Fire fears and facts

“Humans only really have two operating modes: complacency and panic.” Nicole Foss, in a interview by Paul Barclay on Radio National.

This is no time for complacency, there is a lot we can do to prevent more bushfire destruction.  The October 2013 bushfires in the Blue Mountains caused the loss of nearly 200 homes in Springwood. Many families lost everything and have found themselves displaced while considering their new reality or waiting for their homes to be rebuilt. The year that followed has been remembered by the media as a time of grieving. But also a time of celebration and gratitude towards the successful fire fighters and charity organisations for their fund raising efforts. Politicians praise and thank the community, their spirit, and their bravery. Authorities are pleased.

The local paper speaks of a fast recovery, support through charity, and the prowess of the fire fighters. There have been many happy ending stories, with titles such as “From disaster to dream home”, and “Rising from the ashes”. The stories convey a sense of victory. We can see images of newly built homes, happy families, and the new air-crane, water-bombing helicopter that the RFS may use to combat fire. Judging by the choice of content relating to fire in the media, it appears that the only lesson learned from these bushfires and our loss, is that we can be rescued, and that our houses can be rebuilt fast.P1040076

However, this is no time to rest on our laurels, as we may be missing out on greater lessons. Lessons which can empower and strengthen us way more than any recovery program ever will. The full fire story needs to be told. The research findings from the many Australian fire disasters, and bushfire science, needs to be disseminated by authority, and applied by people. And the history of fire in Australia, its nature, also needs to be told.  That is if we want to save our homes next time the fire threatens. These lessons, from science and history, are our valuable learnings which if put in practice will surely yield results truly worth celebrating.

Since people stopped managing the land through burning soon after 1788, intense fires have been the cause of severe and unprecedented devastation. The nature of the bushfire danger is inherent to the nature of this country. The environment, as it was found in 1788 has been altered significantly, with extensive dense forests supplanting grasslands and open forests. Left unmanaged and accumulating fuel at our doorstep, they threaten our lives and the land. And so, the bushfire danger, since 1788, cannot be dismissed as one for our fire fighters and insurance companies to deal with alone.

Fire education and training of homeowners at risk of bushfire destruction, could be promoted by authority instead of the disabling fear campaign of “leave and live”. Bush fire preparation teaching should be based on bushfire–science, research, and history.

Bushfire-science and research

There are lessons to be learned from the findings that have come from investigations into previous bushfire destruction disasters (such as Black Saturday in Victoria for example). As our bushfire experts prescribe, there are actions and behaviours that make the event of bushfire in residential areas safer. According to the evidence, we stand a higher chance of saving our home if we make our homes defendable. But this is not something that we hear through the campaigns of bushfire authorities. And so unlearned we remain, vulnerable and dependent.

Research led by Dr Caird Ramsay, director of CSIRO’s Division of Building Research, reveals evidence that points to our capacity as individuals to defend and save our homes. As cited in Bushfires And Bureacrats by leading bush fire expert, Joan Webster OAM:

“90 per cent of homes had been saved when defended by one or more people over the age of ten who knew what to do, and all homes with three or four defenders.”

Black Saturday fire destruction investigation by the CSIRO revealed:

“a survival rate of 77% for houses that were defended by one or more household members, compared to 44% for unattended houses…. The research identified inadequate planning and preparedness and the tendency for people to wait until they are directly threatened before taking action as major factors leading to late evacuation, failed defence and passive shelter.”

The findings indicate knowledge deficit and misinformation for which our authorities may be answerable.

To be in a position to stay and defend in the event of bushfire, we need to be prepared. The information needed to be prepared needs to be available, and we need to be able to be entitled to make changes in our properties with out restrictions. But there is a great disparity between the recommendations of our bushfire science experts and those of the bushfire authorities, with an obvious one for NSW forest residents being the distancing of flammable native trees and pines from our homes.  The RFS recommends 10 metres, the experts 50 metres.  The public follows the campaigns of the RFS, unaware that scientific findings assert 10 metres distancing of trees from homes is unsafe.

By far the most revealing and relevant reflections for residents of the Blue Mountains have been made by Webster in Bushfires And Bureacrats. The main point Webster makes is one about fire destruction responsibility. It certainly makes a lot of sense, in a society where fault is investigated by law in any case where there is loss and damage. Why are we not identifying culpability for fire destruction? Webster points to the contributory negligence of homeowners, bushfire authorities, and building regulatory authorities:

“Every post-bushfire investigation has shown that almost every tragedy has been contributed to by those affected. This is a harsh statement. But true.

