Remembering Ash Wednesday

The 1983 Ash Wednesday fires, near Narraweena, SA. (Rex Hall)

This fire season in Australia has been highlighted as unprecedented. Australia has faced “the worst fires ever.” What’s more, it is all the result of CO2 production, which is why “in Australia drought and thereby forest fires are getting worse every year.” So opined Robert Giebels in the Dutch daily, De Volkskrant, on January 6th.

Victoria Gill of the BBC avers that this season’s “Australia fires were far worse than any prediction.” Citing recent research articles, she paints a picture in which reality outstripped models’ ability to forecast. The need is to plan for worst-case scenarios. “Understanding what the worst case scenario could look like for wildfires and extreme weather, becomes more important as we move Earth into unknown climate territory, scientists say.” If we do so, we can “avoid being caught out in future by wildfires, or by other catastrophes fuelled by climate change.”

It is indeed a serious matter. Thirty-three people lost their lives through bushfires this season, while 2,500 homes were been lost and over 11.7m hectares were burnt, according to this article in Reuters.

This is tragic, but it is not unprecedented. Or have we forgotten?

Remember Ash Wednesday, February 16th, 1983? A horrendous fire season in Australia reached its culmination on that day, capping off three years of drought.

Prior to it, many Australians had forgotten the danger the bush presented. Human settlement was inexorably expanding into the hinterlands, or, in other words, city folks were moving out into the bush. This urbanized mass of humanity, outfitted with a great love of the outdoors and a great concern for nature as they understood it, carried with it a newfound intolerance of fire, the fire wielded by foresters and graziers and other denizens of the Outback, the method by which fuel loads were kept under precarious control. No, fire was bad. These representatives of new Australia considered fire to be something to be done away with. This conviction cast aside the fire-bound ways of the old Australian bush and prepared the way for a fatal clash between human civilization and ecological realities, the clash of Ash Wednesday.

The fires that ravaged Victoria and South Australia on that day left quite a trail of carnage in their wake: 75 deaths, more than 3,000 properties lost, along with 340,000 sheep and 18,000 head of cattle. Monetary damages were estimated at $400m ($1.32bn in 2020 Australian dollars).

But was this unprecedented? Again, no; not by a long shot. The Ash Wednesday fires only eclipsed the previous worst outbreak of fire (in terms of lives lost) in modern Australian history – January 13th, 1939, Black Friday, “the superlative Australian holocaust.”[1]

It was Black Friday that initially forced Australia to come to terms with fire, to embrace the need to fight fire with fire. This traumatic experience, “the Götterdämmerung of European Australia,” had had the same kind of impact on the Australian psyche as did the fall of Singapore a few years later.[2] Later on, “even before the ashes cooled, Australians began comparing Ash Wednesday to Black Friday.”[3]

“The Black Friday bushfires of 13 January 1939, in Victoria, Australia, were part of the devastating 1938-1939 bushfire season in Australia, which saw bushfires burning for the whole summer, and ash fall as far away as New Zealand.”[4] The conditions leading up to the fires of Black Friday had been no less daunting than Ash Wednesday’s; in fact, they were even more severe. The Royal Commissioner charged with investigating the fires, Leonard E. B. Stretton, depicted them in stark outline:

The month of January of the year 1939 came towards the end of a long drought which had been aggravated by a severe hot, dry summer season. For more than twenty years the State of Victoria had not seen its countryside and forests in such travail. Creeks and springs ceased to run. Water storages were depleted. Provincial towns were facing the probability of cessation of water supply. In Melbourne, more than a million inhabitants were subjected to restrictions upon the use of water. Throughout the countryside, the farmers were carting water, if such was available, for their stock and themselves. The rich plains, denied their beneficient rains, lay bare and baking ; and the forests, from the foothills to the alpine heights, were tinder. The soft carpet of the forest floor was gone; the bone-dry litter crackled underfoot; dry heat and hot dry winds worked upon a land already dry, to suck from it the last, least drop of moisture. Men who had lived their lives in the bush went their ways in the shadow of dread expectancy.[5]

The result was no less devastating. “Seventy-one lives were lost. Sixty-nine mills were burned. Millions of acres of fine forest, of almost incalculable value, were destroyed or badly damaged. Townships were obliterated in a few minutes. Mills, houses, bridges, tramways, machinery, were burned to the ground; men, cattle, horses, sheep, were devoured by the fires or asphyxiated by the scorching debilitated air. Generally, the numerous fires which during December, in many parts of Victoria, had been burning separately, as they do in any summer, either ‘under control’ as it is falsely and dangerously called, or entirely untended, reached the climax of their intensity and joined forces in a devastating confluence of flame on Friday, the 13th of January.”[6] But more than Victoria was affected. “New South Wales and the Australian Capital Territory also faced severe fires during the 1939 season. Destructive fires burned from the NSW South Coast, across the ranges and inland to Bathurst, while Sydney was ringed by fires which entered the outer suburbs, and fires raged towards the new capital at Canberra. South Australia was also struck by the Adelaide Hills bushfires.”[7]

