Paul Barclay, Helen Cleugh, Tom Griffiths, Bruce Pascoe, Jane Smyth, 23 May 2019
KATHERINE MCMAHON: Hello. Hello, and welcome everyone, and thanks for joining us tonight. For those of you who don't know me, my name is Katherine McMahon, I'm the assistant director of discovery and collections here at the National Museum. Our director, Mat Trinca, is an apology tonight, he would have loved to be here, and he sends his regards to you all.
I'd like to start by acknowledging the Ngunawal, Ngunnawal, and Ngambri people, who are the traditional custodians of this land, which we are meeting on, and pay respect to their elders, both past and present. Can I extend that respect to all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in attendance tonight.
Thanks for being here for this really important discussion, where we will explore how fire has shaped Australia for thousands of years, and how our relationship with it continues to evolve. There is no doubt that intense and sometimes catastrophic bushfires are increasingly common across the continent. Indeed, Australia has a unique relationship with fire. Aboriginal people have used fire as complex land management tools for tens of thousands of years. Much of the vegetation in this country has evolved to survive and thrive with frequent exposure to fire.
Across Australia, as British colonists secured control over land, the long tradition of strategic burning came to an end. While some settlers adopted Indigenous modes of burning, all colonists learned to fear the destructive force of bushfires. As an institution that records and interprets the character of life on the Australian continent, the Museum is deeply engaged with the topic of fire. Since its formation in 1980, the Museum has collected artworks, fire sticks, and many other Indigenous objects that reveal how fire is intertwined with the ancient human history of the continent.
The collection holds an array of objects that record how all Australians have experienced, sometimes in horrific ways, the powers of fire. In 2021, we will open a new permanent gallery of environmental history here at the Museum. This gallery will consider how, in a warming world, the ever increasing risk of catastrophic fire is sparking a revival of Indigenous fire practices.
So, as regulars to the Museum will know, this panel is part of our headline Defining Moments in Australian History project, something we launched in 2014, which aims to stimulate discussion about events that have shaped our national culture and identity. The current Defining Moments list includes a diverse range of fire moments, including the 2003 Canberra bushfires, and the devastating 2009 Black Saturday bushfires in Victoria.
Tonight's esteemed panel will explore some of these moments, and the issues they raise. Could I end by extending a very big and warm welcome to our friend and ABC Radio national presenter, Paul Barclay, a Walkley Award-winning journalist and broadcaster from the Big Ideas program. Paul will now introduce our panellists and kick off proceedings for the evening. Thanks Paul.
PAUL BARCLAY: Thanks Katherine, and thanks a lot for coming along this evening. Welcome to the National Museum. It's a pleasure to be here once again for the latest instalment in the Defining Moments in Australian History series. This is being recorded for my radio program, as you heard, Big Ideas. It's also available via podcast. You can tune in at ABC RN, or for the podcast, your favourite podcast app, or the ABC Listen app, and you can follow me on Twitter, @PaulBarclay.
Let me also begin by acknowledging the traditional owners of the land on which we meet today, and paying my respects to elders past, present, and emerging.
Long before, as you heard, the arrival of the first Europeans fire was shaping Australia's landscape. Burning was deliberately undertaken by Indigenous people for agricultural and land management purposes. It was employed in a controlled manner as an asset, really. But for Europeans, when they arrived, fire quickly became something to fear. For good reason I suppose, since colonisation we have regularly experienced ferocious wildfires, which have taken the lives of many Australians, as well as destroying property and devastating communities and wildlife.
And now in an age of climate change, with drier hotter conditions predicted in swathes of Australia, the threat of bushfires has intensified. How can we better manage and understand the ever present threat of fires? What can we learn from history from Indigenous Australians? In this discussion, we're going to look at the impact of fire throughout Australia's history. There'll be a brief Q&A at the end, love to hear from you, probably about 10 minutes or so. And if you've got some personal experiences to share of fire, then we'd love to hear that as well.
Let me introduce you to our speakers tonight, our fantastic panel of guests. On my immediate left is Jane Smyth, a survivor of the devastating 2003 Canberra bushfires, and since then an advocate for educating the community about what to do in a bushfire. Next to Jane is Bruce Pascoe, an Indigenous historian and author of the award-winning book, Dark Emu. Next to Bruce we have Tom Griffiths, Professor Tom Griffiths, an environmental historian who in the past has written an award-winning essay about living with fire, amongst many other books that he's written.
And at the end of the panel we have Helen Cleugh, an atmospheric scientist, and director of the CSIRO Climate Science Centre. Can you please make our speakers welcome. So, Bruce, a good place to start, I think, is by getting you to briefly explain, if you can, how Aboriginal people used fire and burning to shape country prior to the arrival of the European settlers. And picking up the microphone might not be a bad idea, too, to start.
BRUCE PASCOE: I thought we're just having a yarn. Yeah, local boy, Bill Gammage, in his great book, The Biggest Estate on Earth, is a good introduction to this discussion, because Bill argues in that book that the colonial artists got it right. They actually painted Australia the way it was and had been shaped by Aboriginal people. When I went to school, I was told that the colonial artists were just pining for England, and yet when we actually look at the history of Australia, we see that so many, the so-called explorers, so many of so-called pioneers were remarking on how Australia looked like a gentleman's park.
That there were few trees, but they were massive, and the understory was largely grasses and vegetables. That regime is very fire safe. Some of those plants that Aboriginal people grew were actually fire retardant, and in all our discussions of fire, it's always predicated on our justifiable fear of fire, but we've changed the regime. We've changed the Aboriginal fire management system to one where the country is now very fire prone. We have to manage that system. We can't turn our back on it and pretend it'll be all good if we just think about Aboriginal fire regimes.
We have to have a policy. We have to have a system, and I'm plucking the number 70 out of the air. If we're going to change to a safer Australia, a fire safe Australia, I can't see that we can do it in anything less than 70 years. It has to be taken out of the realm of government, because three year cycles aren't going to solve it. We have to dedicate ourselves, as a country, to return this country to a fire safe regime.
One of the factors that has changed is private land ownership. Aboriginal people were owned by the land, and every group worked in cooperation with their neighbouring language clan, and sometimes producing crops of vegetables that stretched to the horizon in both directions. Now that made it very, very safe, and the reason that we can't do that easily now, is because of the fence. The fence has made an incredible difference. I belong to the Country Fire Authority in Victoria, one of our greatest fears is burning down an old rickety fence that wouldn't have kept a blowfly in.
But if it gets burnt by the CFA we get fined thousands of dollars and blamed for it, and become part of the news sequence for weeks.
PAUL BARCLAY: And Bruce, when we talk about the type of burning that took place pre-European settlement, we're not talking about, just to clarify, we're not talking about Indigenous people setting wildfires as we know them today, we're talking about a technique called ‘cool fires’. Can you explain how ‘cool fires’ are set, and the impact that they have on the landscape.
BRUCE PASCOE: Well the fire regime for the area where I live, Far East Gippsland, South Coast, New South Wales. I live on a river called the Wallagaraugh, and one of the first Europeans to settle there was advised by the Aboriginal people that he should never burn until the wind turns around to the west and there are three dews in a row. It's just a formula for cooler weather. It's a formula for autumn, and so the advice was to wait until the earth has calmed down and that's when you burn, but you don't stop burning. You keep burning right through the winter.
I was up here last winter, the local Aboriginal burn crew were successful in burning country when it was raining because of the system they used. And during the terrible fires in Canberra, a lot of Aboriginal art was lost because the caves where the art had been made were full of leaves, the caves got super hot, and the art flaked off the roof. And those lads were burning, on a rainy day, burning leaves inside the cave to make sure that next time fire came it wouldn't enter that cave in quite the same way.
PAUL BARCLAY: The other thing that people might not be familiar with, is that burning also promoted the growth of food crops. It promoted the regrowth of crops the next season, so burning was not just a way of preventing wildfires, it was foundational to Indigenous agriculture in Australia, wasn't it?
