When our cultural heritage goes up in smoke

The historic homestead Wallarah House burnt to the ground in the recent NSW bushfires. AAP/Dean Lewins

This month’s New South Wales fire emergency has again focused attention on the threat to life and property caused by fire. With thousands of hectares of bushland already burnt out, the impact on natural heritage and conservation is obvious.

Fires also threaten cultural heritage and the historic built environment. When bushfires such as those that have imperilled communities across NSW are burning, the focus is rightly on the immediate threat – but fire also has the potential to destroy our personal, community and national heritage.

Most of us – thankfully – can only imagine what it must be like to return to a home destroyed by fire.

The home itself will be the site of specific memories and meanings. Photos, family heirlooms, keepsakes and memorabilia are not always possible to save in an emergency situation.

Yes, photos can be stored electronically and removed, or uploaded – but this requires careful planning well ahead of time. My own family’s experience in leaving the Victorian town of Mirboo North during the Delburn fire in late January 2009 was a case in point.

We quickly packed essential documents and a few photo albums – but we were not able to save other items that were important to our family history. Personal heritage and the material things that help us understand ourselves and our history can be destroyed in heat and smoke and flame.

Bushfire warning signs posted outside a house in Winmallee during the 2013 NSW bushfires. AAP/Dan Himbrechts

The loss of personal heritage is amplified across families and communities by the threat fire poses to sites of local, state and national heritage.

State and national heritage registers formally document heritage sites. In bushfire-prone areas, these registers may include items of significance to Australia’s rural heritage, such as 19th-century houses. Aboriginal sites are often located in vulnerable areas too, as are places of mining heritage.

The current NSW fire emergency has thrown up two unfortunate examples.

In Catherine Hill Bay in the Lake Macquarie region, the historic Wallarah House was destroyed by fire last week.

Formerly the mine manager’s residence dating from the 1880s, and one of the oldest buildings in the Lake Macquarie area, the house was a powerful reminder of late 19th-century coal mining in the district. It was a landmark, an historical site and a place of significant local heritage.

Similary, the devastation of the buildings, locos and rolling stock of the Lithgow Zig Zag Railway in the Blue Mountains goes beyond loss of property. It represents the loss of irreplaceable railway and transport heritage, a great personal loss for volunteers and the loss of a heritage asset for the community.

The heritage-listed Zig Zag Railway in Lithgow, NSW incurred serious damage during the October bushfires. AAP Image/Zig Zag Railway, Michael Forbes

There will almost certainly be “informal” sites of significance lost, too. These are areas not known to heritage agencies or researchers, but places nonetheless that have meaning for locals. Schools, gardens and backyards, a favourite clubhouse or local reserve; places where people might have played as children.

Heritage protection is increasingly being incorporated into fire management and disaster recovery plans. Rural heritage is particularly vulnerable but recent fire experiences have also shown that fire can reach well into the heart of suburban Australia.

In 1994, fires raged throughout the southern suburbs of Sydney, and the 2003 ACT fires caused extensive damage to the heritage-listed Mount Stromlo Observatory and entered the perimeter of suburban Canberra.

Wooden buildings were once the curse of conservation and record keeping.

In 1882, the Garden Palace fire in Sydney destroyed early colonial records including the detailed returns of the 1881 census.

In 1888, Argent Street in Broken Hill caught fire on a hot blustery summer day. The resulting blaze in the then relatively young mining town was almost unstoppable, destroying the entire western side of the commercial centre. This was the first of many such outbreaks in the town.

The great enemy of heritage and conservation in the 19th century was the myriad of wooden buildings gracing our towns and cities with few fire appliances to protect them. The biggest threat in the 21st century is a changing climate that is producing wild fires driven by hotter temperatures and greater fuel loads.

The act of fighting fires can damage or destroy heritage sites. Fire trails, firebreaks and large-scale fuel reduction burns can also compromise rural heritage. A declaration of emergency, such as was imposed in NSW, allows drastic measures to be taken to combat the fire including demolitions and large-scale works without reference to usual heritage protection legislation.

All other government agencies and ministers are subservient to the power of the Minister for Police and Emergency Services for the duration of the emergency.

Fire has been a regular threat to our personal and community heritage, but a changing climate with even more dangerous fires will only increase the risk.

We need to plan to minimise heritage loss and find ways to protect valuable cultural heritage. We need to find creative ways to prevent fires and avoid, where possible, fire-fighting techniques that might cause inadvertent destruction of the things we are seeking to protect.

And in this difficult time, sadly, we need to acknowledge the grief and pain that individuals, and communities, suffer when sites of heritage and significance are lost forever.