Reflections from the fire front and research in its ashen wake

By Christine Eriksen and Trent Penman

Bushfire is a constant and ongoing part of Australian history, ecology and culture. The love of a sunburnt country, the beauty and terror of fire, and the filmy veil of post-fire greenness described in the century-old poem Core of my Heart (Mackellar 1908) are still apt depictions of Australian identity today (as illustrated in the ‘Suiting Up’ cartoon below). Yet, the bushfires currently burning in the greater Sydney region provide a stark reminder of the challenges and uncertainty of coexisting with fire.

‘Suiting Up’ (The Sunday Telegraph, 30 October 2013)

Debates about the current bushfires in New South Wales have begun through various media outlets with contributions from academics, politicians and laypeople alike. There are a plethora of articles arguing whether these fires are the result of climate change, land management, land use changes or urban planning. Some of these articles are based on data and research, while others are based on opinions that are often emotionally and politically charged.

In the midst of this media frenzy it is important to remember that there are over 200 families that have lost their houses (and in many cases all their material belongings). Many more have been impacted in other ways, such as losing pets, damage to their property, the psychological terror of living through a devastating fire, or setting aside jobs and personal lives to join hundreds of volunteer fire fighters to battle the blaze. These impacts will affect individuals and communities for years to come – for better or for worse.

So we should be wary of the implications of comments – particularly those that are emotionally or politically charged – on those who have suffered or continue to suffer – directly or indirectly – throughout this series of bushfires. Of course there are important conversations to be had about, for example, the impact of climate change, land management and lifestyle choices in a fiery country, the value of retrofitting houses and gardens to increase resilience levels, and the ways in which the emergency services can best communicate with at-risk communities. But these conversations need to be measured right now against the raw reality at the fire front and of those impacted by the bushfires.

All involved in a bushfire experience trauma but in various ways and to differing degrees. Communities and emergency personnel are exposed, first as they find themselves in the path of the raging fire and later in its ashen wake. Other response groups, such as recovery teams, counsellors and researchers, who have already been dispatched to the fire affected areas or soon will be, will spend the next weeks, months and years working with the impact of these fires. This can lead to vicarious trauma that lingers in body and mind for years – often subconsciously but with potential serious health consequences.

Trent experienced this first hand last Friday, when he was given the privilege of volunteering with the NSW Rural Fire Service in some of the worst hit areas of the Blue Mountains. The task was to document the extent of loss caused by the fires. While expecting few people to be within the fire perimeter, the area turned out to be a buzz of activity. Residents had returned to these areas to assess the damage to their property and collect belongings. Fire fighters were extinguishing small fires. Electricity companies were assessing the damage to their infrastructure and beginning the task of restoring power to these communities. Council staff was operating road closures. Volunteer groups were running evacuation centres for residents and helping to feed those who have come to work on the fires.

It is difficult to describe the environment in a manner that adequately portrays the situation. On the ground, the loss appears more extensive than a number in the media portrays. When we record a smoldering pile of rubble where a house once stood it is hard not to think of the family that no longer has a home. Seeing houses that were successfully defended was a positive experience but it was clear that these families too had suffered. For some, this includes survivor’s guilt that comes when witnessing the more extensive losses of neighbours and friends. These are not sights, sounds and feelings that can be captured adequately by the media, but we must not forget about these psychological impacts.

When we count the number of houses or lives lost, we often forget about the houses and lives not lost because of activities carried out in advance of the fire season by volunteer bushfire brigades and residents to prepare themself, their family, property and local community for the endemic bushfire threat that has become a reality in many parts of New South Wales this month.

The rest of today, the next days and weeks, let alone the rest of the fire season hold many challenges, which will continue to impact the lives of many for years to come. Let us not forget these reflections from the fire front as the academic research and the emotionally and politically charged debates continue in the ashen wake of Red October.

You can follow @DrCEriksen and @trentpenman on Twitter. Christine has also written several other posts for this blog, including ‘Living and Working with Bushfire‘, ‘Landscapes of Uncertainty in California‘, ‘Mapping Amenity in Bushfire-prone Landscapes‘, and ‘Journeys in Japan‘.

4 thoughts on “Reflections from the fire front and research in its ashen wake

  1. It is very much appreciated all the work, time and effort people like yourself are putting into this disastrous and catastrophic happening that is taking place in NSW at the moment.

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