Inferno: the day Victoria burned, by Roger Franklin
The Slattery Media Group, $39.95,
pp. 267, ISBN 9780980627411

Legendary Australian forester and administrator Alf Leslie had a favourite saying: ‘When it comes to public policy, stupidity nearly always wins.’ Had Leslie been alive to observe the 2009 bushfires in Victoria, and to have studied the factors contributing to this disaster, I can only assume he would have smiled ruefully, his philosophy reaffirmed. But had he read Inferno, Roger Franklin’s critical account of the fires and their genesis, I think he would have wept, as I did when I read it recently. Rarely can a disaster have had such obvious origins in bureaucratic mismanagement and political folly.

The stark facts are well-enough known. In the wake of a long drought, and on a day of high temperatures, strong winds and low humidity, bushfires swept through residential and farming communities in Victoria. Some 430,000 hectares of forest and farmland, countless houses and other buildings were burned, and hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth damage was done to economic and community assets. Far more tragically, it was Australia’s worst civil disaster: 173 lives were lost. 7 February 2009 has become Black Saturday, to be (one imagines) seared into the Australian psyche for generations to come.

In the immediate aftermath of the fires, all of the usual self-serving justifications and excuses were trotted out. The weather conditions were unprecedented, some said. Others blamed global warming, arsonists or electricity generators, while the usual loonies saw the fires as punishment for the legalisation of abortion, Israeli policy over Palestine or some other human mischief.

But, as Franklin points out, there were factors which could not be disputed. ‘In council chambers, green ideologues had prohibited or stymied preventative burning… in universities, theorists insisted that their research had scuttled all the popular notions [about Aboriginal burning]. In government departments a shameful institutional incompetence prevailed.’

In other words, there were real causes that led to inevitable outcomes. Franklin exposes these with the cool ruthlessness of the experienced investigative journalist.

Bushfires are not a new or unusual phenomenon in Australia. Drought occurs periodically and there are hot, dry days every summer. The eucalypt-dominated bush is highly flammable, and there are constant ignitions from lightning, accidents and arson. Far from being unprecedented, similar weather conditions to those on Black Saturday have occurred many times in the past. The killer bushfires of Black Saturday have been added to a long and bloody list, including Black Thursday (1851), Red Tuesday (1898), Black Friday (1939) and Ash Wednesday (1983). Victoria also experienced terrible bushfires in 1926, 1932, 1942, 1944 and 1962 and, as recently as the summers of 2002/3 and 2006/7, the bulk of the alpine forests were swept by fire.

Franklin is careful to put the 2009 bushfire disaster into this historical context. He also draws attention to that most lamentable Australian characteristic: an inability to learn from history, from the experience of others, or from science. For example, the relationship between bushfire intensity and fuel quantity is a matter of simple physics and has been quantified for decades, as has the relationship between fire intensity and difficulty of suppression. Eucalypt forests are notoriously fire-loving: they accumulate fuel (dry leaves, twigs and limbs on the forest floor) for at least 20 years. When this fuel dries, as it does every summer, it burns so fiercely as to make firefighting futile, even with the most modern technology. Worse, burning eucalypts generate streams of airborne embers that are carried kilometres downwind and hugely magnify fire spread. It is this phenomenon that makes warning systems so ineffective, and catches bush communities unawares. Then, it is the sheer intensity of fires in long unburned bushland that gives these communities little chance of survival when a headfire hits. All of this is well-known, as is the most critical part of the solution: fuel-reduction burning under mild conditions. It is a travesty that this approach attracts so much ill-informed opposition.

Franklin’s book has many strengths. He provides a vivid narrative of the fires and presents many harrowing and some grimly humorous accounts from survivors. The courage and selflessness of the firefighters is appropriately recognised. There are disturbing insights into the chaos reigning at command HQ in Melbourne, the failure of agencies to co-operate and of warning systems to warn, the communication collapses and the policy deficiencies. He includes revelations from the current Royal Commission into the bushfires, and the Commission’s preliminary recommendations.

On the other hand, Franklin touches only briefly on the politics of fire, in particular the powerful influence of environmentalists (who mostly oppose effective bushfire management) on successive Victorian Labor and Liberal governments over three decades. He does not adequately discuss the way in which gutless politicians, especially those in local government, consigned bush communities to their fate, or the disgraceful contribution of the Australian intelligentsia, comfortably arguing against sensible bushfire management from positions safe within leafy inner-city campuses. Nor does he tackle the profound ignorance of Australians about bushfire preparedness and damage mitigation, an indictment of our national education system.

Two critical questions remain. Why, in Australia of all places, are bushfire science, the practical experience of firefighters and the lessons of bushfire history forgotten, overlooked or rejected, so that bushfire disasters are constantly replicated? And what is to be done about it?

Franklin is not able to answer these questions; he seems as bemused by them as are most Australian bushfire experts. Indeed, the book ends on a down-note, as he describes a post-fire press conference by the Victorian Premier and his bushfire generals: they ooze self-confidence and are wholly uncontrite; they side-slip accountability, blaming the fires on ‘unprecedented conditions’ and they urge their audience to forget what has happened, and focus on the excellent governance to come. As Franklin wryly concludes, ‘the more things change, the more they stay the same’. Or as Alf Leslie would have said, ‘Stupidity nearly always wins.’

Roger Underwood is a former forest firefighter in Western Australia.