Inside Story

From the ashes

Books | Despite the Black Saturday tragedy, attitudes and policies have moved far too slowly

Tom Griffiths 12 October 2011 2875 words

Forest near Flowerdale, Victoria, a year after the Black Saturday bushfire. Elizabeth Donoghue/Flickr

By Adrian Hyland | Text Publishing | $27.95
Worst of Days: Inside the Black Saturday Firestorm
By Karen Kissane | Hachette Australia | $35

First published on 12 October 2011

It is three winters now since Victoria’s Black Saturday bushfire brought its terror. In the past year, soaking rains have inspired grass and forest growth that is both heartening and frightening. New houses have sprouted like lignotubers where their predecessors were gutted. Other homes – razed, flattened and cleared – are haunting absences. The royal commission, which cranked on through 155 days of evidence, has finished and reported, and already its recommendations have dust on them. After last summer’s disasters – floods, cyclones and earthquakes – bushfire survivors are sharing their experience with new victims of nature’s wilfulness. And from the ashes, from the regrowth and renewal, from the pain and the horror, there now comes some wisdom.

The most enduring wisdom forged by the Black Friday fire of 1939 came in the form of Judge Leonard Stretton’s royal commission report. It was also the greatest literary legacy of that fire: no other published words about Black Friday compared with its biblical power. It was celebrated not only as a political statement, but also as literature. For many years it was a prescribed text in Victorian Matriculation English, and it was consulted by politicians and fire managers. In 2002–03, as the alps burned, Premier Steve Bracks borrowed Stretton’s 1939 report from the Parliamentary Library for his weekend reading. Bruce Esplin, head of the Victorian bushfire inquiry of 2003, said he could feel Judge Stretton looking over his shoulder. Stretton’s words still resonate with poetic and political power: he was fearless.

Justice Bernard Teague’s royal commission report on the Black Saturday fires is earnest and thorough but too careful and comprehensive to make memorable literature. It is becoming clear that Black Saturday is shaping a different and more diverse literary legacy. Black Friday 1939, followed so quickly by years of world war, did not generate any notable books, although it did induce life-long trauma, become embedded in folklore and language, and seed political and bureaucratic reform. But Black Saturday 2009 is quickly germinating a forest of impressive writing: perceptive essays by John van Tiggelen, Robert Manne and Robert Hillman, Danielle Clode’s A Future in Flames, Roger Franklin’s Inferno, a forthcoming study by Peter Stanley (Black Saturday at Steels Creek), and two very important books discussed here – Adrian Hyland’s Kinglake-350 and Karen Kissane’s Worst of Days.

Kinglake-350 takes us into the world of the Kinglake Ranges as they were about to be consumed by the Kilmore East fire, storming unheralded towards them. The story’s main character is Acting Sergeant Roger Wood of the Kinglake police, and his call-sign is Kinglake-350. We follow him from dawn on 7 February, learn what he is doing, thinking and fearing, and we feel the drama of Black Saturday explode around him. Through him, we meet the people of Kinglake and gain a visceral sense of the caprice and violence of a firestorm in the Ash Range. Adrian Hyland knows these people because he lives with them. This is superb non-fiction writing: dramatic, full of tension, deeply researched, and true.

Karen Kissane’s Worst of Days, published last year before the royal commission’s final report, also focuses on the Kilmore East fire and has its foundation in her work as the Age’s chief reporter at the royal commission’s hearings. Like Hyland, Kissane structures her compelling narrative around selected individuals, but her book is also a piece of sustained investigative journalism. Daily immersion in the hearings and evidence of the commission is here transmuted into history and literature with perspective and punch. She seems determined to find a voice that is stronger and tougher than the “disapproving puzzlement” and “neutral, non-condemnatory tones” of the royal commission’s interim report. As Kissane puts it, “the commission’s [interim] report reflected the evidence before it, in which so many emergency workers and bureaucrats using phrases right out of Sir Humphrey Appleby’s mouth had smoothly declined to take responsibility for any failures: it was not their job, or they were working at a higher level, or their underlings should have told them if there was a problem.”

Historian, speech-writer and brilliant analyst of language, Don Watson, has described Black Saturday as “the day words fell short.” Seven months after the fires, he reflected on the evidence that fire managers were giving to the royal commission about what they called “communication”:

One CFA manager described the business of telling the public as “messaging”; “communicating the likely impact”; “to communicate the degree of the circumstance”; providing “precise complex fire behaviour information”; “to communicate more effectively in a timely manner not just that it is a bad day, but other factors as well.” He spoke of his task as “value-adding” and “populating the document.” He and other managers talked a good deal about “learnings,” “big learnings” and even “huge learnings.”

Watson’s conclusion was:

It was not that they [the managers] did not do their very, very best. More likely, when it came to telling people what they had to know, their management training made their best inadequate. Telling people requires language whose meaning is plain and unmistakable. Managerial language is never this.

