NOAH’S RAINBOW SERPENT – observations by Ian MacDougall

Fire in the Australian Bush

In the context of the February 2009 Victorian bushfires: a Review of Stephen Pyne’s ‘The Still Burning Bush’

Stephen Pyne: The Still-Burning Bush. Scribe Short Books, Melbourne 2006. 137 pp. AU$ 22.00

Australia is among the world’s firepowers. It has fires, fire institutions, fire scholarship, and a vigorous fire politics. Only America has invested a comparable fraction of its national culture into the subject, so what Australia has to say about fire matters far beyond its own shores.

Thus Stephen Pyne begins his latest book. A professor on the staff of Arizona State University (in the Human Dimensions Faculty, School of life Sciences) he has written 17 books, 12 of which deal with the history and management of fire. This one is a sequel to his Burning Bush: a fire history of Australia. (Holt, NY, 1991.) However, for readers unfamiliar with that earlier work, Pyne devotes the first half of this new book to a synopsis of it, but updated to take account of new material. Perhaps a revised and expanded edition of the earlier book would have sufficed, as one of the author’s stated concerns is the brevity of this latest one. His publisher asked him to expand it to ‘normal length’. As Pyne puts it: “This was an altogether novel experience: I have never – never – been instructed to enlarge a manuscript before. It is a delicate business, adding flesh without fat.” After reading the book, one can only agree.

The overall structure of the book is available here.

Bush fire has more than a passing interest for me. On the morning of January 18, 2003, my wife Jenny drove my skiing mate Alan and me to Canberra Airport to begin a journey to Steamboat Springs, Colorado, where we hoped to be spending ten days in the deep powder snow that resorts in the Rockies are famous for. During our stopover in San Francisco, Alan phoned a business associate in Canberra, only to find that talking business was not of much interest to him, as his house had been burnt down the day before. It burnt with more than 500 others, and with four people killed as well. Jenny and I have a house close to one of the nature reserves that I knew was tinder dry and ready to conduct a bushfire virtually to the front door. Those numbers did not bode well for it. I spent an anxious time trying to get through to Jenny, and when I did she told me that the phone had just been reconnected and that everything was OK. The wind had changed just before the fire reached our street. That was the only thing that had saved the house.

On the way back from the airport at around 11 am, Jenny took one look at the sky and knew from her experience in the country that Canberra was in big trouble and likely to burn. Expecting an emergency to have been declared, she turned on the radio and TV only to find that no TV channel or commercial radio station had interrupted its normal daytime fare. The staff at 666 ABC Canberra were the only media people awake to the situation and kept the increasingly frantic city as informed as they could. ACT Chief Minister Jon Stanhope afterwards qualified himself as a world class political eel, not only by the way he attempted defence of his indefensible government’s performance in the crisis, both in handling and preventing, but in his subsequent attempted shafting of the coronial inquiry under Coroner Maria Doogan.

Pyne does not overlook the murky politics of fire, nor the pattern of photosynthetic calm – holocaust – media arousal – lawyerfest – report – failure to act on report recommendations – return to calm – holocaust – etc, that is by now well established in Australia. So even as we blog, we await the next Ash Wednesday.

Wildfires do not respect state or national borders around the world. The World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) nominated 1997-98 as the Year the Earth Burned, because of all the fires that year. Yet despite and because of Australia’s own record of disastrous fires, Pyne says that she stands out among developed nations as having kept a tradition of controlled burning, and of not attempting elimination of fire from the land as other nations have done. This has made Australia something of a beacon to US fire officers. “For 30 years” he says, “the recognition has been widespread within the American fire community that fire’s attempted exclusion was a mistake; and the appreciation has grown that the fundamental error was not that fire agencies suppressed wildfires but that they ceased to light controlled ones.”

Deliberately setting fire to the bush in order to manage it in some way has a long history in Australia, arguably going back to the very dawn of Aboriginal settlement. The prehistorian and anthropologist Rhys Jones coined the phrase ‘firestick farming’ to describe Aboriginal fire practice. According to Pyne, the Aborigines saw their fires as ‘cleaning the landscape’ and an aid to hunting and cultivation of their preferred plants. A reasonable assumption is that this practice favoured pyrophytes (‘fire-plants’) like the eucalypts over pyrophobic plants like the majority of rainforest species. But European settlers, while happy to use fire when it suited them as an aid in clearing the country of plants they found undesirable, in general brought about a vast reduction in burning.

The early foresters saw fire as a dangerous foe, and Pyne traces the origins of colonial forestry to the first conservation reserves set up by the British in India, which were staffed by German foresters with a typically Central European attitude to fire. They saw it as having no place in a properly managed forest, and they stimulated a ‘fire insurgency’ on the part of the native inhabitants whose traditional forestry practice was precisely the opposite. The history of forestry in Canada, Russia, Australia and the US was similar, but around 1900 this anti-fire dogma began to run into serious challenge. The question then was precisely as it is today for pyrophytic forest: controlled burns or eventual holocaust? In the US, academic forestry led the charge against native burning practices. “The battle was bitter,” says Pyne, “but foresters had the public lands and the force of government behind them and prevailed.”

Until ‘Black Friday’ of 1939, Australian foresters believed that fires were more bad than good. The subsequent royal Commission headed by Judge Leonard Stretton “recognised the necessity of fire for those on the land, and the absurdity of forestry’s belief that the land would ultimately abolish fire if fire could be kept out for a sufficiently long time and the quixotic assertion by foresters that they could accomplish that prohibition. The problem, Stretton concluded, was not controlled burning, but badly done – that is, uncontrolled – burning.”