BRUCE PASCOE: And we're using that system now. In Dark Emu I talk about Aboriginal food plants, Aboriginal intellectual property in those plants. Australia's getting very excited about those foods, but they all depend on fire. Murnong, if you don't burn murnong at least once every two to three years, the tuber starts to shrink. You burn it, it increases. Kangaroo grass, Panicum grass, weeping grass all depend on fire. Not hot fires. Not fires hot enough to burn the seed, but fires that creep across the country and don't scorch anything, wouldn't kill an earthworm.
My brother at Cooma, who strangely enough is called Cooma, he grows Panicum, which is one of the grains that we are hoping Australians will turn into flour and eat. It's gluten free, highly nutritious, has a positive interaction with the gut. It's a future Australian food of real substance, and he illustrated to me how that was burnt. It has a seed head, a bit like a Hills Hoist, and when it burns it skips across the top of that plant. He lit it and lay down in the fire, and the fire went across him.
It's an Australian plant, it's fire ready, fire adapted, and it burns in a completely different way to exotic grasses in Australia.
PAUL BARCLAY: So, Tom, if I can bring you into the discussion. The Indigenous fire burning techniques that we've just heard Bruce describe, are they still applicable in modern Australia? Would they still assist us with preventing some of the major wildfires that we experience in this country?
TOM GRIFFITHS: In certain regions I think they can. This is exactly the experiment that we're undertaking at the moment, in 21st-century Australia. And Bruce's work is such a fine stimulus to our thinking on this. But we have to think of Australia as a set of diverse ecological regions, with diverse Aboriginal peoples, and the fire regimes manifold. And so we have to refine and tailor our burning practices to those different regions. What applies in northern Australia doesn't apply in the South Eastern mountain forests, for example.
PAUL BARCLAY: Yeah. And when the first settlers arrived in Australia, they brought with them, didn't they, a very different attitude to fire to that of the Indigenous Australians. How would you describe their perspective on fire when they arrived in Australia, compared to that of Indigenous Australians?
TOM GRIFFITHS: Yes. Well, they arrived, and they misread the land, as Bruce has explained. They were looking at a cultural artefact, a land managed for millennia by Aboriginal peoples, but what they saw was a wilderness, a terra nullius, a place where there was no agriculture that they could discern, and for them fire was a weapon to some extent. It was, along with the plough and the axe, fire was a way in which you cleared timber. And clearing was the great aim for the settler. That's the way you showed your ownership. I mean crowned bailiffs would come around and measure improvements of the land, and that meant, ‘How much have you cleared in the last year or two? How much timber have you removed? How many buildings have you put on this former woodland?’
And so fire was an instrument of clearing, and in places like South Gippsland, the great annual climax of the settler year was on the most fatal days. They were living in the most fire prone forest in the world, and they chose the most fatal days of summer to let fire, let it loose amongst all of the fallen and ring bark timber, so that they could see the horizon and feel that they had conquered this land. They introduced many new sources of ignition, but as Bruce explained too about fences, fences and buildings, as they put them up, they began to also fear fire, and to suppress fire. It wasn't a systematic and light system of management.
PAUL BARCLAY: Is it true that at some point the European settlers sought to ban fire burning in Australia? That's something I heard, is that true?
TOM GRIFFITHS: Well, yes, but that's really what came into being throughout the 20th century, with fire suppression following some of the great fires that we'll no doubt talk about, particularly Black Friday, 1939. As people realised that wildfire was much more powerful than British settlers could understand in this country, that when a fire got loose in a eucalypt forest it was indeed a frightening thing, and so there began a culture of fire suppression.
PAUL BARCLAY: Before I bring the others in, Bruce, when the first settlers arrived, is there evidence that Aboriginal people sought to explain to them how to manage the land via burning? The mic. I think we should, actually ... I think at this point, why don't I get-
BRUCE PASCOE: I feel like I'm in your lounge room.
PAUL BARCLAY:... everybody to hold the mic in their hands, actually, is a good idea.
BRUCE PASCOE: I thought I was in your lounge room, Paul, so I ...
PAUL BARCLAY: That's fine.
BRUCE PASCOE: Look, I think the example that I gave before is an indication that Aboriginal people were trying to bring Europeans within the law of the country. They did that from the very first day at Sydney Cove. They did it in Tasmania, everywhere where Europeans arrived Aboriginal people were trying to explain the law of the country, how to care for mother earth.
The reason why Aboriginal people didn't immediately go to arms against Europeans was because the law says that when visitors arrive you explain the law to them. So people were far too democratic, perhaps, but a great example of how Europeans misread the country and ignored local advice from Aboriginal people was that in the area of Colac in Victoria, on the great basalt plains of the old volcanic area, Lloyd was one of the early entries into that country. And he explained that when he arrived there were basically three plants growing through moss. They were bulbine lily, yam daisy, or murnong, and moth orchid, or one of a series of orchids, and this is what Mitchell saw.
When Sir Thomas Mitchell rode through those plains about a decade earlier, he saw, to the horizon, a yellow field. It was yellow because all of those plants are yellow flowering, and that is what Mitchell saw. Lloyd, in his journal, wrote down that within weeks of the sheep arriving, the moss that those plants were growing through had been trodden and killed, and the dews ceased.
The Aboriginal people had created a microclimate above the roots of those vegetables that they had been farming to the horizon. In fact, they were farming it to South Australia, and the sheep changed the climate. In our discussion about fire, we need to talk about the population is possibly too large, in the entire world, but we also need to talk about sheep. They're beautiful, lovely, woolly animals, and a good lamb chop is as good as anything, but they're the wrong animal for this country. Our discussion of fire has to encompass such things.
PAUL BARCLAY: Yup. So Jane, as we'll hear later on, you were very nearly done in by fire, and I'm just wondering, after hearing Bruce talk about the central role that fire played in managing the Australian landscape for thousands and thousands of years, is it possible for you, who's someone who's felt the fear of fire, to maintain any kind of respect for fire? Or does it just for you, does fire just symbolise something incredibly fearful?
JANE SMYTH: No, It's quite possible to really enjoy and appreciate what Bruce is saying and understand it, and I'm a fan of his. I've read his wonderful book, and given it often to people as a gift. No, I mean fire can be very beautiful as well, and the place we lived in, in Chapman, on the western edge of Canberra was a large block, and we had actually saved half of that when we built our house. We'd sectioned it off, and we had bush orchids and lovely mossy rocks. Although that area must have been grazed, it was a sloping block, it wouldn't have been very suitable for sheep or cattle, and was one of the joys of the block, that we could keep this vegetation.
It used to thrill me that I used to look at the mossy rocks and think, ‘That's been there for thousands of years, and we're not moving it.’ Subsequently, the people who've bought our block and built on it have moved every rock, and it's a bit painful for us to look at that. But that's their new home and they've made their house, and they've done it their way, and they're very happy there.
No, I was saying to you in the chat, before we came in here, that once my husband and I — Rick's in the audience — were flying across Arnhem Land, we were going to Groote Eylandt, and we looked down. It was night time, and we saw lines parallel, curved lines of colour in this black landscape, and they were sort of red, and orange, and pink, and it was Aboriginal people burning off. I checked up with someone, they said, ‘No, this is the time of year they do this.’ And it was absolutely beautiful.
So, no, I think fire is a good servant and a bad master, and I think nothing is to be feared. I think it is to be understood, and I think if we all read Bruce's book, and it read it again, and start thinking like that. I mean there are a lot of other things we can say about protecting yourself from fire, and we'll have to-
PAUL BARCLAY: We'll come to that later. Yeah.
JANE SMYTH: ... if we live in a bush capital like we do. It's going to happen again. I mean, last year we had a fire down in Tuggeranong that worried people. It was addressed very differently to the 2003 bushfires, but, no, I think it's not to be feared. It's to be understood.
PAUL BARCLAY: And as you say, I mean there are many examples still today of Indigenous communities employing traditional burning techniques. Both to manage the landscape, I know in the Kimberley region they use burning as part of hunting, to hunt for goanna, which is a rather sort-after luxury in the Kimberley. And they use light burning to bring the goanna up, and to eat them, basically.