Karen Kissane and Adrian Hyland have thrown off this blanket of bureaucratic blandness and have set out to distil a very different kind of language of disaster. They have tapped into what Robert Hillman, writing in the Griffith Review in 2009, called “the vernacular of Australian catastrophe”: spare, vivid storytelling, full of people doing things, full of verbs, full of agency and responsibility. Hillman, who lives near Warburton and found himself caught within a horseshoe of fire, was spellbound through the night of 7 February by radio accounts from survivors, by “the terrible beauty of tales in which there is no exaggeration, no sentimentality,” and which were as gripping in their brevity “as the verses of an ancient ballad.” He confessed that he became “absorbed by the way in which disaster restores the vigour of language,” just as the fire cauterised the forest itself, ridding it of excess and reducing it to a weirdly beautiful austerity. Hillman felt that the best memorials to the victims of Black Saturday would not be the services imbued with hyperbole and cliché, but the “unrehearsed narratives” of those who escaped. Well, here they are.

Hyland, especially, feeds off the lean poetry of these unrehearsed narratives by weaving a tapestry of stories in the present tense. This enables us to see that, even as people are overwhelmed by an unbelievable force of nature, there are still tiny interstices of time and space in which they can exercise their will, understanding and wisdom. Inevitability and luck are two dominant metaphors for explaining and coping with disaster, and they play large roles in Hyland’s narrative, too, but his focus on people doing things – especially the policemen at the centre of the drama – reveals how individuals can still make a difference in such a crisis. Hyland creates room for heroes without diminishing our understanding of the ecological and climatic forces within which they were trapped.

There are heroes in Worst of Days too, but also more death and inevitability. Having sat through the royal commission hearings, Kissane understandably grapples more directly with the “managerial language” of the bureaucrats, and its consequences. There is a more sustained analysis of the systemic failures, and an impressive demolition of the “Prepare, Stay and Defend, or Leave Early” policy (abbreviated to “Stay or Go”) and the official mantra that “People save houses. Houses save people.”

In the week after Black Saturday, I argued in Inside Story that the “Stay or Go” policy was a death sentence in these Victorian mountain communities on a forty-something degree day of high winds after a prolonged heatwave and a long drought. Although the policy has guided people well in most areas of Australia and has demonstrably saved lives and homes, it misled people in this distinctively deadly fire region to believe that they could defend an ordinary home in the face of an unimaginable force. I believe that the policy – by enshrining the defendable home – also implicitly sanctioned the gradual abandonment of community fire refuges over recent decades. And it underpinned the lack of warnings issued by authorities to local residents about the movement of the firefront. Partly this was due to incompetence and bureaucratic paralysis, but it was also because of a conviction that late warnings would precipitate late departures and that people are most vulnerable when in panicked flight. The logic of the “Stay or Go” policy implies that, once the fire is on the move, it is best to keep people at home. And it’s not just that people weren’t warned. They were falsely reassured – by the policy, by the advisory literature which made defending a home in this region on such a day seem a reasonable option, and by the fact that what little official information was released about the firefront was misleading. Hyland comments that one of the poignant images that recurs from the day “is of people who perished because they were staring at a screen and not at the sky.”

Kissane’s book analyses the evolution of the “Stay or Go” policy and its contradictions. She declares it “the final victim of Black Saturday,” observing that the very policy that insisted people take on an adult responsibility for their fates “also infantilised them by withholding key information.” Kissane’s analysis of “the official mind” is devastating. “While the CFA was arguing over who should run the Kilmore fire,” she writes, “the fire came and went.” In the public messages issued, there was “deadly oversight of the bleeding obvious.” The defensive managerial language observed by Don Watson was doing its work.

IN HIS closing reflection in Kinglake-350, Adrian Hyland asks: “So how does contemporary Australia respond to the dilemma of fire?” And his answer is: “With lawyers.” It is hard for a “profession whose primary function is to find somebody guilty or innocent” not to be drawn into the blame game. But if there is blame to be assigned here, we all share in it. Hyland regrets “the trophy-hunting convolutions that surrounded the Black Saturday royal commission” and the way barristers and journalists “circled for the kill.” These distractions meant, he believed, “that there was little attention left… for an examination of the nation’s soul.” The former Victorian emergency services commissioner, Bruce Esplin, observed on radio in August 2010 that a royal commission “can be a very legal process and it can be a process that thereby stifles proper debate because people are concerned about the implications of what they may or may not say.” Perhaps the commissioners themselves were frustrated by these constraints, for their final recommendation (no. 67) is that “the state consider the development of legislation for the conduct of inquiries in Victoria – in particular, the conduct of royal commissions.”