The 1951-2 fires in the Snowy Mountains stimulated a policy change to controlled burning, and the 1961 Royal Commission following the fires in Western Australia endorsed this. Thus began the period of ‘firestick forestry’.

But this did not last long. The environmental movement which began in the wake of the antiwar movement in the late 1960s (the ‘greenies’) gets much of the blame in the bush for what followed. Though it was never as politically powerful as its detractors suggest, such power that it has comes from its publicising of politically hard to defend practices like logging of rain forests and old growth forests, whaling, former Queensland Premier Bjelke-Petersen’s plans to drill for oil on the Barrier Reef, the general free-for-all plunder of the world’s fish stocks, and so on. The website of the NSW Greens gives a good picture of Green hostility to controlled burning. For them, there is always something better.

Controlled burning is costly, and fraught with legal issues like liability for fires that escape control, so no private or state agency is anxious to take responsibility for it. In the modern bureaucratic order, fire control has been taken away from foresters and vested in the highly centralised Rural Fire Service, which has not received uniform reviews for its conduct of the 2003 emergency in the Snowy Mountains and ACT fires, or for its present priorities. The options for fire management according to Pyne form four sides of a ‘rectangle’. They are fuel, oxygen, heat and supervisors. Remove any one and the fire goes out, eventually. These four options align with national or cultural ‘models’, which Pyne calls the “wilderness, Aboriginal, cultivated and fire-suppression models.” He says that Australia needs all of them. That is, “applying and withholding fire; not turning the process over to nature, not cultivating the fuels, not attempting to abolish burning, but by suitable use of the firestick seeking to protect against the fires you don’t want and to promote the ones you do.”

Since the 2003 fires there has been little in the way of controlled burning. “Environmentalists exploited the tainted association of fire with grazing and logging to call any fire use into question. They dismissed the accumulated lore of the firestick foresters, as European foresters had discounted the practical knowledge of farmers and graziers, as settlers had often ignored the fire wisdom of the Aborigines.”

Says Pyne “…Even the climate itself is evidently being reworked by the greenhouse-gas effluent from the combustion of fossil biomass. The Earth continues to segregate into two grand realms.

“The prospect is accelerating. There seem to be stocks of fossil fuels ample to last for centuries, and especially as China and India make the industrial transition, the amount of anthropogenic combustion will metastasise. For a few countries, with stubbornly rooted rural villages, the transition will be halting, and traditional burning will yield slowly; the land will become a pyric palimpsest.”

This last quotation brings me somewhat reluctantly to a point which I alluded to with a certain private disquietude at the anterior portal of this review, namely the author’s tendency to let a craving for novel and floridly obscure turns of phrase distract him from the main task at hand, which is writing clearly and precisely about the changing perceptions of fire, particularly as have occurred over the period of European settlement in Australia. So many are these gossamer threads of airborne obscurantism, one could use them as the basis of an amusing game, say at the apogee (or even perigee) of a dinner party, and best after a liberal quota of Shiraz, Chardonnay, or both. Apart from the metastasising anthropogenic combustion and the pyric palimpsest, see what you make of the following:

“The landscape sculpted by the Aboriginal firestick is long vanished, along with the pragmatic memory of its quotidian use.”

“…with effects that over centuries or millennia could reconfigure fungible biotas…”

“People could rearrange fire’s regimes in ways that competed with and defied the putative natural order.”

“What is nominally about flame very quickly, if by an interlinear gloss, becomes a discussion about something else.”

“Nowhere is this truer than when discussion touches upon ‘hazard-reduction burning’ which can escalate into synecdoche not only for the political debate about fire policy but for the whole trajectory of Australia’s environmental history. This process of symbolic refraction is common enough…”

“Various lines of evidence argue that Australia had plenty of prelapsarian fire…”

“They proclaimed a new cycle of conflagrations in bitter valence with the disrupted landscapes.”

“They were mythic fires, collectively a kind of Gotterdammerung that shuttered the Dreamtime and announced a new Australian Asgard from the ashes.”

“A cognate outbreak of lightning fires…”

“Australia too, came predisposed for anthropogenic fire. Its long migration after the break-up of Gondwana had tempered its biota to survive drought, disturbance, oft-impauperate soils, and selective extinctions.” (I take exception here more to the impauperate thought than to the vocabularial vicissitudes. You could say much the same for post-Gondwanal Africa, South America, or India.)

Clearly, Stephen Pyne is happy to scare off the odd thousand or two readers who are not simultaneously into Wagner, Norse theology and collecting dictionaries. The manuscript needed a more ruthless editor, and the book could have done with an index. (For the record here, I must declare myself as a disciple of the immortal George Orwell, at least for his principles of writing English.) But I do not seek to labour this point. For all that, the book is generally well written and informative, and should be well received by those interested in the history and politics of fire.

Pyne says of the future of controlled burning and political strategies to defeat it: “There will be justifications to delay, to research further, to thicken the stipulated conditions that must be satisfied before lighting up. The precautionary principle will urge that the firestick should be placed safely to the side until all the concerns are worked through. There it will eventually burn out.”

“Yet the precautionary principle would seem to argue for keeping fire on the land…”

I could not agree more.