Still on the fires

14 Feb

Over in Michigan my ex-student David Smith via Facebook “wonders if anyone has heard any convincing explanation of why Victoria has nearly all the bushfire fatalities in Australian history. If so, let me know.” Now there is something to think about, though topography and settlement patterns must have something to do with it. I imagine the Adelaide Hills and the Blue Mountains would be up there too, perhaps for similar reasons.

Some points along these lines were made on Radio National’s Bush Telegraph by Tom Griffiths yesterday.

Award-winning Tom Griffiths, is one of Australia’s leading environmental historians.

He knows the Victorian fire country extremely well. He has written about it in Forests of Ash (2001) – his beautiful book about this very part of Australia.

Professor Griffiths criticises the National Fire Policy. He says that it was impossible for people to ‘stay and defend’ their homes in this extremely fire-prone region of Australia. He argues that we need specific regional policies – not a ‘national approach’

I found this review of Forests of Ash.

Firstly, it is a social history of human involvement in the forested areas of Victoria, Australia, lying north and east of Melbourne. Griffiths devotes one chapter to an attempted Aboriginal settlement there. His other chapters detail the uses and meanings that the area has had for Europeans: They "improved" its agricultural potential by destroying half the forest, mined there for gold from the 1850s, set up mills to exploit the timber resource, then reserved some of the forest as a water catchment area. (Upper Yarra Dam, in 1957, tripled Melbourne’s water supply.) Increasingly, the area also attracted naturalists, bush walkers, and other tourists. Its features (waterfalls, tall trees, lyrebirds) came to symbolize Victorian identity; even its industrial heritage gained cultural significance.

These chapters are a revision of part of Griffiths’s Secrets of the Forest (Allen & Unwin, 1992), with many of the paragraphs simply divided into more appetizing bites, but half the original work is thrown out in preference for new material and a new emphasis. While the first book grew from a report to Victoria’s Historic Places Branch, Forests of Ash appears in association with Museum Victoria, resulting in a slicker, wider-ranging presentation, including "spotlights" on the forest by specialists with biological (rather than historical) knowledge. These do not always integrate well with Griffiths’s text, but they underline that this is, secondly, a consciously environmental history of a particular ecosystem, dealing with interrelationships of climate, fauna and flora, and of how human activity affects and is affected by that ecosystem.

As an entirely new chapter explains, these Victorian forests are not the dry "bush" typical of Australia, nor the less extensive rain forest or "jungle." Rather, they are a blend of the two in which the tallest trees are Eucalyptus regnans. Australians call these mountain ash, but they are unrelated to the rowan and mountain ash of Europe and North America, and as mighty as redwoods.

Griffiths follows Stephen Pyne in stressing the role of periodic fire in Australian forest, and so the title also refers to ash left when the forests have burned, the necessary nursery for a further generation of trees. The central event in Griffiths’s history is Black Friday, 1939, when 1.4 million hectares of Victoria burned, analyzed as "a cultural exaggeration of a natural rhythm" (p. 189). Humans, by lighting fires, extended fire’s usual range and frequency (and then they deepened the imbalance by salvaging burnt trees). As so often with environmental history, the causes of a "natural" catastrophe are found to have a human component.

Forests of Ash is a good story well written. The subject is made even more approachable through maps and over sixty photographs, many of them stunning. This is definitely not just a text for scholars. But the book can be regarded, thirdly, as a case study, a springboard from which to leap into discussion of environmental history itself. Griffiths does this in the epilogue, where the argument that this discipline "uniquely bridges planetary and deeply local perspectives" (p. 194) justifies both concentration on one geographic area and his global extrapolations. Finally, his source notes are, effectively, a bibliography of Australian environmental history. This is a valuable gateway into Australian material, which provides an excellent counterpoint (and sometimes a corrective) to many studies made elsewhere.

Perhaps some answers for David (and the rest of us) lie here.

ABC has an excellent site on Black Friday: Griffiths is a contributor.


*** To visit:



5 responses to “Still on the fires

  1. Jim Belshaw

    February 15, 2009 at 5:27 pm

    Thank you for your remarks, Neil.

    I really appreciated them, as I did responses from Winton Bates, Legal Eagle and Scepticlawyer. I spent a lot of time on this post, trying to use personal experiences as a way of writing in an objective fashion in a higly charged environment.

  2. Bruce

    February 16, 2009 at 2:07 pm

    The Adelaide Hills are up there indeed, at least if worst-case scenario models are to be believed.,22606,25056637-2682,00.html

    Got that from a friend in the hills who’s ex is a fiery. Understandably, bushfires cause her family some stress.

  3. Bruce

    February 16, 2009 at 2:10 pm

    On the matter of fire behaviour though – people building houses in hilly/mountainous areas with considerable forests and ongoing aridification due to climate change (the north-west is getting less arid if you are curious) is a cause for worry.

  4. Neil

    February 16, 2009 at 3:14 pm

    Have a look at this comparatively pointless conversation. I hereby give up. The people there are clinging to the jihadist fantasy about the fires, or at least giving it serious attention! Still, as internet dialogues go it has been pretty civil at least.

  5. Bruce

    February 16, 2009 at 5:57 pm

    It can be exasperating. I expect that we’ll be seeing a lot more before the inquiry and I’m not sure what to expect afterward.

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