The Black Saturday royal commission, in my view, had some conspicuous strengths – it was thorough, consultative and exhaustive. In particular, it took very seriously its emotional and political commitment to the victims and their families: “We have been conscious of your pain and loss throughout our work.” The commission made a priority of travelling to suffering communities for its initial consultation sessions, and shared its city proceedings with the general public through webcasting. It also convened special hearings into the circumstances of every death, sessions that were as much therapeutic as investigative. Family and friends of the deceased were welcomed and invited to participate. Justice Teague explained to those present that it was “a different kind of hearing,” one that dispensed with some of the legal formalities and aimed “to get the information we need but in a way that will save you having to be exposed to a great deal of detail.” This was part of the commission’s very impressive commitment to “securing the memories of the fires.”

The commission was less successful in guiding the adversarial legal style of the courtroom away from the pursuit of personal blame. At times – most notably in the cross-examination of the former Victorian police chief, Christine Nixon, by senior counsel Rachel Doyle – the commission allowed its proceedings to be hijacked by another agenda. Stronger moral guidance from the commission to both counsel and the media might have enabled greater public attention to the significant systemic and cultural flaws unearthed. The really shocking point about Christine Nixon’s whereabouts on the evening of 7 February is that, even if she had spent every second of that night in the newly established Integrated Emergency Coordination Centre (“the war room”), she wouldn’t have known much more about the unfolding disaster than she did sitting in a North Melbourne pub.

Could Justice Teague have controlled the distracting media frenzy of blame? Possibly not. But it is worth recalling again that earlier royal commission in 1939 – admittedly a very different era in terms of media morals and power, but still an instructive example. Judge Leonard Stretton began proceedings with these words:

I wish to make it clear at the outset that this is not an inquisitorial commission. I do not represent any punitive or detection arm of the law; I am here merely to arrive at the broad causes of the recent fire disasters and to make recommendations later, if any suggest themselves to me, for future assistance. If any person feels embarrassed by being asked to give evidence, or if he feels that he may incriminate himself, he has only to say so, and he will be given the protection which the law affords him.

Stretton constantly monitored and guided his proceedings to ensure the investigation of broad causes rather than individual blame. “I want to get to the truth, but I do not want to embarrass anyone,” he explained at his first country hearing in Healesville. But he did not hesitate to excoriate the daily newspapers when they threatened his search for truth. He blasted them for their “blackguardly lies” in reporting his commission and its witnesses, especially – he added with typical wit and mischief – “that section of the press which is printed for the more unintelligent, who can absorb their news only in picture form apparently.”

In Worst of Days, Karen Kissane identifies “a great historical truth” that was somehow lost in the state’s bushfire response on Black Saturday: that “some fires are so extraordinarily fast and intense that, in the face of their fury, even the best prepared and well defended home is doomed to ashes.” She adds: “Education campaigns skirted this brutal fact.” I agree with her – and they were not just “some” fires, but very specific types of fires in a quite distinctive region on identifiable kinds of days. The royal commission has gone some way towards being more discriminatory about the variety of bushfire, weather, topography and ecology – but not far enough. There is still insufficient recognition of the distinctiveness of the fire region through which the Black Saturday bushfire stormed. It is astonishing that no vegetation map appears in the royal commission’s interim or final reports. The forests enter the report mostly as “fuel.” “The natural environment,” explain the commissioners in their introduction, “was heavily impacted.” I can see Don Watson wincing!

A key finding of Kissane’s was that “the evidence suggests the CFA was resistant to making warnings as high a priority as firefighting: its operational focus has been on trucks and crews rather than towns and residents.” The royal commission agreed with her, and in its final report recommended that “fire agencies should attach the same value to community education and warnings as they do to fire-suppression operations.” Let us hope that this recommendation is indeed implemented by the fire agencies. It will involve deep structural and philosophical change, and the signs so far are that things are moving very slowly.

Changing attitudes is the biggest challenge and this is where these two books do wonderful work. They draw their moral power from a profound sense of responsibility to those who lived and those who died, and a desperate conviction that meaning, hope and reform must be dug from the ashes. Hyland and Kissane have provided specific, contextual, true stories to think with – that’s what the finest contemporary history should offer policy-makers and survivors. They bring those unrehearsed narratives compellingly before us. As Hyland argues, we do need fire ceremonies like those created by Aboriginal people over millennia – rituals and stories that distil “lessons about how to live in the land, truths that have evolved over tens of thousands of years.”

We need education, research, museums, books, films, websites, and ceremonies and rituals. After the 2009 fires, a National Day of Mourning was announced to mark the anniversary of Black Saturday. I hope that this ritual will, over the years, evolve into a different kind of annual event. There are now many fire deaths to mourn and many different fire days to remember in Australia, particularly in Victoria – and there will be more. We need a National Fire Day – a public holiday – that commemorates them all and remembers the power of fire for good and ill, but also a day that enables Australians to prepare emotionally and practically for the coming summer. And we need that day not in February but in October. •