But Black Friday was only the “highlight” of a long history of bushfires. For Australia is the continent of fire, the most fire-prone of any region brought under the thrall of human civilization. As such, there had been countless instances of pyrogenic disaster.

There was 1926, when Victoria, New South Wales, the Australian Capital Territory, and Queensland were inundated by fire. All during February and March, Gippsland in rural Victoria was rocked by fires costing a total of 60 lives and burning 400,000 hectares of forestland.

And on Black Sunday, February 14th, a single town, Warburton, witnessed the loss of 31 people.

There was Red Tuesday, February 1st, 1898. Gippsland was again the scene. It came in the midst of the so-called Long Drought, lasting from 1895 to 1903. It saw 12 people perish, 2,000 homes destroyed, and 260,000 hectares burnt. “In addition to the human loss of life, thousands of sheep, cattle and pigs perished in the disaster, not to mention countless wildlife,” a refrain which can be repeated for every such instance.[8]

Last but not least in this abbreviated list of Australian disasters is that primordial day of fire disaster, Black Thursday, February 6th, 1851, “the first of the great holocausts that flash across Australia’s history with the coming of European settlement.”[9] Here again, intense drought set the stage. And then there was the weather.

“The weather reached record extremes. By eleven it was about 47 °C (117 °F) in the shade. The air cooled to 43 °C (109 °F) by one o’clock and rose to 45 °C (113 °F) around four o’clock.” Scenes which would be repeated in future repeat events were here for the first time recorded.

Survivors claimed the air was so full of smoke and heat that their lungs seemed to collapse. The air was so dark it made the roads seem bright. Pastures and plains became shrivelled wastelands: water-holes disappeared, creeks dried up, and trees turned into combustible timber. Clouds of smoke filled the air; forests and ranges became one large ‘sheet of flames’. The hot north wind was so strong that thick black smoke reached northern Tasmania, creating a murky mist, resembling a combination of smoke and fog. Homes, crops and gardens were consumed by the rushing fire leaving a quarter of Victoria in a heap of desolate ruins. The community fled to water to escape the suffocating air around them, returning after everything was over to the sight of ‘blackened homesteads’ and the charred bodies of animals that could not escape. The weather at sea was even ‘more fearful than on shore’. The intense heat could be felt 32 km (20 mi) out to sea where a ship came under burning ember attack and was covered in cinders and dust.[10]

The aboriginals had originally fired the Australian landscape, and fire was their Swiss Army knife. Ironically, they put the land into a shape tailor-made to harbor the European invaders arriving with their cattle and sheep. It took the Europeans awhile to realize that they too needed to use fire if they wanted to keep this wilderness under some sort of control. They took their lessons from the natives and expanded willy-nilly into the bush, where they learned the hard way that fire is a cruel mistress.[11] Nevertheless, fire became a way of life, no matter how incongruous it might seem to those unacquainted with the ways of the Outback.

Even so, fire control was a haphazard affair, without much control locally, let alone state-wide or nationally. It took Black Friday of 1939 to drill into the public awareness the need to control fire lest it be the undoing of the country. Controlled fire became the order of the day, administered or coordinated primarily by foresters. And the Australian approach as it developed, took on a shape that was quite unorthodox in the eyes of other countries, particularly the US. The latter had invested heavily in fire suppression, even to the point of aerial tankers to help douse out-of-control flames. Australia developed aerial fire ignition, the controlled setting of fires from airplanes – the only feasible way to conduct a controlled-fire strategy in a country with such vastly extended remote areas.

But as the new Australia took shape, the relationship of city to countryside was transformed. In the post-war period, prosperity brought new patterns of living giving expression to the desire to escape the city and get closer to nature. Yet one did not embrace the traditional ways of the bush; instead, one brought along one’s own mentality and imposed it on the bush. The new Australia did not embrace fire, far from it. For new Australia, the approach to fire control laboriously constructed over decades smacked more of vandalism than of wise use.