Helen, we are going to face the prospect, it would seem, of hotter summers, which makes the likelihood of fires greater. Just hearing Bruce and Tom talking about what we can learn from Indigenous burning, I know this is not an area of expertise of yours, but Bruce there talking about a kind of 70-year plan of thinking about how we manage the environment. Would that work, in terms of thinking about some of the mitigation and adaptation kind of strategies that we're thinking about as we go forward into a warmer Australia?
HELEN CLEUGH: So, as you said, I'm not the expert, but what I'd say is that, as we've heard, Australia's always had fire and there are multiple factors that cause fire. We've talked about the fuel, and the nature of the vegetation, and the role that plays. Tom talked about sources of ignition, and burning in the wrong time of the year. The kind of weather that we have is another factor that contributes to the severity of fires that we experience, and I guess that's where our science and our understanding comes in.
So the reality is, as you said Paul, is that in the future the observations are very clear that before we can go to the future, that now our climate is changing, that we are seeing more extreme fire weather. Acknowledging the point, that's not the only factor that's causing fire, and that those kind of extremes, the heat, the low humidity, the changes in rainfall patterns, will mean that in the future those extreme fire weather conditions will get worse.
Another thing that we need to understand is that the old patterns are changing, so it's really interesting to hear Bruce talk about ‘Wait for three dew falls’, and ‘When the wind turns to the west’. Those kinds of rules of thumb, they exist today amongst the firefighters, too, and some of those rules of thumb don't work anymore. So to answer your question, how will this work in the future? We've got a lot that we can learn from Indigenous knowledge, absolutely, in terms of managing some of those factors that contribute to fire.
We can't really change the global ... Well, we can change the global climate through other ways, but we can manage the fuel load and the way in which we manage that. And that's what the Indigenous knowledge, I think, can contribute. But there are other things that we can learn from our science and our technology as well. Better prediction systems, so we can give early warnings, so people ... We'll talk about Canberra later, but I know that Jane and I shared experiences about wishing we'd had more time.
Well, other weather science is better now. We can give better warnings. New kinds of building materials and constructions styles that do make it safer for people. There are many things that we can do to manage, but, as I said, just to repeat, I think learning from the wisdom of our Indigenous colleagues is something that has to be factored into our fire management into the future.
PAUL BARCLAY: So we're going to talk about some of the fires in our history, and it seems that the Canberra fires of 2003 are as good a place as any to start, given that we've got people on the panel who experienced those fires, and we're here in Canberra. Before I let you go, Helen, perhaps you can tell us about your experience of the 2003 fires. You were forced out of your home, not quite as dramatic a story as we're going to hear from Jane, but nonetheless a scary moment. Tell us what happened to you.
HELEN CLEUGH: The time of the Canberra fires, I think of it as almost like a telescope of time. They'd been burning in the Brindabellas, if people in the audience that were here then will remember, for at least a week, maybe longer. So we knew they were there, and we sort of thought, ‘Oh, yeah, they're over there. They'll be fine.’ And the night before the Canberra fires, my husband John, who's in the audience, and I went up to the top of Oakey Hill, which is just behind our house. And you could see the fires burning in the Brindabellas, and we thought, ‘They're a long way away, we'll be fine.’
Saturday morning arrived and all I can describe is that the atmosphere was oppressive. It was very smokey. Sunrise, we had a small child, he just turned three, so I got up early, as you do. The sun rose, it was a blood red. There was smoke everywhere, and it was hot. So the atmosphere was oppressive, but all the authorities were saying, ‘Everything's fine.’ So off we went to Manuka Pool, because what else do you do on a hot Saturday in Canberra with a three-year-old?
I just had the most uncomfortable feeling all day, and by about lunchtime I said to John, ‘I want to go home. This doesn't feel right.’ So we went home. Jeffrey, put him down for his afternoon nap. John said, ‘I'm just going to walk up to the top of Oakey Hill and see what I can see.’ Because the smoke, it was getting very, very dark by then, and I had been thinking, ‘Oh, I should turn the radio on and see what's going on. No, all I'll hear is cricket. I hate cricket. I'm not going to turn the radio on.’
But then I thought, ‘Well, maybe I should be sensible, so I turned the radio-’
PAUL BARCLAY: There's a lesson. Leave the ABC on the radio.
HELEN CLEUGH: Well it was the ABC that I thought they'd have grand stand with cricket. But, anyway, let's get over the cricket. To hear Louise Maher actually, old Canberrites will remember her, with the emergency siren, and it was like, I mean excuse the French, my first thought was, ‘Oh, shit. My husband's on top of Oakey Hill, what's going to happen? Hurry up, tell me. Tell me what's going to happen?’ And she said if you're in Western Creek, you're too late. I can't even remember what she said then, I just thought, Western Creek, that's just there. We're here. Okay, time to implement our plan.
John came back, we did all the things that you do. We agreed quite quickly that I would go when the time came, and he would stay. So at the appropriate time he checked out where the smoke was, he said, ‘Time to go,’ so I ran down to the car that we'd parked in the street, looked at the top of our cul de sac, the flames were already there. I had Jeffrey under my arm, I said to him, ‘I don't have time to buckle you in, just hop in the back and hold onto the seat. We're off.’ And he said, ‘Is this exciting, mum?’ And I was really pleased, because in that moment I knew he wasn't frightened, and I said, ‘Yup, this is really exciting,’ and off we went.
The plan was that I was supposed to have grabbed our two cats, much loved cats. I totally forgot the cats. And that I would go to an evacuation centre and John would join us there, but I was so freaked out by that point, that I wanted to get away as far as I could. So I drove to some dear friends over on the north side of Canberra, and dropped my son off and came back. And of course by the time I came back to get the cats it was all over. As I was driving up towards where our house is in Lyons, I could see that Oakey Hill was all black, and I thought, ‘Okay, I don't care about the house. I hated that house anyway, as long as my husband's alive, I'll be happy.’
Drove up the street, house is still standing, but a foreign person I didn't know in the driveway. I thought to myself, ‘No, that's not the right way around.’ That heart-stopping moment was that one of our dear neighbours had come to help, and he said, ‘Are you Helen?’ And I said, ‘Yes.’ I said, ‘Is my husband here somewhere?’ And he said, ‘Yeah, yeah. Yeah, he saved your house.’ So we were very lucky compared to other Canberrites, all we did was lost our backyard. So that's my story, but in the moment it was very scary.
PAUL BARCLAY: I bet, yeah.
HELEN CLEUGH: It was very scary, and I guess, just my last comment, is that as an atmospheric scientist and self-confessed weather nerd, there is a link between having lived through that and my absolute fascination for the weather and climate, and how it affects us and our landscape. So I was both an observer of that, and a participant in a scary experience, that I hope I don't have to live through again.
PAUL BARCLAY: So, Jane, you too lived through the 2003 fires. You lived on the western edge of Canberra, not far from the Mount Stromlo Observatory.
JANE SMYTH: Yes, that's right.
PAUL BARCLAY: And you lost everything.
JANE SMYTH: We did. We did.
PAUL BARCLAY: Your home, all your belongings. Can you give us an idea of what happened that day?
JANE SMYTH: Lots of parallels with what Helen said, and I have to say, Bruce, it was a hot fire, ours. There was nothing cool about the Canberra bushfires. The day began not like any other day. I was interested last night, we're talking about ABC TV and the program people probably watched, about You Can't Ask That, and so many people say these momentous days, it started like any ordinary day.
Well that one didn't, for the same reasons as Helen's described. It was intensely hot, it had been all week. The humidity was low. There were uncontrolled bushfires outside Canberra, which we'd been reassured were being attended to. But there'd been smoke during the week. I woke up one night a few days before and smelt smoke in the house, and thought this is much too close, but then it seemed to disappear for the next two days.
But, anyway, on the day of the bushfires I was at home, and Rick, who was a dentist, was working and helping a patient in his surgery at Curtin, and so I always think he was in pale blue air-conditioned comfort while this awful, awful day was unfolding. I wasn't worried, but I was anxious. Nervous, a bit the way Helen might have been, and I stood on our front deck, which faced north, and I looked out at this dry block of land and all this dry grass. We're right in the middle of drought, a long drought. It just really looked terrible.
