Fires breaking out

Fire is a particularly powerful theme in Australian history. Paul Collins wrote in Burn: the Epic Story of Bushfire in Australia, about how Australians have been shaped by fire. Keith Hancock and Bill Gammage have written about fire in aboriginal culture. Tom Griffiths has put fire in historical context. ‘Testimony from the 1939 and 2009 fires suggests’, says Griffiths, ‘that there is one thing that we never seem to learn from history. That is, that nature can overwhelm culture.’

Charles Bean felt that being good at fighting bushfires was one of the attributes of his idealised Anzacs. ‘It was a fact often observed’, Bean said, ‘that in a ship-wreck or bush-fire one man of British stock could compass the work of several Germans; and this capacity the Australian possessed in an extreme degree’. (CEW Bean, Official history of Australia in the war of 1914-18: Vol. 1 The story of Anzac, Angus & Robertson, 9th edition, Sydney, 1939, p. 5.)

In our time, firefighters and emergency services workers have been seen as modern day exemplars of ‘the Anzac spirit’ although one would have thought that the professionalism and courage needed in that dangerous line of work do not need to be bolstered by reference to a military tradition. Conversely, a tradition that may be appropriate in the services seems to sit rather oddly in this civilian sphere.

It is worth comparing the effects of fire and the effects of war. Ten times as many Australians died on Black Saturday 2009 in Victoria as died at Long Tan (Vietnam) in 1966 and nearly six times as many as at Kapyong (Korea) in 1951. The circumstances are different but the damage is no less real. The impacts on individuals and families are evident in both spheres.

12 August 2014

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