Learning to live with fire

Australia fire
Australia fire
An engine crew attacks a fire in Australia, Feburary, 2009.

The Australian publication The Age has a very interesting article about how our culture affects our understanding of wildfire and our ability co-exist with it in a fire-prone environment. The author, John Schauble, is the Captain of the Sassafrass / Ferny Creek (volunteer) Fire Brigade, which is located on the ridge which runs through the center of the Dandenong Ranges National Park, 25 miles east of Melbourne, Victoria.

Here is an excerpt:

…In his recent book Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies and Why, American author Laurence Gonzales uses the simple example of crossing the road. People can’t naturally cross a busy street without being taught. That starts as children. ”Our culture places such great importance on that type of learning that by the time you grow up you don’t even think about crossing the street,” Gonzales notes.

Other cultures have other priorities, such as fishing skills, dealing with predatory animals or celestial navigation. In Australia, where settlement clings to the coast, we put a premium on teaching our children to swim that is absent elsewhere.

Strangely, given our fire history, the same culture places little or no importance on knowing the place of fire in the landscape. As a result, very few people have even a rudimentary understanding of bushfire.

This helps explain why people don’t automatically take safe actions in response to a fire. It helps explain why there is agitation for simplistic solutions that simply won’t work. It points to why many of the solutions proposed, such as mandatory evacuation, fire refuges and large fire-bombing aircraft, are not new.

Instead, communal beliefs about fire are often shaped by myth and misunderstanding. When tragedies such as 1939’s Black Friday, 1983’s Ash Wednesday or those of February 7 last year occur, we go through the process of relearning. Yet it seems few of the lessons are enduring.

Social, environmental and economic changes mean the impact of fire will most likely grow in coming years, probably faster than Victorians will grow to intuitively understand fire. In the meantime, the rest of us must play catch-up.

This means that when people choose to live in areas where there is a fire risk, they should understand and accept the risk…

Thanks go out to WOL

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Author: Bill Gabbert

After working full time in wildland fire for 33 years, he continues to learn, and strives to be a Student of Fire.