It was eerily quiet, weirdly, weirdly quiet. People said to me later that their pets seemed to know that the day wasn't right, and that cats, people think ... And the audience here probably remember, cats and dogs hung around and didn't follow their usual patterns of behaviour. I remember looking out and thinking, ‘This is January the 18th, and we're not going to be able to go on summer holidays at this time of the year. We're into climate change now, this is all horrible, and today I can't go to the markets as I usually ... I'm going to have to stay home, it's just not safe.’
JANE SMYTH: Now, the background to this was that a year before, there had been a fire out in that area, that had moved into Canberra, much, much smaller than the 2003 one, but it had actually reached the Mint. And I remember seeing a mark on the wall of the Mint, and thinking if fires can get in that far, this is quite serious. So Rick and I decided that we would have a neighbourhood training session. I think it was a bit of an excuse for me to have a Christmas party, because I quite liked getting the neighbours together.
We had a lovely group of neighbours, so bought a couple of Lions fruitcakes and invited the neighbours in one Saturday afternoon, and we invited members of the Rural Fire Service. And they came and told us what to do in the event of fire, and this ... Look, really, I think Rick and I owe our life to this session, because one of the things they told us was what to wear. And as everybody now knows, because we're all wise now, you wear leather boots, and you wear cotton or woollen trousers, and you try and have something with a collar, like a cotton skivvy, and you've got to have googles or glasses, and gloves, and a hat.
And this is how, if you're going to have to put out even spot fires or embers, you've got to be properly dressed. As the day wore on and I had nothing to do but listen to the radio ... I don't remember the cricket, I must have repressed that. I'm not a cricket fan either, that's two of us. I did listen. I had a transistor radio, and I carried it with me everywhere I went. I listened to every ABC News all that day, and it wasn't till afternoon that a warning came through that Chapman and Duffy residents should return to their homes. Well, I was already at home, and that point I rang Rick and said, ‘Quick, come home, we're in danger.’
But we were clearly in danger. The wind had picked up, the day was hotter. I thought the whole place would snap-
PAUL BARCLAY: You could see the fires coming?
JANE SMYTH: No. No, never saw the fires coming till they were on us, that was just the way we located. And down below us was a huge horse paddock, and everyone said, and I included, ‘What a wonderful fire break that will be.’ You know, ‘If ever there's a fire in the pine forest, we've got this wonderful fire break.’ Well what a nonsense that was, a firestorm just rolls across country, there would have been hardly a blade of grass on it. Anyway, Rick came home from the surgery, and we both dressed, and ready to cope with the fire if we had to.
Not that we had decided to stay, we had been told that the police would tell us when to go, that we would be told, and that it was important to stay there until you were told, and there would be an orderly evacuation. Which made perfectly good sense, but in the meantime you do all these things with hoses and buckets and whatnot, and so we were ready to do all that. And the first embers came through, and Rick and I dealt with those with garden hoses. We checked all our garden hoses, we had them on taps. We had enough hoses. We had metal buckets, and I'd tossed all of the veranda furniture, heaved it off the deck with muscles I didn't know I had, into the bush.
Done all the right things, and Rick came home. We checked gutters, and there was a dog to be thought of. We were doing all that, and we were actually doing quite well. The first embers come through, I now know that they come through ... How far in front a fire front, Bruce?
BRUCE PASCOE: Can be a kilometre.
JANE SMYTH: Yeah. So, I didn't know all this then. We're very wise about fire now. The first embers came through and started lighting up vegetation and dead leaves, and Rick and I coped with that really well, I have to say. Didn't we, Rick? We were brave, and bold, and fearless, and we were coping beautifully. I think at one stage I even said to Rick, ‘Look, I think we can manage this. I think this is going to be all right.’ While we were doing that, suddenly the sound of a jetliner, absolute roar, and the fire front came through.
PAUL BARCLAY: Totally unexpectedly at that point, for you?
JANE SMYTH: Well, very, very quickly.
PAUL BARCLAY: Yeah.
JANE SMYTH: We could see the horse paddocks down below, and it was getting very dark. We could see cars moving around, and Rick said to me, ‘There's something terrible happening down there.’ And it was people coming to try and get their horses out, and many of them didn't, a lot of animals died. But, yeah, so we were bravely using our hoses, and this huge roar, and a big hedge of conifers between us and our neighbours just went up like a haystack. I did see that happen, it just went voom, and these flames went high, and then the wind just blew it over our place, so we were showered with fire.
At that point we knew, well, we had learnt, that you shelter inside a house while the fire front passes. The police weren't coming to get us, no one was coming to get us. We had to do what we were trained to do, so we raced in, closed the doors. We were told you unhook your hoses, and you take them into the house with you when the fire front passes. It's all very easy, isn't it? The fire front passes, you pick up your hoses, you trot outside again, and you attach them, and you go on fighting. Did you know all this, Bruce? Fantastic stuff.
Well it didn't work like that, because we had to move so fast to get out of the fire that we had to leave the hoses, and of course they burned. So we were inside, and all morning in my nervousness, I had cleaned the house. I'm not a great housekeeper, but I did. It looked beautiful.
PAUL BARCLAY: I'm amazed that you're still actually in the house at this point, that you're not in the car getting out of the house, and-
JANE SMYTH: Well, it was too late. The fire was around us. So we stood in a lounge room, and outside all the windows was this sheet of flame. We were just surrounded by fire. We stood there really calmly, and I said to Rick, ‘How long does it take for this fire front to pass?’ And neither of us could remember. And it's two to ten minutes, Bruce?
BRUCE PASCOE: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
JANE SMYTH: Two to ten minutes. Well it seemed like longer than that, but the fire wasn't getting any better, and it was burning the deck, and the timber windows were alight. So much for good housekeeping, and all the cleaning I'd wasted my time doing. Then the glass in the windows started to crack, and we watched runs coming in the glass windows, and I just felt that any minute they were going to fall in, and the fire would come in after. Rick said ‘We've got to get out’, so we raced, and, you know, ‘You grab the dog.’ And, ‘Where will we go?’ We tried one door and that was no good, we'd be running through fire. We tried another, and that was sort of raining fire, and then we remembered, you run to where the fire has been, because that's already been burned.
So we managed to get out. We had a few problems with that, we both got lost. We lost each other leaving it, and I was swearing like a trooper through all this. I don't know where I learned all this language, but, whoa, it was really there. And talk about beauty, because outside the door by which we left, we had a path through this native garden, and where the bushes were alight, they were like fairy lights. And the path was just black, so we could just follow this black path through. Very, very dark at this stage. The sun was like a blood moon in the sky, and it's dark, and it's noisy, and confusing.
Rick and I lost each other. So I went up the back and waited, no Rick, no dog. I thought, ‘He's fallen getting out of the house.’ And I thought of all the brave people in Bali, and I thought, ‘I've got to go in and get him out. He's fallen. It's the smoke, or something.’ And as I was sort of taking a deep breath to go back in and see if I could find what had happened, I saw a figure coming up through the smoke. Rick said, ‘Where the bloody hell have you been?’ I said, ‘Well, where the bloody hell have you been?’ Started having an argument in the middle of the fire.
Anyway, we were together. The dog was there. We got up the back, and it had been burnt earlier in the evening, I think. From memory, we lay down on the ground, and just put our faces down. But we were still dressed for fire, so we're still properly protected, and I've lost sense of the timing of all that. But after a while Rick said, ‘I think it's quietened down a bit. I think we can sit up.’ So we sat up and we watched the neighbourhood burn. We had front row seats.
PAUL BARCLAY: And watched your own house burn.
JANE SMYTH: We watched our own house, and the pain of that was our house burnt slowly. Oh, it burnt very slowly. And the other neighbours houses hadn't burned, and we're saying, ‘Oh, that's good, the so-and-sos are all right. They're all right.’ And then you'd see this telltale smoke coming out from the gutters, and then the roof, you could see inside the roof it was alight, and then the roof would collapse. And then you'd see the flames in the house in that one, and so there was hardly any ... In our particular part of Chapman was pretty bad.
