Fire is personal and communal in extremis. The word ‘fire’, especially when spoken in the hot months, evokes caution, care and action. As we are often told, fire has always been part of the (Australian) continent — a visceral reality and adaptive force, one that defines the germination of certain seeds, and part of a replenishing and renewal cycle. It doesn’t need to be proved that Aboriginal Australians have long if not always used fire as a tool for farming and habitat planning, and that there is much for all of us to learn from Indigenous fire-usage, ‘cold burning’, and sustainable burning. And the but that follows isn’t linked to this knowledge, for which we should all have the greatest respect, but to the dramatic shift in climate conditions that means fire is more overwhelming, more omnipresent than at any other time of human fire-usage. This is the ‘but’. . .
But things are becoming more and more different, because human industrial-consumer rapacity has pushed the biosphere beyond the manageable and sustainable. And again: But the ‘hot months’ make up so much of the year now. I have been recording weather observations since I was very young, and the diminishing of birds and animals that comes with clearing habitat has gone hand in hand with increased temperatures and less rainfall. For the first time in a decade we’ve had to have showering and washing water carted to our home at Jam Tree Gully. It’s dry, so dry that it is far more vulnerable than usual to fire. In August — winter — we had a 30C day . . . a first, to my knowledge . . . and at the end of November, just after all the grass-cutting and firebreak work to prepare for the ‘fire season’, we had to evacuate at very short notice because not one but two separate fires had erupted nearby. Fortunately, the local bush fire-brigade got them under control quickly, but the feeling of having to leave home with only vital personal documents and nothing else is shocking.
It’s not the first time for us, and won’t be the last. Terrible to be able to say this as a fait accompli. Last year, a fire almost prevented my getting home with our son from his very distant school — we were the last through the roadblock, and it was confronting for Tim to see a wall of flame coming over a hill, towards us, as we passed through. Over my life, I have seen this many times, and it’s probably one of the main topics of my observational writing. But fire patterns have changed — the dryness, the higher temperatures, the non-winters . . . it’s as if not only the fires have joined into megafires (as we have been so horrified to see, particularly in New South Wales), but the conditions have joined up across quite different ecotones and ecosystems.
I have been delaying the writing of this piece, as well as rewriting it, for weeks now. As the mass devastation of flora and fauna has been unleashed in unprecedented ways, where I have been, regarding how I respond, has mattered. I had been away, but I am back in the Western Australian wheatbelt, where for the last four days we have had 41-45C day temperatures, and up to 26C at night. I am back where speaking of fire is in the context of expecting fire. Its horrendous imminence. Fire warnings have been ‘severe’, second highest on the warning scale (‘catastrophic’ is the highest), and last night I stayed awake as we had a largely dry storm with a lot of lightning — frequently the cause of fires. Since we live on a hillside in bush, and fire moves fast up a slope, such nights are horror. A country town I lived just outside in my early twenties, Yarloop, was entirely burnt to the ground a few years ago — literally razed by fire, and the town nearest where we live at Jam Tree Gully suffered the loss of forty houses a decade ago. Each year there is something so overwhelming.
Conservatives and climate-change deniers are quick to blame arsonists, and talk of fires as acts of war — to weaponise and militarise the fight, so as to avoid confronting the truth of how we’ve got to this stage. Yes, arson can start fires, but it doesn’t make the conditions for fires to do what they are more frequently doing here. And I might add, every few days we comment on some person ashing a cigarette out their window or flicking butts into roadside bush . . . and have actually put burning butts out many times over the years, and actually seen fires started by such behaviours. It is also readily forgotten how many major fires have been started over recent years by officially prescribed burns designed to prevent fire season catastrophe getting out of control, because of changing weather conditions, ill-thought-out approaches, and what I see as an often careless use of fire to fight fire. Fire is complex, always.
Fires start easily, especially in the long hot (season/s) here, but what they are now doing, especially when the wind lifts and rain never comes, is without parallel. It does feel as if you are under siege, but if there is war, it’s one we humans are making. The conservative push to ‘fight’ nature, to get it under control by clearing, destroying, and colonising further and further, is the main part of the problem. I have seen rainfall almost vanish in marginal cropping areas where all native vegetation has been cleared — okay, no fire there, but no crops either. Just dust. Dust to dust. And the deployment of the army has been known to cause fires, including one caused recently near Canberra in a national park by clearing processes intended to ‘protect against fire’, caused by a helicopter’s spotlight.
The ‘war’ against fire is a war against nature and against the very biosphere, and in selling a blatant nationalism of the colonial, we become more entrapped in the damage that sees billions of animals dead, and forests burnt to the point where they cannot regenerate as they have designed themselves to do over millennia. Fire is with us always, and we need to understand how we are making conditions perfect for it to dominate. Nature out of balance loses its grip — and people are nature however much they deny it.
It is good and proper that we should celebrate those who ‘fight fires’, who protect people. But this is not a war, and we are working together, or have to, to change the conditions that lead to such conflagration. It’s not by removing forests and vegetation, but through planting and increasing the natural world. Common sense — firebreaks, small cold burns taking into consideration which animals will be affected, how to protect them too, and reducing the world’s carbon emissions — bottom line — is a slow way, but the only way. Fire is fast.
Firies, as they are known here, are often selfless in their work, and life-risk, but they are just people too, and how they live matters as much as how they ‘fight’ fires. The debate around climate change and extinction is distracted from by creating a discourse of ‘heroes’ and ‘warriors’ for the nation (which is not to take credit from them, because their bravery is unquestioned!). This is not a war; it’s a case of fixing what we, collectively, have unleashed beyond what nature itself can manage. The richest Australians who have made money by devastating and stealing from the environment, from Indigenous peoples, make massive donations to ‘repair’ and ‘support’, and gain power and influence and respect through doing so, and yet their activities are a major part of the catastrophe. It’s easier to fight a war against fire, against nature, than to heal it and change the conditions by which we co-exist with the rest of nature.
To see this as a case of pathetic fallacy is part of the classic aesthetic conservatism that has ruled in favour of rapacity, over conservation, through, in particular, imperial artistic expression, for centuries. Time to change how we live, and how we talk about how we live. Yes, Australia is a place of drought and fire and flood — extremes — as we are so often told (and experience), but what is happening now is changing the land into something functionally different: it has been laid bare by rapacity and made more vulnerable than ever. But its spirit is intact, and knowledge of its spirit resides with Aboriginal peoples: consult them, listen, learn.
When I was a very small child my father used to take me to the abandoned fire tower for which my grandfather, Claude Kinsella, a head state forester, was responsible. Looking out over the vast jarrah forest, I remember asking my father: how did they stop a fire if it began? He said, Early detection is the best chance. This remains so — let’s add prevention by changing how we live and use the world as well.