1802 to resume normal life the day after the bushfire attack. self-reliance with a house is better...

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  • 1 Victoria’s Bushfire History D O’Bryan Red Eagle

    Victoria’s Bushfire History

    1802 to Present

    Denis O’Bryan

    Director, Red Eagle Bushfire Protection Services

    September, 2018

    This painting by John Longstaff in 1898, depicts the Red Tuesday bushfires, 1 Feb

    1898, one day within Victoria’s worst ever season for bushfire weather severity in

    1897/98 (based on maximum seasonal dryness and maximum number of very hot days (> 350C)).

  • 2 Victoria’s Bushfire History D O’Bryan Red Eagle

    Victoria’s Bushfire History 1802 to Present

    'Those who fail to learn from history are condemned to repeat it.' Winston Churchill, 1948 speech to the House of Commons

    Our forebears self-defended against bushfire attacks as second nature. They saw the

    bushfire as a natural disaster whose embers and spot fires and fire fronts destroyed

    their homes and livelihoods. They had no choice. They protected their lives and

    livelihoods by instinct. They worked as a team to defend house and town. A lot of

    failures. A lot of successes. They fought with self-respect and self-reliance, and

    rebuilt their lives with dignity and community support.

    Since government has taken state wide responsibility for bushfire prevention and

    suppression, it began to encourage, and lately, order people to run from the bushfire

    attack. Nowadays, it encourages people to leave home on severe weather days, even

    before a bushfire is reported. This recent save-lives-at-all-costs policy is an over-

    reaction to 173 deaths on Black Saturday.

    • It is counter-productive because evacuation creates vacant undefended houses. Government has ignored consistent research findings that mass house loss

    occurs in vacant undefended houses under severe bushfire attack. Saving lives

    has increased house losses.

    • “Run and hide” is contrary to our national psyche as Australians, as this document demonstrates

    Thus, government has created an environment where people are now government-

    reliant. It believes it owns the bushfire problem, believes it has the answers, and foists

    its solutions onto the people. Big Brother government has arrived.

    People now lose homes after obeying government instructions. This means its

    solutions are wrong. Loss of a home is life shattering. Displaced people are at the

    mercy of insurance payouts and benevolent government response. This document

    shows our worst ever fire season was 1897/98 when pioneer settlers lived within the

    forests in primitive huts. Fires that year burnt over 1 million ha, destroyed thousands

    of homes, and killed 12 people. A century later, 2009 was a severe season. It burnt

    half that area, destroyed 2000 homes and killed 173 people. Yet we now have better

    weather forecasts, much better bushfire behaviour knowledge, much better technology

    and equipment, much better bushfire prevention laws, stricter government regulated

    building design rules. Government solutions are clearly not working against severe

    bushfire attacks and the people are suffering more hardship.

    As a bushfire professional, I know severe bushfires are a deadly but preventable

    scourge. I know houses can survive severe bushfire attack. Despite Big Brother’s

    wishes, we know that 45% of properties self-defended on Black Saturday afternoon. I

    was on one of them. We safely defended people, house, horses and cars on a forested

    property on Black Saturday afternoon from the ember attack and spot fires using a

    professional self-defence technique I developed based on bushfire behaviour science,

    bushfire threat management principles and dry firefighting techniques I learnt and

    practiced as a forester. Our pioneers used similar techniques, defiance and will power.

  • 3 Victoria’s Bushfire History D O’Bryan Red Eagle

    I have studied entire towns under severe attack to understand the why’s and how’s,

    the do’s and don’ts.

    As a bushfire professional, I ask - Why do we people still tolerate the annual bushfire

    menace in their area? This document shows that the individual settler could only

    control the bushfire problem on his property. Government however can change state

    wide policies to control the bushfire problem on whole areas. Many areas are already

    bushfire-protected. Government could readily bushfire-protect entire areas.

    When government took ownership of the bushfire problem, why did it not resolve to

    eradicate the bushfire menace from Victoria, like, for example, it eradicated the rabbit

    and other problems? We can deduce they continued to accept that bushfires are

    natural disasters, and therefore Mother Nature is in charge and we have to get better at

    responding because we will always have bushfires in Victoria. But wait a minute. Our

    new understanding of bushfire behaviour shows us they are not natural disasters. Take

    away their fuel and there is no flame. This means we can control where they burn and

    where they do not burn. They are therefore fully preventable disasters.

    The bushfire protection budget has grown exponentially. I have noticed most has gone

    into improving the suppression response model. In my judgement, the suppression

    response model has little influence on the life loss and house loss toll in severe

    bushfire attacks because it is the wrong and vastly inadequate tool against the inferno

    flame and ember threat on those days. Logic says we have to apply bushfire behaviour

    knowledge to denature the flame to meet our suppression capability. Unfortunately,

    such logic is yet to guide government policy. More shiny red trucks and more aerial

    water bombers win government money.

    I have noticed that ever increasing government investment in bushfire suppression in

    recent decades corresponds with an increase in the damage toll. The toll should be

    decreasing. I fear our fire authorities tolerate a worsening damage toll because they

    expect collateral damage in natural disasters. How have we let the government get it

    so wrong? Are our taxes being misplaced, funding a worsening bushfire menace?

    I hope this document encourages people to revive our pioneer Australian attitudes of

    defiance against the foe and self-reliance and persuade government to infuse this

    attitude into reform of its bushfire response - eradicate the severe bushfire threat

    rather than tolerate its damage tolls.

    I put these records together because I want to document how our pioneers coped with

    bushfires when government was not even interested enough in bushfires to keep

    records. I want to identify if government policies are making the bushfire situation

    worse or better. I am particularly interested in how people in Victoria have dealt with

    and were affected by bushfire attacks, and the corollary, how they used broad area fire

    to sustain or improve their everyday life.

    Official records of the past are sketchy, so I went to their sources – the early

    newspapers - to get a better feel for the actions and attitude of our pioneers. I want to

    see what we can learn for application today. I found much of great relevance.

    Let me explain:

  • 4 Victoria’s Bushfire History D O’Bryan Red Eagle

    There are four eras in the bushfire study, pre-European residents (before 1835),

    pioneers and settlers without government support (1835 – 1900), people operate with

    limited government interest (1900 – 1945), people operate within state-wide

    government controls (1945 – now).

    My initial observation is that during the century-long hands-off government period,

    people became empowered and self-reliant under their own clear goal of “defend our

    houses and our settlement when under bushfire attack”. Their community-minded

    self-defence response was second nature. They did not ask for government help nor

    expect it. They complained when government policies endangered their communities.

    They ignored laws that threatened their communities. They always fought hard to

    save the houses of their settlements from attack, often winning, but sometimes losing

    houses and assets.

    In the non-government period, the strong goal of the people was to protect the houses

    of their settlement at all costs with all hands to the pump. By protecting their houses

    and sheds, they protected their lives and their stock. Preventing the spread of fire was

    low priority because there were no resources. Instead, riders would race ahead to the

    next settlement to warn them – “it is coming your way”.


    Reaction to bushfire attack in severe weather was this:

    People apply their own resources to property protection or whole-of-town protection

    from unstoppable spreading fire fronts, and warn other threatened towns to also

    prepare for their defence

    My next observation is that the damage toll (measured as life loss and house loss) is

    rising in the current era because