But while we sat there ... And I'll wind up in a minute, you don't want me to go on. How long have I been going on? I do get a bit like this. While we were sitting there a neighbour appeared through the smoke with smoked salmon sandwiches and long cool lime drinks. So we-
PAUL BARCLAY: Incredible.
JANE SMYTH: We sat up there covered in soot, you know, and-
PAUL BARCLAY: Indulging in smoked salmon.
JANE SMYTH: ... indulging, and we said, ‘Ooh, this is not bad, is it?’ You know. We must have been there for a couple of hours while the fire roared on, and then it died down. We did start talking about ... You know, Rick said, ‘What will we do? Do you feel like rebuilding?’ We knew we'd lost everything.
PAUL BARCLAY: Yeah.
JANE SMYTH: And I said, ‘Oh, yeah.’ Yeah, I thought we'd rebuild. Must have been on adrenalin or something. Where was I going to get this energy from? But, anyway, we had a little bit of discussion, and I said, ‘Well, we've lost everything really, haven't we?’ And Rick said, ‘Well, it's all stuff. There'll be more stuff.’ And I thought, ‘Yeah, it's stuff. We're all right, and the dog's all right.’
PAUL BARCLAY: That's right.
JANE SMYTH: And we'd got out of this inferno, and for some reason we were okay. The fire had moved on and it had quietened down, and Rick had his car keys in his pocket, and he said, ‘I'm going to go down and see if the car will start,’ and it did. And so we got ourselves ... Anyway, we got out.
PAUL BARCLAY: What interests me about the story that Jane's just told-
JANE SMYTH: Did I talk too much, Paul?
PAUL BARCLAY: No, that's fine. Is that-
JANE SMYTH: You said you'd stop me.
PAUL BARCLAY:... Jane was prepared, the community had a briefing, but all the preparation in the world was of no use when the Canberra fires came along. It would seem no one was prepared for the type of fire that hit Canberra in 2003. Should they have been prepared, or is this the nature of the type of fire that we're seeing through parts of Australia at the moment, that it's not possible, perhaps, to be fully prepared?
JANE SMYTH: I'm going to jump in before the scientists, because they know much more about fire than I do. But I think, yes, we do need to be better prepared. And I was really shocked later, after the fires, to find that, well, the press would ring and say ... media, ‘You were prepared for the fires? Did you know they were coming?’ Well of course I didn't know, but we're in drought. We lived on the edge of Canberra. I knew a little bit about bushfires, we all did, and why wouldn't it happen? And, also, visitors were saying something to us, we had a very modest collection of Australian art, and we had a visitor who said, ‘Oh, gee, I hope no bushfire rolls up that valley. You know, you're going to lose your art.’
And I thought, ‘Hoh-hoh’. And people would talk, visitors would say, ‘You've got a lot of leaf litter on the ground,’ and we'd look at them and think, ‘Well, how do we get rid of it all?’ People were aware, but there was-
PAUL BARCLAY: I suppose my point is, you're aware, you're trained, you're prepared, but the fire comes anyway.
JANE SMYTH: Yeah.
PAUL BARCLAY: And I suppose my question, Tom, really is, is there something about the nature of the type of fires that we're seeing today that means that even preparation, in a sense, although it's required, and I can see what [inaudible] is saying. It's not enough, perhaps.
TOM GRIFFITHS: Well, certainly fires are becoming more intense and threatening, but I think we should go back to thinking ecologically, which is where we began with Bruce's work. An example of the diversity of fire ecologies in Australia would be to compare that riveting story from Jane to what happens in the capital of firestorm country further south, which is the Melbourne hinterland, where the mountain ash trees with a northerly wind behind them will throw embers 40 km ahead of the fire front, and where houses will be consumed in seconds. In an instant.
TOM GRIFFITHS: And where, also, fire front might dwell and harass you for more than an hour. So every region has to have a very specific survival plan, and one of the dangers that we, with our bureaucracies, state and national bureaucracies, is we fall into the habit of trying to define national policies or statewide policies. We need to remember that marvellous map of Aboriginal language groups around Australia. That tells us the variety of ecologies that existed and still exist in Australia.
We need to have that kind of bi-regional specificity in the way we learn about fire. Local history is your best survival guide.
PAUL BARCLAY: You've actually questioned the whole ‘Stay or Go’ policy that applies to people living in bushfire prone areas. This is the idea that stay, meaning you commit to stay, and go means you leave early. You don't leave later, when you realise you're in trouble. What's wrong with ‘Stay or Go’? Why did it become such an orthodoxy? Yeah, what's the flaw in that thinking?
TOM GRIFFITHS: Yes, well many people have questioned that now, and as did the 2009 Royal Commission. So that policy developed, began to become a national policy in the late 20th century. It came about for good and understandable reasons, one of the prompts was the Ash Wednesday 1983 fire, where 17 firefighters died whilst on the road whilst trying to save people and their homes. People, afterwards, felt, ‘We can't send firefighters heroically into the face of these kinds of fires. We have to work with people in their own homes to better prepare.’
And so ‘Stay or Go’ was a reasonable policy in many areas, but Black Saturday burnt that policy to smithereens, because 173 people died. Two-thirds of them died in their own homes. They died where they were told they would be safest. People were sent back by police to their homes in some areas, and died there. The reason this happened was that it was felt that late evacuation was the most dangerous thing that you could possibly do.
And indeed it is very dangerous, but historically it's not as dangerous in the firestorm country. And I'm not saying this applies everywhere, but in the South Eastern mountain forests, particularly in Victoria and South Australia, in those places you cannot defend an ordinary home against an extraordinary atomic force. That's what we learnt from Black Saturday, and the policy has been changed since then, and one of the great ways that it's changed is that, I think, people now realise that leaving early is a responsible thing to do, not just for themselves, but for the community.
Because the CFA doesn't really want you hanging around there, you're much safer out of the country, out of the region on those firestorm days. And we know what those days are, don't we? We know now, and indeed Black Saturday was extremely well predicted. The state premier made announcements in the days before the fire. We can tell the difference between an ordinary bushfire and a fatal firestorm.
PAUL BARCLAY: Yeah. This is a history discussion, as well as a discussion about what's happened in more contemporary times, and we have experienced some tremendous bushfires throughout our post-colonial history. Let me just mention some of them. The Black Thursday bushfires in Victoria in 1851. The Red Tuesday Gippsland fires of 1898. Gippsland and Black Sunday fires in Victoria in 1926. Black Friday fires in Victoria in 1939. Black Tuesday fires in Tasmania in 1967, which actually occurred shortly before I went to live in Tasmania as a kid, actually, and I can remember the burnt landscape when I arrived. And the fires that we've already mentioned, Ash Wednesday in '83, 2003 fires in Canberra, and Black Saturday in 2009.
I mean we're talking about big fires, lots of deaths, devastating impact on property and indeed on wildlife. There was one fire though that I just wanted to get you to talk about briefly, Tom, because I know that you've written about it, and you think it's a significant fire. This is the Black Friday fires in 1939. They occurred 70 years before the 2009 fires. Both fires actually resulted in a royal commission. Tell us about what was so significant about the 1939 fires and the aftermath.
TOM GRIFFITHS: Yes. Those dates that you mentioned, bush dwellers in Victoria know those dates, and they remember them. They're seared into their memory and the memory of their communities. 1939 came at the end of a series of regular fires that were sweeping through that country. 1919, 1926, 1932, 1939 came at the end of an intensive period of sawmilling in mountain ash country, north and east of Melbourne. There were many isolated sawmill settlements, so isolated, that many people didn't get out to the local towns, except at Christmas or Easter.
So people were sort of trapped in the middle of a forest, in the middle of forests which have evolved to burn themselves down every few hundred years, to have a sort of mass suicide in order to reproduce those forests. That's what mountain ash has evolved to do. So it's an incredibly dangerous place to live and work at the heart of, and it was expected that sawmillers would provide dugouts in the ground where people might survive such a fire, but many of them didn't, or the dugouts were inadequate.
