East Gippsland fire as causing "serious loss" by "consuming" some of the best Alpine country in Australia. Media reports had this fire "raging out of control", "threatening to destroy virgin bushland". It was "advancing on a 10 kilometre front" and was "attacked" by "600 fire fighters, 11 fixed-wing aircraft, 5 helicopters and 72 fire trucks". Firefighters were ordered to fight the fire at night, greatly increasing the risk.
Why all this risk and expense? Why shouldn't wilderness and forest fires be left to burn, perhaps behind distant defensive perimeters where necessary? The fact is that the "devastated" forest regenerates. The far more intense Ash Wednesday fires, and even the moderate 1994 New South Wales fires, have not "destroyed" the bush. Laments during the 1994 New South Wales fires about the "extinction of species" and the forest taking "200 years to recover" are nonsense. Just a few days ago, in remote bush southwest of Sydney, the old Wingello fire truck was incinerated, killing one and critically injuring three others. Officially described as "no danger to property", this small fire caused tragedy. How did this happen? Why was the truck there at all? Relatives and survivors gave the answers. "The fire moved 1 kilometer in 30 seconds." "It was an act of God"; "we acted according to the book"; "we were protecting the community".
The media asked "what were you trained to do in this situation?" The answer was "stay in the truck until it gets unbearable, then run." Thus, the pattern repeats itself. In the 1994 fires, half the New South Wales Rural Fire Service's equipment was up to 40 years old. Today, potbellied old Bedfords still grunt along the narrow dirt roads right up to the fire fronts. But that is not the source of these tragedies, it is merely a contributory factor. Australia's fire culture is the real culprit. The Wingello disaster was not a freak accident, nor an act of God, and no "community" was being protected. The fire did not move at 120 kph as reported. The fierce Ash Wednesday fires move at 10-12 kph, and the 1994 New South Wales fires at 3 kph.
There is ample fire science available. It needs to be applied rationally to the Australian situation. The common fantasies held about fire behaviour: fireballs, exploding houses, blinding speed, have to be eliminated. Fire organization needs to be demilitarized. Fire events and fire policies have to be scrutinized by many interest groups. At present, the fire services, media and government are conceptually hamstrung, reinforce each other and are compelled to repeat the cultural pattern of two centuries. There is scant criticism or analysis.
Must property be defended? If so, how? At least 2400 houses were destroyed in the Ash Wednesday fires and 185 in the 1994 New South Wales fires. This had no effect on insurance rates. The insurance companies instead sent propaganda to residents (including me) exhorting them "not to make the mistake of underinsuring next time". Insurance companies should be interested in how you protect, or fail to protect, your house or other assets from wildfire. But they are not. The crude fact is that most house and (and local business) in the Otway region had a bonanza after the 1983 fires. Why then should firefighters' or residents lives be put at risk to save property? And let's be clear about which areas are at risk; those ruralised suburbs and small country towns which are actually in bush or grassland. Not 99% of Sydney or Melbourne. There are many things which can be done to minimize fire risk in the worst areas, but most people are not interested. Slovenly shires allow pyrogenic noxious weeds such as gorse to grow freely on public and private land. Again, why should local brigades, or anyone, bother? The lack of critical analysis stems from the unique coalition of forces united by this resilient popular stereotype: Environmentalists preserving the bush, farmers defending their properties, small townspeople defending their communities, the fire services defending their control, and the mass of the naïve city dwellers sympathetic to all of these.
It is a potent, deadly mix. It is time for change.