Bushfires are an indelible part of the Australian environment.
For indigenous people they have been a constant and vital feature of life for up to 65,000 years. Aborigines used fire to “care for country” – reducing fuel levels and encouraging the growth of grasslands, making for better hunting, easier passage and safer communities.
Then came the British settlers, who had an entirely different outlook on fire. Jim Kohen, an expert on the impact of Aboriginal culture on the Australian ecosystem, says Aboriginal people “used fire as a tool for increasing the productivity of their environment [while] Europeans saw fire as a threat”.
“Without regular low-intensity burning, leaf litter accumulates and crown fires can result, destroying everything in their path. European settlers feared fire, for it could destroy their houses, their crops, and it could destroy them. Yet the environment that was so attractive to them was created by fire.”
With the arrival of the First Fleet in 1788, it was the European view of fire that prevailed, and has continued to do so.
Yet it is obvious the European view of fire as the “enemy” has been a costly failure.
Fires are considered a destructive force to be banished from the landscape, and when they do occur they are met with maximum resistance by fire authorities.
Imagine the confusion and heartbreak of Aborigines expelled from their traditional homelands when on February 6 1851 – “Black Thursday” – they watched a fire engulf 5 million hectares or 25% of what is now Victoria. A dozen settlers perished, along with 1 million sheep and thousands of cattle.
The narrative of bushfires in white Australia follows a predictable and almost fatalistic course: fire, devastation, response, rebuild. In this circular scenario, bushfires are something to deal with when they inevitably occur.
The insurance industry has more or less been prepared to cop the impact on the chin, such is the place of the bushfire in Australian mythology and folklore.
For the most part, the industry has treated bushfires as a given. It has not occurred to it that there must be a better way. At least, not until 2012, when IAG and Munich Re were two of the six foundation members of the Australian Business Roundtable for Disaster Resilience & Safer Communities.
While not specifically concerned with bushfires, the roundtable believes Australia needs to do more to make communities safer and more resilient to natural disasters.
It argues the economy can no longer afford the exponentially rising cost of natural disasters and wants mitigation given a higher priority than recovery.
The roundtable has played a valuable role in highlighting the proposition that resilience and mitigation are keys to keeping the social and economic cost of future disasters in check. But there has been no attempt to question official attitudes to fire management, which are as much cultural as technical.
However, there are now noticeably diverse voices calling for traditional methods to be given more prominence in managing fires.
Indigenous fire practitioner Victor Steffensen, a Tagalaka man from Queensland’s Gulf Country, teaches traditional fire management, passing on knowledge handed down from his elders.
Speaking on SBS television program Insight last week, he insisted attitudes to fire must change – or more to the point, revert.
“We’ve got sick country; there’s no trees, it’s full of weeds, there are no grasses, no native species. We need to teach people how to burn, to bring that country back to health,” he said.
“We live in a country that needs fire and what has happened is that we have stopped evolving with fire. If we’re going to deal with fire as a nation, we need to empower the communities that live in those regions to be able to put the right [fire] management in place.”
The latest call to embrace traditional fire management methods comes from a coalition of fire scientists, technicians, architects, engineers and town planners who last year formed the Bushfire Building Council of Australia (BBCA).
The BBCA has called for “an urgent shake-up of our fire culture, land management practices and planning and building regulations”.
It is, in the words of CEO Kate Cotter, a “call to action”.
“We think the current way of dealing with fire is to retreat from it; it’s something we fear,” she told insuranceNEWS.com.au. “We see that as a fairly useless way of dealing with the risk.”
Part of the council’s solution is to break down fire management bureaucracy. As Ms Cotter notes, every state and territory has “a multitude of agencies dealing with bushfire”.
“The systems we have in place cannot achieve the level of national fire adaption required to meet Australia’s bushfire challenges,” she said.
More radical is her call to embrace Aboriginal fire expertise.
“We urge the Federal Government to bring our bushfire scientists and indigenous fire experts together to develop a national bushfire strategy. We know it is absolutely achievable to reduce bushfire intensity, which reduces the impact on life, property and the environment.”
Ms Cotter is certainly right when she says such a collaboration of cultures would be “a game-changer for our nation”. But is it too much to hope for?
The Insurance Council of Australia (ICA) says the industry “welcomes any measures that reduce the risk of bushfire damage to Australian communities”. And it’s up for a chat with the BBCA.
“ICA strongly supports a greater focus on prevention and mitigation of natural disasters,” spokesman Campbell Fuller told insuranceNEWS.com.au. “Insurers would welcome the opportunity to discuss issues surrounding bushfire recovery and rebuilding as part of any examination of community bushfire resilience.”
That sounds like a good start.