Adapting to bushfires means accepting their place in Australia

The rush to rebuild is understandable, but our attitude to bushfires will bring us more trouble in the long run. AAP Image/Rob Blakers

It’s just a week into the new year and here in Tasmania we are already licking our wounds after disastrous fires in the state’s south. Mainlanders are facing similar events as extreme weather conditions continue to be forecast for the south-eastern states. Hopes of quickly restoring a fire-free status quo are misplaced and problematic.

As a nation of people who celebrate “drought and flooding rains” it is odd that Australians can be so resistant to accepting the pressing reality of natural hazards.

Despite the inevitability of bushfires and their regular cyclic pattern, we seem each year to be taken aback by their untimely incursion into our worlds. There appears to be little time or space allowed for bushfires, as many people in contemporary Australia otherwise busy themselves with their generally quite affluent and highly urbanised lifestyles.

When disasters do strike we rush to make sense of events that were previously once dismissed as the workings of mother nature or acts of God. Now we ask what lessons might be learned. For humans, these devastating events cannot have occurred wholly in vain.

In the end, insights are drawn out and action can follow (even if sometimes seemingly too slowly). The royal commission held after the recent Victorian bushfires is exemplary. Subsequent improvements in communication and evacuation probably contributed to the lack of fatalities in this latest incident in Tasmania.

A swathe of new knowledge is also being produced, with the latest scientific research conducted for the Australian Bushfire Cooperative Research Centre and the National Climate Change Adaptation Research Facility.

Some of my research published in December last year makes the case for recognising bushfire’s persistence in the landscape. In South Hobart, there is still material from the 1967 bushfires. Such events haunt the present even though we relegate them to the past with discreet dates and days infamously tagged as “Red Tuesday”, “Ash Wednesday” and “Black Friday”. Alternatively, they are projected into an unknowable but looming future.

The Hobart bushfires are still burning as I write. Some of the latest headline stories in my local broadsheet, The Mercury, are worth a mention as they reveal valuable insights into how we understand and interact with bushfires. In particular is the need for us to make space and time for living with fire.

The usual metaphors and imagery were being unleashed by the start of the working week. On Monday the main location where the fire had erupted was described as a “battlefield” and on Tuesday there were the no doubt much deserved but now familiar references to first responders or frontline workers as “heroes”.

Such representations are accurate in part at least. There here have been major losses; our hearts go out to the families affected; and thanks are due to an array of people including many in the background as well as those directly tackling the fires.

The militarism is what rankles. The surrounding bushland is made into a new enemy to be subdued, rather than appreciated and respected as a long-standing home and source of sustenance and comfort. The environment is distanced and alienated in futile attempts to ward off the inevitable.

As my University of Tasmania colleague John Bowman states, bushfires will occur, and not least because of our own actions. I concur with him especially on his main point that we need to engage these matters in new and courageous ways.

Sadly, the reverse can happen. Returning the status quo is seen as success. The need to restore power and house people is always pressing after a bushfire, but can lead us into repeating past mistakes. For example, efforts to replace overhead powerlines and poles were reported in The Mercury on the first day of the emergency. The problem is that such infrastructure is often the cause of bushfires. Its rapid resurrection can also pre-empt the exploration of any possible alternatives.

The arrival of loss assessors and insurance agents was reported in the papers on the Sunday. Assurances of payouts would be welcomed. But as the rebuilding for a quick recovery is railroaded into town, is enough time taken for people to have a say in their futures? Will we seize the opportunity to make changes for the better by reinventing how (and where) we dwell in the landscape?

That same day’s issue of The Mercury had an article that referred to one typical home there made of “fibro and tin”. Such cheap construction is unsurprising: Tasmania’s south-east has a mix of pensioners, single parents and unemployed (alongside wealthy retirees and second home-owners). Society’s most disadvantaged, including social tenants in old housing stock on the urban periphery, are especially vulnerable to disaster. Others have provided cautions about rebuilding after disaster. The question here is do we want to set in stone, once again, the fates of already marginalised people?

Who, in the long run, will have to pay for such decisions? It won’t necessarily just be the insurance sector which has a key role in disaster management and housing recovery but currently appears under-utilised as a mechanism of climate adaptation. Indeed, we all might well get caught up here in a case of still worse outcomes following on the heels of yet more bad timing.

Fire continues to be rendered strange and threatening, deemed out of place, and afforded little time by most Australians. In the context of a slowly evolving landscape and rapidly changing climate, true adaptation will require us to accept the reality of bushfire as a constant presence in our lives.

In realising that we must exist alongside it, we will perhaps more easily sit a while with the havoc it can cause. That way, we might yet live longer as we learn more and continue to improve how we prepare and respond.