Because of the intensive sawmilling, there was also a lot of debris in the forests, and '39 happened, typically, at the end of a long period of drought, where rainfall had been low, humidity was low, and the bush was tinder dry. People knew that something was going to happen, and when it did it was cataclysmic, and 71 people died across Victoria, and there were millions of hectares that were ... 1.4 million hectares of land were burnt, and much property destroyed. But it was really a wake-up call to Australians about the capacity of the bush to kill them, and that they needed to learn how to live with fire.
The Royal Commission, a commissioner was Judge Leonard Stretton, a very sort of fierce and honest judge, who was also a great writer. And his royal commission became prescribed reading in matriculation English, and it is fine powerful prose, and it was to the effect that this has to be a turning point in Australian history. It has to be a defining moment, where we learn about the bush in which we dwell.
PAUL BARCLAY: Bruce, you work as a volunteer for the local CFA. I'm just wondering, and feel free to pick up on any of the points that have come before, too, but I was just wondering is the CFA picking up on some of the Indigenous knowledge around fire management? Are you encouraging them that they should learn from some of that Indigenous knowledge?
BRUCE PASCOE: Well, the CFA is changing, but so are glaciers. It's slow, but it's honest, and people know they have to change. During the 2009 fires in Victoria I was on a firetruck in South Gippsland and it was a really awful night. We were safe, we had our smoked salmon sandwiches in the truck, and cool drinks. But we were driving through country that had been burnt, and people would walk out onto their verandas, see us going past, and they would just stare at us like spectres.
That whole community was in shock and it was just an awful experience. We need to know from the science, that the fire regime prior to European occupation was vastly different and much, much safer, and people were also able to predict what was going to happen. That awful calm, that awful temperature, that awful dryness was a signal to be gone. So people weren't there, they were elsewhere. And many of those people in the Western District had houses made out of stone, they would lose their roof, but they wouldn't necessarily lose the house.
You can just see from Mitchell's description, if you just concentrate on Mitchell talking about Australia Felix. Mitchell was a great writer and great painter. He was a poet. He fought the last duel in Australia. He was an interesting man, but he's intellect was slightly stunted, because as he came down through Western Victoria in that beautiful landscape, he said, after describing in his beautiful prose, he said, ‘It's as if God has laid this out just for my arrival.’
He was wrong. Aboriginal people had prepared that landscape for him, but his description of it is of a country that couldn't burn, because there were few trees. There were vast areas of low green vegetable matter, and it was a vastly different-
PAUL BARCLAY: A far cry from today.
BRUCE PASCOE: Yeah. Look, we've got fences, we've got buildings, we've got capitalism, and all of these things are inhibitors. One of the greatest inhibitions to the CFA or the RFS is insurance, and what we get blamed for if something goes wrong. But we have to change the way we grow in this country, and my greatest fear is when we remove all the big trees and then allow a scrub to grow up. The foresters are most to blame here, because they want lots of tall straight trees, and they'll cut them down 40 years later. But that 40 years, it's incredibly fire prone, and they leave the bush in such a way that it's almost impossible to go through, because of so many fallen heads. It's a disaster.
PAUL BARCLAY: Helen, we're entering a new phase now, obviously, a phase of warming of the environment. You're the scientist on the panel on this topic, how much can we say that climate change is contributing to the severity of Australia's fire seasons, and can we say that our fire seasons are likely to get worse in the years to come?
HELEN CLEUGH: Such a responsibility being the scientist on the panel. The first place we start, Paul, is we look at our data, and can I give a shout-out to our wonderful Bureau of Meteorology who do a fantastic job of monitoring our weather and climate. If we look at what we've got now, we can see, yes, Australia's always had fire, but we can see that in the data there is a clear trend, particularly in the southern half of Australia, where the fire weather conditions are getting more extreme. That's contributed by temperature, low humidity, and we've also seen a long-term decline in what we call the cool season rainfall. That's the season between April and October in the southern part of the continent, especially in south-west western Australia, and especially in south-eastern Australia.
And so the patterns that we're seeing in fire weather, extreme fire weather, those trends mimic what we're seeing in the trends, and temperature, and humidity, and rainfall. We know that those trends and temperature are due to global climate change, anthropogenic climate change, so we know that the changes in fire weather that we're seeing are at least partially attributable to climate change.
As I said, there are other factors as well, but we do know that they partially attribute also. Now we say, ‘Okay, we understand that, what about the future?’ That's the big question of course. We actually don't have to live through the experience of fires, to think about what the future might look like. That's one of the telling things, listening today, is that there were these almost pivotal points, '39. We were talking earlier that the Canberra bushfires probably meant that there was lessons learnt for Black Saturday.
And Black Saturday has probably taught us about ... Now we actually have science that can help us get ahead of the game, so we don't have to live through those to learn. So we have models that we can use to say, ‘Well, what's the climate look like in the future under different levels of greenhouse gas emissions?’ And they're quite clear, that depending on whether we're on a high emissions pathway or a medium emissions pathway, that the warming and the drying trend in the southern part of Australia will continue in the future, and therefore these extreme fire weather trends that we're already seeing will continue.
And apart from the likely severity of the fire weather, there's also the fire season length.
PAUL BARCLAY: Getting longer, yeah.
HELEN CLEUGH: Which is getting longer, and it's actually coming earlier, and that poses challenges for managing fire as well, because our typical way of managing a fire hazard is burnoffs, to reduce the fuel load. And the period that we normally do that is in the cooler autumn to winter, and that window of doing those burnoffs is narrowing, because as soon as you get into the winter periods, then you have risks around air quality. We saw that in Sydney this week, where their burnoffs had to be cancelled because of the risk to air quality and health in Sydney.
Anyway, sorry, I guess what I'm trying to say is that it's not just the fire weather that's changing in nature, but the fire season, and therefore that has ongoing implications for our ability to manage.
PAUL BARCLAY: So you have Southern Australia, southeast and southwest Australia becoming dryer in the months from April to October. Curiously the North of Australia is getting wetter because of climate change. I live in Queensland. You would think that means it's less at risk of fires, because it's wetter, but then again in Queensland we had these fires in the tropics in 2018. Is that an anomaly, or are we seeing another change in our bushfire patterns?
HELEN CLEUGH: Just a couple of comments, you're right in that the rainfall in the north of Australia, and their wet season, is increasing. But that's not been attributed to climate change. The science is not clear as to what the cause of that long-term trend is. Just to be clear on that one.
PAUL BARCLAY: Okay.
HELEN CLEUGH: But to go to the fires in Queensland last year, I think what those fires ... I think they are anomalous. I'm not the expert, but I think what they show, is because those fires occurred in a time we had extreme heatwaves, we know we're in a drought, and so those factors combined to elevate the risk. So I look at those fires as an exemplar of some of the risk in the years to come. We should learn from that, about managing risk into the future. But remember, the part of northern Australia that Jane was talking about, when you flew overhead, vast areas of the northern part of Australia have regular burning seasons.
So it's different ecology, and I think Tom mentioned that earlier, and we need to understand that as well. I think, just to go back to your point, I think the example from Queensland is showing what happens when you have extreme heat and drought, then we are vulnerable.
PAUL BARCLAY: So that means that we're going to have to learn to adapt to warmer summers, and an increased likelihood of fire. That's going to mean that information from the weather authorities is going to become more and more important, right, both short-term information about what's happening next week and in the days to come, but also longer term information about seasons, that we're entering a El Niño period and so forth.
HELEN CLEUGH: That's where science can help, because our ability to do that is improving on the, what's going to happen tomorrow timescale, what's the weather going to be like? Our models, our weather models are getting better and better, and we have other tools that can help. Satellites, eyes in the sky that can better map what the fuel load looks like. What the moisture condition looked like. Radars that can tell us about the atmospheric conditions that can lead to atmospheric processes that make fires even worse.
So we've got a lot of tools at our fingertips that can help us better predict what's going to happen on that shorter timescale, like tomorrow and next week. And then our seasonal outlooks, now that's pretty hard, but our science is advancing as well, to say, ‘Well what does next season look like?’ And there we hope that we can work with the fire management authorities and the communities, to prepare people for that change in risk.
