I spent the night of February 7th, 2009, sitting on the roof of my house gazing up into a scene that could have come from the apocalyptic imagination of a Milton or a Dante. The mountain ranges that loom over our home in the foothills were ablaze from end to end. I shuddered at the thought of what was happening inside that inferno, and the next day confirmed that worst of our fears: many friends were lost, others were left traumatized, homeless.
Members of our community responded to the disaster in a variety of ways. They threw themselves into projects ranging from memorials to farm fencing, from youth groups to football teams.
My own response was somewhat different.
I resolved that I would try to understand this thing, this monstrosity that had wrought so much destruction upon the world I knew.
I gave myself a year. During that time, I spoke to survivors and experts of every denomination: meteorologists, naturalists, botanists. I read everything I could lay my hands on, from scientific reports to popular narratives, from Aboriginal mythology to contemporary poetry. I trudged through the incinerated bush with fire scientists and park rangers. I became an active member of our local CFA, fought fires big and small and gained many an insight from my fellow volunteers. I thought, long and hard, about fire and what it means for our environment.
Years earlier, in another life, I had lived with Aboriginal people in Central Australia, and one of the enduring memories I have of that period is the respect they have for fire, of the central position it holds in their mythology.
After my own Year of Immersion, I shared their respect. I now look upon fire – any fire, even the simple one burning in my kitchen stove as I write these words – with a complex set of emotions: admiration, wonder, fear.
Much of what I learned that year remains a source of deep fascination for me. The fact, for instance, that fire is, as far as we know, unique to this place in time and space. The earth is around four billion years old, and yet fire has existed only for the past 150 million years. And the reason for its appearance? The emergence of yet another phenomenon unknown anywhere but here: life.
A student once told me that the strongest character in Kinglake-350 was not the copper or the firefighter; it was the fire itself; he then asked if I thought of the fire as being alive.
My automatic reply was, of course, “Well, er, no…”. As much the characters in the book might have anthropomorphized it, calling it a devil and fearing it was hunting them down, fire is not ‘alive’. It is nothing more than the chemical reaction which occurs between atmospheric oxygen and fuel that has reached ignition temperature.
But later I began to wonder if I had not been too blasé in my response. While fire does not possess the standard criteria for what we call ‘life’, the two phenomena – fire and life - are inextricably bound. It was the emergence of life – initially in the form of photosynthesizing prokaryotes – which provided both the fuel and the oxygen required for sustained burning.
Very quickly, in geological terms, after fire became possible for the evolution of the terrestrial biota, it became more than that. It became essential. Sparked by lightning, it ranged across the continents, seeking out fuel, synthesising ecologies of every description. Organisms adapted to this new regime or they perished.
Fire enriched, quickened, transformed, recycled. But it was still a random event. The biosphere had no means of deliberate ignition, no means of controlling that essential first spark. Until the emergence of one more fire species.
Somewhere on the plains of southern Africa, maybe half a million years ago, a member of the Hominidae family, Homo erectus, figured out how to light a fire.
From that moment, the cycle was complete; the fire triangle became organic. The biosphere had achieved mastery of the process: it organised spark as it did oxygen and fuel.
Just as humans made whole the cycle of fire, so did fire transform humanity. There is a cave at Swartkrans in South Africa that dramatically illustrates this point. Among the layers of fossil evidence uncovered there, three are of particular significance. In the first, the bones are those of hominids, scattered and torn so as to suggest they were eaten by predators. Then there is a layer of charcoal. In the final stratum, the bones are those of antelopes and warthogs, and they are burnt: cooked by the hominids. The tables have turned. Somewhere in the intervening period, around the time of that second, charcoal, layer our ancestors learned to control fire, and it had a transformative effect upon their relationship with their environment. It gave us a primacy from which we have never retreated.
Fire was power. It unleashed the magic in a lump of wood, a tuft of grass. Inevitably, it entered the inchoate religious life: as myths from India to the Tanami attest, the golden chain that linked humankind to the gods was a fuse.
With this new firepower in their arsenal, humans spread across the world. Wherever they went, our ancestors brought fire, expanding upon the pyric patterns already inherent in the land.
