It’s ten years this summer since my close-enough encounter with bushfire in Victoria’s high country. I spent two weeks with family preparing for a fire front that thankfully never made it to our doorstep, and compared to Black Saturday, Ash Wednesday, Black Friday – even this summer in Tasmania – my experience seems insignificant.
But we were close enough, and that has changed the way I think about fire. You know you are close enough when burnt leaves are blown violently onto the veranda and embers start spot fires downwind on the hills behind you; when shutters are nailed over windows, when it is time to trim the horses’ tails in the hope that they won’t burn if the grass is on fire.
Back then we went by the old mantra of ‘prepare, stay and defend, or leave early’. We felt confident and comfortable: we were prepared, we would stay, and we’d defend.
After Black Saturday I felt a new fear of fire. The 2009 fires were extreme, and they changed many things, including the advice that it was OK to stay if you were prepared to defend. Now the authorities’ official line is that if there are catastrophic fire conditions, you’re best to get out early.
This year the fires have started to feel like a newsreel that repeats itself – like the floods in Queensland, inundating houses only just rebuilt after the last flood.
Yet although bushfire is part of the Australian psyche and part of our expectations for summer, most people think it will never happen to them.
Professor Jim McLennan from La Trobe University has been involved in post-bushfire field research with the Bushfire Cooperative Research Centre, including after Black Saturday and the recent fires in Tasmania. He says that while people know bushfires happen, they think it will happen ‘somewhere else, to someone else’.
The offshoot of this mindset is that not everyone prepares for bushfire. Of 22 householders that McLennan spoke to in Tasmania this year, only one had carefully prepared their home to resist bushfire.
The way Australians approach bushfire tends to depend on our relationship to the bush and the land. McLennan identifies four main groups who approach fire in differing ways: there are farmers, people who live in the bush for lifestyle reasons, country-town dwellers, and suburban residents.
In a farming community, everyone is aware and preparation is taken for granted. As McLennan says, farmers are often isolated, yet connected to their land – emotionally attached and prepared to defend what is not only their home but also their livelihood.
Then there are the tree-changers – described by McLennan as the ‘life-style bushland dwellers’. This group often denies bushfire risk, even though that risk is magnified in forested areas. McLennan says ‘they are emotionally attached to their property’, and can be unwilling to prepare in a way that will damage the bushland environment in which they live.
Meanwhile, in the suburbs and the city, where I live now, we are exposed to bushfire as to a war zone – that is, remotely. We watch the fires on our TV screens and see the photos in the paper or online. As in war there are heartbreaking stories of survival and loss – but they are stories of someone else’s misfortune.
Most city dwellers are lucky enough not to see the fires in person – they tend to be far away from our quarter acre blocks. But fire is not always so far away. No-one expects ash and burning leaves to land on their front lawns, yet more than 500 houses burned in the suburbs of Canberra in 2003.
For me, these distant war zone images of bushfire are a little surreal. I feel at times disconnected, sheltered in a city life where fire in farmland or bushland is a long way from my daily reality.
But I also feel afraid – wary of heading bush in the hot summer months, habitually checking incident warnings online during my lunch break. It’s not an unhealthy fear; it is what comes from remembering the fire that got too close for comfort.
Suzannah Marshall Macbeth is a freelance writer and editor based in Melbourne. She has a particular interest in writing about place, landscape and the ocean. She blogs at equineocean.