Bushfires have been so much a part of the life of Australia that, like alcohol, we take their role in our history for granted. Their destruction has taken huge economic and emotional tolls and yes, fires, and how Australians manage them, have played an enormous role in the development of our character. This will not change.
Buildings and property were lost as bushfires raced through Failford on the Mid North Coast. CREDIT:NICK MOIR
Fire management for hunting was widely employed by Aboriginal people before European settlement and, even with the wholesale land clearing that followed, the appetite of the eucalypt for fire, in combination with our arid climate, ensured bushfires were to remain a recurring and powerful theme in our history.
Fire so loves Australia that the eucalypt has evolved to prosper in it; gums regenerate better after fire than any other plant and some species have seeds that only germinate in fire. They shed oil-laden bark, ensuring fire is more likely on the ground around them and that competing plants are destroyed. When I first learnt that, it put me right off gums.
While Victoria and NSW had informal volunteer firefighting groups from the 1850s, the first volunteer rural bush fire brigade, in Berrigan, was not established until 1896. Meanwhile, farmers and friends had always banded together to protect property, stock and towns. No one remembers the original Black Thursday bushfires that swept Victoria in 1851. They cost 12 lives, a million sheep, thousands of cattle and many more native animals – and it shook the wealthy young colony to its foundations, as we are shaken today.
By 1880 and after a century of devastating conflagrations, governments finally understood the ongoing role fire would play in Australia. Landowners could not be expected to defend properties and local towns without government support and regulation. What is more, fire brigades funded by rival insurance companies had occasionally disgraced themselves by hosing each other instead of the fire. There were other excesses of an Australian kind. The Brisbane Courier report of the Great Fire in Sydney, 1890, recorded “disgraceful scenes” where “firemen … obtained liquor from the … clubs … and became so intoxicated they were not only useless, but a hindrance”.
Historical perspective: First Australians using fire to hunt kangaroos, by Joseph Lycett, 1817.CREDIT:NATIONAL LIBRARY OF AUSTRALIA
Laws were passed and professional services formed alongside rural volunteer services. Training, drill and the development of better equipment followed. Ah, training. Ask any firefighter, you cannot have too much of it.
There are small communities in rural NSW and Victoria today where there is only one building: the local rural fire brigade shed. It is the community centre, the scene of seasonal celebrations, local meetings, weddings, birthdays and a gathering place when an MP comes to talk to locals. Local fireys can always be relied on to open up the shed, turn on the heater and make a cup of tea. Everyone knows where the key is.
Rural communities have known for a long time that defending themselves from their greatest enemy would be up to them. By the time Australian colonies sent troops to the Boer War, Australians were long used to the discipline of combat imposed by the regular occurrence of fires. When they went to battle at Gallipoli, they were not the care-free, wild young men of a new nation unprepared for the horror of war as is so often portrayed. They were, unusually for the time, literate and highly trained to follow orders, understand their equipment, work together, look out for each other, know when to take a risk and to endure. That is what fighting a bushfire requires, more so when the odds are against you, as they always are.
The spirit of the Anzacs may have first manifested itself to the world on the beaches and trenches of the World War I, but it was, as the strongest steel is forged in the hottest fire, literally formed in the flames of the bush much earlier. It drove the mateship, the ingenuity, the stoicism of the Australian soldier and it still does.
Accounts of that same Great Fire in Sydney also report 10 firemen being buried in the debris: “comrades went at once to their assistance, and they were all extricated alive”. We see that same discipline and selflessness in our fireys today.
When the embers die down, stories will emerge of heroism, courage and team work.
Photo: Ben Shepherd NSW Rural Fire Service
Modern equipment has enabled female firefighters to be part of that story while the endless making of sandwiches in local halls allows everyone to be part of it. When there are no fires the same volunteers raise money for other local organisations and turn out to help at fetes and festivals.
A nation’s character is said to be the consequence of its trials. For some that has been waves of invasion, for others it has been invading. While that is true for Australia, another enemy, one equally formidable, has also stalked us.
That NSW should have the largest volunteer firefighting organisation in the world, with over 70,000 volunteers, followed by almost 35,000 in Victoria, tells us how critical these remarkable people are to the selfhood of Australia; they are us at our very best.