But if the history of the relationship between man and fire is a fascinating one, it is also, especially from the perspective of an individual living in the ‘fire flume’ of south-eastern Australia, a fearful one. Even more concerning is the suspicion that the fire trap in which we live is one which we have created for ourselves.
The Australian environment has been primed for fire since the ascendancy of the eucalypt. This dominance was intensified by the arrival of Aboriginal people. For tens of millennia, these firestick farmers carried out a constant, patchwork burning which refined the pyric patterns inherent in the land. The cornerstone of their firecraft was their alliance with the eucalypt, an alliance so powerful that it volatilised much of the country, exaggerating its flammability.
Then, around two hundred years ago, a new coloniser arrived, one who preferred his landscapes tamed and his combustion in an industrialised form. The new settlers used fire as an offensive weapon, both against the original inhabitants and against the land itself. They burned without restraint: to clear the land of its pestilential scrub and towering trees, to uncover its mineral wealth, to foster the succulent ‘green pick’ for which their cattle tongued. They fired whole mountains, river valleys, scrubby plains, vast tracts of what they regarded as wilderness.
But then, as settlement developed and population grew more dense, they were forced to change tack: they now tried to banish fire, to suppress it, particularly in the places they valued most—close to homesteads, trails or towns, or on the prime pasture they wanted for their cattle.
Pyromania and pyrophobia: each brought disruptive new elements into an ecology of which fire was an informing principle. Each brought its own dangers. The initial indiscriminate burning led to the rampant growth of volatile pyrogenic species—bracken, sedges—which made future fire more likely. But the attempt to eradicate fire altogether led to the build-up of fuel which, when the big one came—and come it must— meant an explosion of devastating intensity. Canberra experienced this in 2003, Victoria on Black Saturday.
Now, looming like a specter behind these considerations, is the question of global warming. As the planet heats up, scientists predict that both temperatures and rainfall in Southern Australia will increase. These make a deadly duo: rainfall will increase the fuel load and heat will bring it closer to ignition. Future fires will be worse than ever.
Modeling by the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation forecasts that the number of fire-prone days will increase dramatically. By 2050, days of very high to extreme fire danger for southern coastal cities such as Melbourne will increase from the current five to ten to between ten and fifteen per year. Further north, the situation worsens: high-danger days will rise from twelve up to seventeen a year for coastal communities such as Sydney. The residents of inland cities such as the one in which we are today will face catastrophic conditions: twenty to thirty-five dangerous days a year.
What will rural Australia look like a hundred years from now? Conceivably, a procession of dying towns and jungly thickets from which frequent fires erupt and lash the dwindling population. Fire one year, flood the next, each giving a fillip to the other.
These nightmare visions may seem distant, hypothetical. Surely, we tell ourselves, somebody will sort something out. Civilizations like ours don’t just collapse. I dare say the inhabitants of Easter Island and the Maya kingdoms told themselves the same thing.
I began writing this piece on what was the hottest July day ever recorded in Victoria. Listening to a talkback radio station the next morning, I was surprised to hear that more than 60% of those in an instant poll refused to accept that it had anything to do with global warming.
When I hear such willful, head-in-the-sand ignorance – when I hear the alternative Prime Minister and choirmaster to this discordant mob suggesting that climate change is crap and promising to undo the minimal efforts we have made to tackle it - an image comes to mind: a passage I wrote for Kinglake-350, a depiction of a family dying in a fire. It is fictional, but it is based upon a reality far too many of my friends experienced on Black Saturday:
Time storms and the blood stands still as you huddle under the blanket and gaze at each other in disbelief. You watch their faces twist, their eyelids grip, their foreheads’ red reflected pain, you stroke their hair, you tell them it’ll be all right. And it will be. You kiss their devastated lips and pray that it will be quick.
I cannot escape the suspicion that those who died on that nightmarish day in 2009 were early victims of global warming. And I fear that if we fail to change our ways, refuse to listen to the voices of our own environment, to evolve a Fire Dreaming of our own, there will be many more to join them.