It is also true that such tragedies have been contributed to by victims’ neglectful neighbours who had not reduced their flammable vegetation, by restrictive local councils who do not allow this, by municipal and statutory bodies who neglect this chore on their own lands, and by environmental groups who encourage highly flammable native vegetation to be laid close around houses. Like kindling set for a pyre.”

And there is a lot more bushfire authorities could do by disseminating knowledge rather than fear. In regard to the Black Saturday fires, Webster points out:

“Those who suffered these losses could well ask: had authorities spent the time and money on advising how to safely save their properties, instead of frightening them into leaving them to unhindered ember attack, would they still be living in their loved homes?”

Residents rebuilding their homes, lost due to fire, should consider Webster’s assessment regarding building regulatory authorities. Based on an investigation by the CSIRO’s Division of Building Research into homes affected and lost by the Black Saturday fires, Webster states that:

“Many houses had not flared up until long after the fire front had passed. Flames could not have caused their ignition. Investigators were unanimous that cladding materials do not of themselves give bushfire protection. They confirmed definitively that houses are burned from the inside when sparks and embers enter and burn on through house contents.”

More to the point, we should consider her assessment of building regulatory authority:

“To allow home building anywhere near a ‘flame zone’ is homicidal. Any building regulating authority that:

  • ignores the prime danger of the roof/ceiling space
  • states that brick cladding and metal frames give protection during bushfire, and
  • allows homes to be built so close to a forest as to be in reach of its flames

should be charged with culpable negligence.”

Former Senior Principal Research Scientist at CSIRO Phil Cheney, has dedicated his life to the learning of fire behaviour. Like Webster, Cheney tells us that if we live close to dense forest, we should keep the native trees and conifers 50 metres away from buildings. This is science-based information that may not be welcome in the community by conservationists. But we cannot deny that increased fuel loads in our residential areas are now endangering us.

In reference to the October 2014 fires, Phil Cheney, on ABC radio, talked of our recent “loss of fire-connect”. In the past:

“people would not build their houses amongst our native trees, and there was an influx of European and African species, which are less flammable and there were a lot less trees in towns, and people would have a green lawn and a garden bed of roses and agapanthus…”

Fire history: a threat to the newcomers, a resource for its people, until 1788.

The reality of our environment prior to 1788 is important for the understanding of the severity of our danger in a continent that has been fire managed for thousands of years. Fire was a resource, not a threat. Fire was used to produce grasslands to attract animals and make areas for cultivation. Regular burnings kept fuel at the right levels for the purposes of cultivation, regermination, and animal habitat. As Bill Gammage has documented in “The Biggest Estate on Earth, How Aborigines Made Australia”, people and animals required constant burnings to keep the land habitable, safe, and productive. None of which we can be guaranteed of today.

Our current fire reality is a result of our modern land use culture since 1788. Thick and impenetrable forests have become the new landscape of the Blue Mountains.  These are, as conservationists would refer to, “protected”.  But in conversations with Chris Tobin, a Daruk man from Katoomba, I am told that the Daruk and Gundungurra people of the Blue Mountains think of the land as “neglected”.  With the accumulation of heavy fuel loads, the land now is highly flammable, and the danger unprecedented.  In reference to Australia’s disastrous fires, in “The Biggest Estate on Earth”, Gammage states that:

“People could not have survived such fires in 1788. Had they faced the Black Saturdays and Ash Wednesdays white Australia has suffered, most must have died. Any uncontrolled fire menaced: A day’s fire might eat a year’s food”.

An indication of the kind of landscape that existed in the Blue Mountains soon after the arrival of the newcomers, is cited by Gammage:

“In the Blue Mountains, Jean Quoy found ‘vast forests where you walk beneath very pleasant domes of verdue. We noticed that all of these were blackened right up, a circumstance due to the fact, the natives liking to set alight the grasses and brushwood obstructing their way, the fire often catches the fibrous bark of the largest trees, which then burn without their trunk being in any way damaged by it and without injuring the vegetation of their tops.”

Fire was used in the Blue Mountains to keep the forest open and promote grasslands. Also, the kind of fires were of a very different kind from the bushfires we know:

“In New South Wales in 1814 Evans wrote that the Blue Mountains ‘have fired; had we been on them we could not have escaped; the flames rage with violence through thick underwood, which they are covered with’. He recorded more fires next day, but walked close behind the flames. He could not have done so behind any of Australia’s recent big fires.”