The reconstitution of Australian society after the war paralleled a reconstruction of the Australian environment. The process took several decades before it became ev­ident, slowed at first by the postwar demand for wool, wheat, and basic commodi­ties, then hastened as a service economy matured and “new” Australians became a majority and asserted new values. By the 1970s the reformation was undeniable and probably irreversible. The rural scene—that roughly grazed and farmed land­scape that was the legacy of European colonization—broke up into an archipelago of more specialized sites. The artificial unity that agriculture had imposed lost its grip. Farming and forestry disentangled; environments that graziers had crudely homogenized fractionated back into separate identities as distinctive biotas; small rural towns decayed, while the metropolitan centers spread grasping tentacles through an increasingly urbanized bush.[12]

Those who had worked so hard to establish Australian fire-control policy asked the pointed question: how were we going to deal with the inevitable fires that arise in the midst of a fuel-laden environment when we keep expanding the urban-wildland interface?

Ash Wednesday 1983 provided something of an answer, and at the same time raised the question in a way that no verbal inquiry could. “Ash Wednesday did not shatter the impasse over fire practices. It did not inspire an intellectual or institutional reformation. The interrogation of Ash Wednesday yielded no new breakthroughs in the theory and practice of bushfire protection; rather it con­firmed what decades of hard experience had accumulated. Ash Wednesday was less a fact than a specter. It appeared like a recurring nightmare, long forgotten, that suddenly flashed back into consciousness like a scream in the dark.”[13]

Since then, Australia has tottered between the need to suppress fire and the need to use fire. As habitation has expanded out of the fire-safe alcoves of the asphalt jungle, the conundrum has become ever more pronounced. The urban-wildland interface has only gained more area of contact. The confrontation between civilization and pyrophytic (pyrophyte being Greek for “fire-plant”) ecosystems is only heightening. In the wake of Ash Wednesday, “citizens—with more resolution than insight—often rebuilt their houses on the same sites, in the same styles, with the same perception of the bushfire hazard, with at most some marginal improvements in design.”[14]

And yet we are told that this year’s fires were the worst in history and that the problem is a new one, caused by that Cause of Causes, the one thing that can be relied on to be behind every societal ill we face – climate change. But climate change is only one factor in the mix. Even if the climate is on a warming trend, it does nothing to change the fact that Australia already was a civilization built on an ecological volcano. “Even without global warming… fires will continue to burn wherever fuel, weather, and topography permit. No amount of human intervention will succeed in permanently excluding fire from the forest, so the more realistic challenge is for humans to learn to coexist with fire, rather than to attempt to eliminate it.”[15]

Have we, has Australia, has the world yet learned the lesson of Ash Wednesday? It is the expansion of human habitation itself into the wildlands, in which fire quite simply is an indispensable element, that is creating this problem of wildfire, indeed megafire – for human beings, while they wish to embrace nature, cannot seem to embrace the reality of nature, which includes wildfire and the devastation it brings, not only to plant life but to animal life, a devastation which leads to restoration, in an ever-repeating cycle. The question is still not answered – how do we reduce fuel loads in these forest and wildland environments, while simultaneously expanding into them, in so doing blocking the way to reducing those fuel loads? This is the crux of the issue, and climate change will not alter it. What’s more, putting the emphasis there loses sight of what really is at issue.

[1] Stephen J. Pyne, Burning Bush: A Fire History of Australia (New York: Henry Holt and Company, Inc., 1991), ch. 16, para. 24.

[2] Pyne, Burning Bush, ch. 16, para. 25.

[3] Pyne, Burning Bush, Epilogue, para. 3.

[4] “Black Friday Bushfires,” Wikipedia, accessed 25 Feb. 2020.

[5] Report of the Royal Commission to inquire into the causes of and measures taken to prevent the bush fires of January, 1939…, p. 5.

[6] Report of the Royal Commission, p. 5.

[7] “Black Friday Bushfires,” Wikipedia, accessed 25 Feb. 2020.

[8] “Australia’s most deadly and destructive bushfires,” Love Exploring, accessed 25 Feb. 2020.

[9] Pyne, Burning Bush, ch. 12, para. 72.

[10] “Black Thursday Bushfires,” Wikipedia, accessed 25 Feb. 2020.

[11] One example in literature among many: Anthony Trollope, Harry Heathcote of Gangoil (1874).

[12] Pyne, Burning Bush, ch. 19, para. 1.

[13] Pyne, Burning Bush, Epilogue, para. 10.

[14] Pyne, Burning Bush, Epilogue, para. 13.

[15] Philip N. Omi, Forest Fires: A Reference Handbook (Santa Barbara, CA, et al.: ABC-CLIO, 2005), p. 14.