So there's that dimension of adapting, but there's also the other, which I mentioned earlier, about our building materials, and the way we design suburbs. I mean, Canberra's an example, no one expected that that fire would come so far into Canberra, but we've learnt that some of the factors that contributed to that were because of the way our suburbs are designed, so science can help.
PAUL BARCLAY: Yeah, and the gap between the edge of suburbia, if you like, and rural areas, that gap's getting narrower and narrower. Population is growing, so there's a whole lot of other factors, other than just climate change, aren't there?
HELEN CLEUGH: Yes. Yes, absolutely.
PAUL BARCLAY: That places more of us at risk.
HELEN CLEUGH: It's very important, that I'm talking just about the fire weather component, there are many other factors that contribute to risk, absolutely.
PAUL BARCLAY: And, Tom, how much did we learn at the end of the day from those dreadful Black Saturday fires? Was that a turning point in our knowledge, and our understanding of just how ferocious fires could be, and how we should respond?
TOM GRIFFITHS: We're yet to find out. I think we'll know that when the next big fire comes, just how much we did learn on 2009. But I can see, I think the Royal Commission did a very dedicated job, a lot of issues were discussed, and I think it is a turning point, especially in the way Victorians are going to prepare for the firestorm that is sure to come again. And, as I said, the most important change, I think, is to survival strategies, and it is to overcoming that feeling which existed earlier, that you could either fight or flee. That somehow leaving early was cowardly, it was betraying your neighbours.
I hope that attitude is gone, and there's now a lot of discussion, I think, amongst neighbours, ‘Well, we're all going to clear out on such a day. We know when those days are coming, and it's responsible to do so.’
PAUL BARCLAY: And Jane you think, actually, that people need to take greater personal responsibility in preparing for the risk of fires, don't you?
JANE SMYTH: Yes, I do, because of our own experience, reinforce that. But I am with Tom about this, people say, ‘What would you do next time?’ And I say, ‘I'd grab my passport, and my drivers licence, and I'd go.’ Because what you really need after a fire is ID, especially after a disaster. ‘Well, who are you? Tell me who you are?’ And you can't get anything done until you can establish your identity, so that's really ... Remember that, everybody, take your ID. Hope you never have to.
It's really, really interesting listening to this discussion, and reassuring too, about what we've learnt, but I keep thinking when I hear it, and I was saying to Helen before, but in the end we've got to get that information into the fire service people, and the people in charge of the fire services. Because the big flaw in Canberra, was the lack of warning. I mean you heard the warning signal, I think you said, Helen, but I didn't hear it. I was out already. We were in emergency. The emergency was upon us before there was an emergency warning signal, which probably with hindsight should have been 24 or 36 hours before, and people should have been deciding.
In discussions after the fire, I said and tried to be as polite as I could about it to some of the [firees] and the police, that next time we might not do as we were told, because people who did as they were told were putting themselves in a lot of danger. ‘Chapman and Duffy residents, return to your home,’ and people were driving into the fire. And people were told not to go to their homes, or the police would block a street and someone had run down the side and hopped down the lane and go and get the dog. You know, Australians are a bit irreverent about that sometimes, so I think people do have to ...
I'm not saying don't listen, I'm saying listen, but were doing the right thing. We were waiting to be ... We're very law abiding, Rick and I, we were waiting to do as we were told, and we're just jolly lucky. We were very, very lucky to get out of that, and so, yes, take some initiative.
PAUL BARCLAY: You do wonder how much people learn. I'll take some questions from the audience in just a moment, but Tom you live in Macedon, which was raised during the bushfires, the Ash Wednesday bushfires, I recall. Is that a community that you get the sense really learnt something from that disaster?
TOM GRIFFITHS: Oh, absolutely, yes. All our conversations with our new neighbours are about fire, and I think people are very responsible, and also highly conscious of the history. Those conversation begin with 1983, the fire that rewrote that landscape, and so I hope that those sort of conversations are happening in all communities across Australia. As a historian, I think there's a huge challenge, there's a lot of work to be done in terms of harnessing local knowledge about fire history, and understanding about local ecology too. They go together.
A forest is not just any forest, it will have a distinctive ecology and a distinctive fire history. And so in understanding, too, about long Aboriginal practice, we're also trying to really dig down into those local fire histories that will ultimately be, as I said, the best survival guide.
PAUL BARCLAY: Yes, I commend actually, Tom's written some great stuff, actually, on the history of fires and drilled down into local community, so if you google it, quite a bit of Tom's writing is available online, and well worth a read. I am going to take some questions from the audience. I've run over time as I'm want to do unfortunately, and I've got a sense that there's a few people in the audience here who have some personal experience about some of the stories we've heard tonight. So we'll take five or ten minutes worth of questions from you.
There's a woman down the front and-
... we'll start with the gentleman just there.
RICK SMYTH: Rick Smyth. I'd like to preface my question by acknowledging the importance of the ABC.
PAUL BARCLAY: Thanks Rick.
RICK SMYTH: Not only in tonight's panel discussion, but on the day of the 18th of January, 2003. My question is to Bruce Pascoe, Bruce do you think that it would facilitate the acceptance of Aboriginal knowledge if our government acknowledged the Uluru Statement?
BRUCE PASCOE: I think it would help the government if they acknowledge the Uluru Statement. Malcolm Turnbull, one of the mildest of men, decided that it was too ambitious. And if you read the Uluru Statement, and I urge you to, a couple of clicks on your mouse, and you'll be there, and it is the most modest statement of intent you'll ever find. It barely asks for anything. It asks for a conversation. It is not a threat to Australia. It is not a fourth chamber or whatever Turnbull thought it was going to be. It's just a very graceful plea for understanding.
I think Australia would benefit enormously, commercially, in terms of fire safety, in terms of intellectual growth, if it acknowledged a true history of Australia. I think our intelligences are limited when we fabricate a history, because we can't refer to the past in any meaningful way, and so we can't learn from the past. If we accept that Aboriginal people had a sophisticated economy and culture, then that's a great starting point for a conversation.
If we insist that Aboriginal people were nomads who had no agency in the landscape, then we are getting ourselves in a situation where we can't access that knowledge. It's not that Aboriginal people are wise and beautiful, look at me. No. That's not the way to relate to Aboriginal people, you know, ‘You're such a wise and beautiful unspoiled culture,’ or nonsense like that. We're humans. We have good days, we have bad days, but we also had 120,000 years of knowledge in this country. This is a law that would not go to war for land, and that is a message to the world that is way beyond fire regimes.
It's about the human spirit, and how we conduct ourselves as people. So, yes, I think it would be enormously useful if the government, this government, adopted the Uluru Statement, because nothing can be lost, and it will not cost us a penny.
QUESTION: Hi, I'm wondering if there's a role for bunkers in fire prone areas? And also do we have enough firetrucks?
PAUL BARCLAY: I think that you might have written something on bunkers actually, Tom, is that right?
TOM GRIFFITHS: That's right. I welcome the question, and yes, there certainly is a role for bunkers in the firestorm country that I'm talking about. And it's interesting that in the period leading up to 1939 there were these dugouts, there were bunkers. It was a kind of cultural adaptation to the fire history and fire ecology of that region. And we've forgotten, I mean if there hadn't been bunkers or dugouts in 1939, the death toll in that fire would have been as great as in 2009. Because something like a hundred people's lives were saved by going underground, whether it was mining adits, or bunkers, or just holes in the ground, or down to creeks, or whatever.
And in some cases well-built and supplied dugouts. So, yes, I think it would be good to see more encouragement from government for building community refuges of that kind, and for advice for local land owners who want to have a safe final place of refuge if they do choose to stay on their own properties. It's sad that we forget these lessons from our own local histories.
QUESTION: And the firetrucks?
TOM GRIFFITHS: I don't ... Look, CFA, what do you think?
BRUCE PASCOE: Well, we always need more equipment, but one of the most useful firefighting tools is a rake hoe, and you have to be young and fit to use one. But it's a modest little tool, but incredibly affective in fire control. Not during catastrophic fire-
PAUL BARCLAY: What is a rake hoe?