He certainly couldn’t and the “thick underwood” mentioned would be much thicker now given that forests have become so dense and mostly impenetrable.  The intensity of our fires due to the high fuel loads, are ravaging the environment, a concern for conservationists would be that there is vegetation that is no longer regenerating. Also the allowing of bush to become impenetrable and the loss of the open grasslands, characteristic of the Australia known and managed by the people prior to 1788, means that many animals have lost their habitat and the land is becoming inhabitable and unsafe.

However, every time we need to rebuild, it is our impact that affects the environment the most. And I have outlined that impact in Challenging Authority for Fire Safety . Our best environmental bet is to prevent our homes from burning.  Knowing that today’s non-residential landscape of the Blue Mountains was not so dense and flammable and therefore a lot safer for people to live in, needs to be factored into the understanding of the environment of Blue Mountains conservationists.

Conservationism through tree protection orders in the Blue Mountains prevents homeowners from removing flammable native trees in their own backyards.  The question arises, conservation of what?  Is it the conservation of the newcomers preferred landscape, that is, a dense unmanaged forest? This was not the preferred landscape of the people of Australia in 1788.

Other issues relating to the “Leave and Live” campaign

The media and government boast and emphasise recovery. But a sound recovery involves our psyche, not just the replacement of a house. Empowerment is central to our psychological recovery. A sense that we are in a safer place now after the fires, thanks to the lessons learned about fire behaviour. But these are not told to us, instead we are told to flee, abandon our homes, “Leave and live”. Knowledge and power is crucial to our sense of safety and mental wellbeing. This is what a person needs to rely on – knowledge and our own mental and physical capacity as individuals to be ready.

Moreover, and central to the concerns of Blue Mountains conservationists, the rebuild exercise cost is not just a financial one. There has been a “Total value of rebuild activity: $62m (approx.)” according to the local paper the Gazette. That cost in terms of monetary value can be translated into emissions and land use impact elsewhere. Our modern building industry is responsible for deforestation and ecological damage, (even if not in the Blue Mountains). And so making our home less flammable, and in fact defendable, to increase the chances of being able to defend  if needed, should be supported by all environmentalists. For this, we need to follow bushfire science recommendations regarding tree removal as a sound conservationist action – if we consider a wider ecology, and not just the one that we see here in the Blue Mountains.

Wealth has played an important role in the recovery process. But the foundations of true resilience cannot rely on the fragility of a modern nation’s economy and their charity. A fair question would be to ask ourselves what would happen if these houses were lost in a nation hit by an economic crisis. Such a nation could be ours. How would we respond to bushfires then? Would we be ready as individuals to take on the responsibility of making our homes less flammable?


Since the October 2013 bushfires, much and well deserved praise has been given to the RFS and to the fundraising efforts from charities. However, the recovery may have been fast but by no means are we immune to fire destruction. Ignoring research, bushfire science, and the history of Australia will only aggravate our vulnerability to home loss due to fire. Yet the fire expert’s recommendations and the mere suggestion of the power of the individual to prevent bushfire home loss is being ignored.

Knowing that the global financial outlook is grim with new economic realities emerging all over the world, and as insurance companies will testify disasters are on the rise, it is only sensible to start thinking of our own capacity to fend for ourselves as people that can be capable and efficient in preparing for bushfires and making our homes defendable, from the bottom up.

There is a flip side to our culture of dependence on help through authority and charity. It is a rather inequitable arrangement, and one that could be interpreted as people divided into two main groups: “the rescuers”, and “the victims” – an undesirable mental set with a disabling price to pay for conceding responsibility and power to authority. It is one that affects us psychologically by disempowering us and denying our capacity to have an effect on our local reality.

The reality is we can change our trajectory. The knowledge, although not disseminated by authority, is within reach. The instructions to follow in Essential Bushfire Safety tips by Joan Webster OAM are clear, often in point form, and can be followed by anyone willing to make their home defendable. Also on facebook,  Bushfire Safety Awareness. And The Complete Bushfire Safety Book which predates The Essential Bushfire Safety Tips.

David Holmgren’s Bushfire Resilient Communities and Landscapes is a thorough analysis of the issues I have touched on in this article and includes explanations and answers to the many aspects and debates that exist regarding bushfire destruction prevention in Australia.

Bill Gammage’s “The Biggest Estate on Earth” and Bruce Pascoe’s “Dark Emu”, offer insight into the nature of Australia, and how the land was managed through the use of fire up until 1788.

Finally Nicole Foss’s Blog “The Automatic Earth” offers much information and evidence into where our economy is heading and the importance therefore, of our capacity to adapt. Because the recovery process has relied on wealth, and as such there is no guarantee of it, in Foss’s own words, “The future belongs to the adaptable”.

Paula Ajuria

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