Fire and the Psyche (2002)

Fire at Wallaby IMG_5163


(written in 2002 in response to massive bushfires in the Sydney and Hunter areas of New South Wales). Still relevant?

Life for both human and non-humans can be put at risk in an instant by wildfire. Wildfire has the potential to kill and maim many hundreds of humans and destroy their property (Ash Wednesday, Black Friday). The destruction of the natural environment and its animals is also devastating, despite claims that the Australian bush is “fire tolerant”. With the fire season already upon us, it is crucial that we re-assess our views and values about the relationship between humans and the land in Australia. I shall describe four positions that try to cover the spectrum of possible views.

Alienation and Arson

The first position is full alienation from our own country. As a colonising culture we come to this continent and bring with us our European conceptual baggage which includes a belief in the inferiority of all things indigenous (including the indigenous people) and the inherent superiority of all things European. Symptoms of alienation gone crazy include “mad palm”, “mad lawn” and “mad paver” diseases. We have created a culture determined to supplant the endemic with the exotic irrespective of the environmental costs. Where the endemic situation threatens the colonist, the response is always extermination of the native. The coloniser mentality is inclined to remove the threat and replace it with certainty and safety. Along with the forests go the Thylacines and Koalas, while exotic palms, pools, pussy cats, pooches and Porsches move in. Unfortunately, so too do the psychopath pyromaniacs who like nothing better than to light fires and watch the carnage. We see our native vegetation as a threat and perceive it as ‘fuel’ for fire. The full alienation results in perpetual burning, concrete and asphalt with no ‘natural’ threats or danger and nothing distinctively Australian left in the landscape.

Design Against Nature

A second option is to design urban structures so as to make them immune from the unwanted features of the bush such as poisonous snakes, quolls, ticks, leeches, spiders and fire. We live close to the bush, but protect ourselves from those aspects of biodiversity and ecosystem processes that are inconsistent with our lifestyle choices and personal safety.

We can work harder to make our dwellings fire resistant or even fire proof. We design to live with fire and keep the bushland as well. However, despite saving human property and lives, the ‘fire bunker’ with its passive (materials) and active (sprinklers) systems does not address the fundamental issue of alienation from the bush. The more we think that we can defeat fire, the more bushland will be infiltrated by urbanisation. Along with the fire-proof urban front comes the armada of insults to the bush outlined above and out go the endemic ‘undesirables’. In defeating fire we defeat the bush.

Phased Transition to ‘the Bush’

A third position is to think about overcoming the alienation with a phased transition from city to bush. In this option, we concede that humans in urban systems have needs that are inconsistent with the presence of unmanaged ecosystems and wild creatures. At the core of city/suburbia is a ‘humans only’ zone where all undesirables (including fruit bats) are excluded. The only animals permitted to dwell within are those that are quasi-human such as dogs and cats that are companion animals for humans. The landscape around such a core is also artificial and celebrates its triumph over the endemic in the form of concrete, pavers, asphalt, manicured lawns, resort style palms and exotic trees.

On the fringes of such an artefact there are highly managed corridors of multiple use park-like reserves where conventional houses sit safely in mowed and maintained transition zones before the real bush. Some undesirables will occasionally slither down the corridor but a four-by-two or a professional pest exterminator easily deals with them. Property damage from fire is virtually non-existent as there is no dense bushland next to housing. The corridors lead to tracts of ‘wilderness’ where no human property or life is at direct risk from fire or pests. Bush fire control is then the responsibility of organisations such as NPWS and its goal is to stop the destruction of our national parks and their biodiversity. The majority of the people at the core of this system remain deeply alienated from endemic Australia, however, those at the periphery get glimpses of the real thing. Those in power sit in the very centre of the core and turn up the air conditioning when the heat is on.

Living Within Nature

A fourth option suggests that a non-alienated way of life might be possible for Australians if the city/urban environment is re-constructed so as to maximise the possibility of an endemic sense of place. Such reconstruction entails the systematic removal of exotics and their replacement with native vegetation and native fauna. From gardens to streetscapes to urban parks, the idea is to always promote the native and to expunge the exotic. Implications here include the complete banning of free-range companion animals. Rather than fence in the natives (the failed Earth Sanctuary idea) we fence in the pooches and pussies so that they constitute no threat to the natives.

For example, we can learn to live with free ranging Koalas, Possums and Bandicoots in our gardens and design our dwellings/gardens to fit with their needs. Such a mentality of ‘inclusion’ also requires a degree of coexistence with the undesirables (spiders, snakes and carnivores) as they too are integral parts of endemic ecosystems and their flora and fauna. Fire too is a normal part of the system and can be used, much as it was by Aboriginal people, to actively manage the environment. Creative use of fire to maintain habitat for native plants and animals and reduce the threat of wildfire for all living things could be considered to be an art as well as a science. However, the reality of fire in a dry landscape means that wildfire will still occur and that sometimes it will kill and maim living things.

Fire and the Psyche

We accept with resignation the death of about 2,000 and the serious injury of 30,000 people a year on our national road system. Yet the death of even one person by bush fire seems to strike at the heart of the Australian psyche. I wonder why such a contrast in our perception of death and injury should prevail. It is possible that our alienation from the land is so profound that we cannot accept that it might be opposing our presence at times.

A reassessment of where and how we are living might be a more appropriate response than calling Fat Elvis*. Consideration of the ‘phased transition’ and ‘living within nature’ might help us come to appreciate the privilege of living within the beauty and danger of the Australian landscape. With climate change and more warming inevitable now, we are all going to have to live with fire.