BRUCE PASCOE: It's a bladed fire weapon. It has a chisel end, and it has a fork end, so you can use it to strip burning bark of a tree, and I've seen it save trees countless times. Particularly stringy bark, take the burning bark off, because if you don't, that will candle right up to the top of the tree and that's how a lot of crown fires begin, by climbing up stringy bark or ribbon gums, or things like that.
Look, we need equipment, but we also need the silos of knowledge within emergency departments to just talk to each other, because there's been division between various firefighting departments, and it has to stop, because if we're competing with each other and hiding knowledge from each other, then it's just a stupid way to behave. All of the emergency services. And in my home state of Victoria, you can see that beginning to come together, where there's a person in charge of fire services in general, but a lot more has to be done.
We have to stop complaining about national parks. National parks are things we need, and we need to defend them properly. The national parks firefighting service in Victoria is clearly the best trained firefighting service I know, and we need to learn from that as well. And so the CFA, as a firefighting unit, needs to come closer together to the national park firefighting service. Our whole community needs to cooperate, and not have these silos of knowledge that never talk to each other.
PAUL BARCLAY: I think we can take a couple more anyway. Okay. We'll take the question up there, and then we'll take the question from the woman in the front.
QUESTION: Hi. Kim Holburn. I volunteer for the RFS, and I've noticed lately that when we do a hazard reduction burn, it might only be a few hectares, it takes two years of paperwork, nearly a ream of paperwork to actually be able to do a hazard reduction burn. So, yup.
PAUL BARCLAY: Will we take that as a comment do you think, Bruce, or?
BRUCE PASCOE: Yeah. I think we need to refine all of that. I know exactly the same experience, I was saying before, when we were talking, that in my area we had nominated the areas that we were going to burn with cool burns. And we haven't done half that amount, simply because the fire season is getting longer, and our window of opportunity to do those cool burns is getting shorter. Our community still isn't really fire conscious. They're very smoke conscious, they're not terribly fire conscious, so that's the public education.
Jane mentioned that before, public education, we need to change our attitude to fire. We need to change our attitude to the conditions that produce fire and what we can change. The same as climate change, climate change has been happening throughout the life of the planet, but humans are contributing to that, and that the only thing that we can change is what we contribute to, so we can do things to ameliorate the conditions.
TOM GRIFFITHS: It might help to empower local community more with those decisions, I think, which are very bureaucratic and time consuming. But to allow local community to take responsibility for their own region. Get to know it and to help manage it.
QUESTION: Thanks for the talk, it's been great. I just wanted to firstly start to say there's a few of the RFS volunteers in the crowd, including one guy that was here in '03. I'm just curious to know, so there was a bit of research into some of the New South Wales fires a few years ago. I can't remember exactly off the top of my head, but a few of which, I definitely agree, Tom, with your comment, we're trying to ... So I'm also a community education officer at my brigade, and we are trying to get there, in teaching people to leave early and that's a responsible thing.
But one of the outcomes of this research, was that in ... So we're not so bad in ACT, but in New South Wales the people's livelihoods are properties and their homes, and that the houses are insured, but their fences, and tractors, and stuff aren't, and, yes, I know it goes some way, Bruce, you were saying about the fences. But my question, I guess, is how do we teach people about leaving early when their livelihoods ... a lot of them prefer to die on their property than leave early, and because they knew the areas, the police blocked the roads, but they could just divert around, like you were saying Jane, and go back again. So, yes, just what you think, Tom, of that? And Bruce?
TOM GRIFFITHS: Well it's a very difficult challenge, and in some areas on certain days you can safely stay and defend. This the difficult thing. It's not clear. So I have to keep emphasising that the advice that I am giving about the importance of leaving early applies to a particular kind of region. It applies to a region which has all of those dates that Paul mention, you know, 1851, 1898, 1906, 1919, 1926, 1932, 1939, 1983, 2009. They are all in the firestorm country. There's no doubt in that region what you should do on those days.
In the areas you're talking about, it might be different kinds of advice, and that's where I think the public education really needs to involve people in learning about their region. ‘What are the kinds of days when you must leave?’ And if people are involved, perhaps, in researching that very question, they might be more inclined to follow the advice.
BRUCE PASCOE: And I think the research is a really important part of it. The Tathra fires that took homes just recently, the fire that caused that had been burning for a number of weeks. People were well aware of it. It's not about putting out that fire, it's containing that fire. But the science of firefighting needs a change as well, because we use Class A foam in Victoria, and it's not a good thing to have in your waterways. So when we dump it from the air on a fire, say like that Tathra fire, we're spreading it indiscriminately through the waterways, killing a lot of animals. We need a better firefighting tool, so we need research, we need the government to back it, but we need to love the earth more.
We don't want cowboys in charge of spreading chemicals around the bush, we need to stop that fire, we don't need to poison the bush to do it. So we need to love our country more. We need to understand our country more, and we need to put resources behind saving those people. We, perhaps, even need to talk to the insurance companies about being a tiny bit more generous.
JANE SMYTH: Thanks for that question. I'm really interested in this stay and go question, because as you know we would have gone, but we were trapped. I think that people need to know what it's going to be like if they stay. I mean this is just not putting out a fire with a hose, this is dark, noisy, scary, frightening. The noise is unbelievable, and people are so quickly disoriented, and you've seen photos of people who've tried to leave in cars and the visibility's so low, there's been a car accident and people have died in cars, not ... It's black as night, and, as I've said, completely disorienting.
So if people are going to stay, they've got to be fit. As I said before, I won't be staying, and sometimes they're going to need backpacks full of water, and can they carry them? And where are they going to get the replacement water from? It's not easy to stay, and so if people are making that decision, we come back to education. When the fire's there, it must be really hard to leave your home, and your business, and your animals. I've talked to people about this, and a friend of mine in the Adelaide Hills, who must be in one of the most dangerous position I've seen, I said to her, ‘What's your fire plan?’ And she had one.
And she said, ‘Oh, but last time the fires came through, I couldn't go, I was minding someone's dog, and with my dogs, I couldn't fit three dogs in the car.’ ‘Well,’ I said to her, ‘when you mind the dog again, will you tell your friend that if there's a fire, the dog's going to be left behind, because you've got to get out of here.’ So she had a fire plan. I mean she was educated and had a plan, so I think a lot of learning has to go in. And I think it can come from people like yourself, who know about fire. I mean, look, a lot's been done since 2003, and the fires that happened that threatened Tuggeranong earlier, was is it last year? Early this year? Last year? I can't remember.
People down there were really reassured by people in uniform coming and knocking at the door, giving them an emergency pack. Talking to them about it. Did they understand? So they were able to ask questions. That's really important too.
PAUL BARCLAY: I think we better wrap it. It's been a terrific conversation, and if you do want to read some incredibly vivid descriptions of what it is like being bunkered down in your home when a firestorm hits, Chloe Hooper's book, The Arsonist, is a fabulous example of that, of the fires in Churchill. Incredible. She got a hold of the testimony of the people to the Royal Commission, and also spoke to a lot of them. It's one of the best books I've written about anything in the past year, so if this topic interests you, I really urge you to check it out. It's a fantastic book, won several rewards, and really great.
Look, thanks once again to the National Museum of Australia for having me and the ABC, and Radio National along tonight to record this. This will turn up on my program, Big Ideas, in the weeks to come. We don't have a broadcast date, but do check out the Big Ideas website, and you'll see it when it does appear. Thanks to all of you for coming along this evening and being a part of the audience. It's always a pleasure to be here and talk about these issues in history, and how they're playing out today.
And especially big thanks to our terrific panel of guests, please put your hands together for Jane, Bruce, Tom, and Helen.
Disclaimer and Copyright notice
This is an edited transcript typed from an audio recording.
The National Museum of Australia cannot guarantee its complete accuracy.
© National Museum of Australia 2007-19. This transcript is copyright and is intended for your general use and information. You may download, display, print and reproduce it in unaltered form only for your personal, non-commercial use or for use within your organisation. Apart from any use as permitted under the Copyright Act 1968 (Cth) all other rights are reserved.
Date published: 10 July 2019