Fire and People
Fire and People
The green arms of the tall forests embrace Melbourne's east. Mostly this large natural area is considered as a beautiful and benign feature, however on scorching hot summer days in January and February each year, Melbourne holds its breath, for a mere wisp of smoke can herald a fiery horror. It can become a death trap for people caught in the path of a bushfire. Several times last century and again in 2009, severe weather combined with drought created bushfires far beyond the capacity of firefighters to control, claiming life and property and stirring the most dramatic of human emotions. Paradoxically, to the life of the tall forests this destruction means rebirth. The tall Mountain Ash does not regenerate naturally except through the agency of bushfire, when in its death throes the trees set seed in the smoking ash bed. Indeed even the tree's form and chemistry makes it highly flammable. On a hot summer’s day, living in the tall forest might be likened to living amongst a forest of live matches!
From the earliest European settlement of the forest, settlers were alert to the dangers of bush fires. Many of the bushfires they experienced were caused by fires lit deliberately which then spread out of control. The tall, foreboding timbers and the dense undergrowth created an enclosing, sometimes oppressive environment, and the eerie noise of a hot north wind blowing strongly through the trees on a stifling summer's day stirred feelings of danger and vulnerability.
The danger of loss of life increased after 1901 as timber companies built mills and associated settlements deep in the forest. Sometimes the only thread connecting the people of these timber communities with the outside world was a single timber tramway or narrow road, and settlements could be many miles from cleared paddocks or larger towns. The mill settlements were generally surrounded by piles of curing timber and heaps of sawdust - all flammable material. The companies were meant to provide 'dug-outs' for their employees and their families to use as a shelter in case of a bushfire, but sometimes companies ignored this requirement, or failed to construct dug-outs. After the disastrous 1939 fires, a Royal Commission recommended that new mills not be established, and existing mills be removed from within fire prone forests. The result was that remote forest sawmill settlements where most lives were lost, were not rebuilt. Instead mills were located in larger, rural settlements outside the forest.
Forest fires in Victoria have claimed many lives. Severe wildfires which occurred last century: 1909, 1919, 1926, 1939 and 1983 have all left their mark both on the memories of those who lived through them, and on the forest itself; the age of the trees identifying clearly the time of the most recent fire event. In 1926, 31 people died as a result of forest fires and in 1932, 9 people lost their lives. On 'Black Friday', 13 January 1939, fires engulfed much of the State's Mountain Ash forests burning over 2 million hectares. Seventy-one people lost their lives on that day across Victoria. In 1983, on 'Ash Wednesday', fires in forests and rural areas resulted in the deaths of 46 people, destroyed over 1700 homes, and burnt out thousands of hectares of pasture and forest. The fires that Victoria experienced on ‘Black Saturday’ February 7 2009 were the most devastating yet, claiming 173 lives and injuring 414 people. Nearly 430,000 hectares were burned, and over 2,000 homes and 10,000 kilometres of fencing were destroyed. A Royal Commission into the ‘Black Saturday’ fires headed by Justice Bernard Teague delivered its recommendations in July 2010.
Media headlines understandably focus on fire as an agent of destruction but rarely acknowledge fire as a natural part of the forest lifecycle. Bushfire is a natural, though infrequent feature of Victoria’s tall forests - a fact we ignore at our peril.
The experience of surviving bushfire can profoundly influence the way people interact with the forest afterwards. Many leave the forest and choose to live in a rural or city setting. Others stay and rebuild. Fire agencies now promote the message that it is safest for home owners in high risk areas to leave at the start of a day of Severe or Extreme fire rating, and to leave the night before or early in the morning when the Fire Danger Rating is predicated to be Code Red (Catastrophic).
Fire and emergency authorities have recently updated their advice for people preparing for fire. This advice includes:
Victoria is recognised as one of the most naturally fire prone environments in the world due to its vegetation and summer climate. But even with public awareness of this naturally high potential for fire, nearly three quarters of the fires started in this environment are due to human causes.
Victoria's two rural fire agencies, the CFA (Country Fire Authority) and the Department of Sustainability and Environment (DSE) which operate on private land and the State's parks and forests respectively, have developed some of the most advanced techniques and equipment for fire suppression. These agencies cooperate in the forested interface between private and public land. They use tankers and fire fighters, water bombing aircraft, specialised helicopters, and heat sensing scanning equipment to help bring about control of fires in this environment. They also undertake strategic prevention works such as construction of fire breaks and fuel reduction burning which can assist in reducing fire intensity, slowing the fire's spread and providing fire fighters with safer conditions to fight the fire. Local landholders must also play their part through minimising the fire hazards on their properties. Property owners in designated high fire-risk areas can now clear trees within 10m of their house and ground fuel within 30m of their house without a permit. They can also remove fallen timber from roadsides around their properties without a permit during designated periods. However, it is important to recognise that, wherever possible, land clearance and vegetation removal should be done without causing undue damage to the natural forest environment and its biodiversity.