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
Director, Red Eagle Bushfire Protection Services
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