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Bushfires are burning bright in Australian letters and life

Reading about the beauty and destruction of the bushfire may help us live alongside it. Jason Verwey

Historically, bushfires have played an important role in Australian literature, adding a touch of exoticism in fiction written for readers back in Europe, while also offering insights into the dangers faced by settler communities. But how does that fit into our modern lives, and the trauma often visited upon by those with first-hand experience?

Stories from the 1850s, such as those by Ellen Clacy, often used the bushfire as a melodramatic device to resolve romance plots. Novelists and short story writers regularly deployed a heroic rescue from swirling flames (themselves an outlet for the smouldering passions of the protagonists) as a means of bringing together characters whose marriage would have been considered unsuitable “back home” on the other side of the world.

Escape from a bushfire enabled uncouth stockmen to be united with slightly uptight, socially superior heroines, with bravery sanctioning the transcendence of class boundaries.

Towards the end of the 19th century, as settlers became better acquainted with the devastation that fire could cause in the outback, bushfire narratives became bleaker and more menacing. Stories from the 1850s often involved the successful defence of the settler home, but by the 1880s, works such as JS Borlase’s Twelve Miles Broad (1885) involved suicides, traumatic flashbacks and apocalyptic visions.

Other stories, such as H Hudson’s almost-forgotten short story The Phantom Herd (1907), highlight fire’s devastating environmental impact, while at the same time showing how the relationship with the land was forever changed for those who survived catastrophic blazes.

In the 20th century the bushfire took on a more symbolic role, while writers became increasingly respectful of its destructive capacity. HG Wells, writing of the 1939 “Black Friday” fires in Victoria, used the catastrophic burn as a means of considering Australian land management and, curiously, European air defence.

Patrick White’s later work The Tree of Man (1955) includes a bushfire as just one of many natural disasters to challenge Australian settlers, at the same registering the comfort that more controlled fires, like the campfire, can offer to humans and domestic animals in the bush.

Increasingly, readers are exposed to fire in fiction at a very early age, with works including Colin Thiele’s February Dragon (1966) and Kate Wilson’s Can We Go Home Now? (2011) acquainting the very young with the dangers of fire.

Traditionally, fires played a dramatic role in writing intended for children, for example in works like Mary Grant Bruce’s Norah of Billabong (1913), but today fictional bushfires are much more directed towards education and therapy.

This is important work, as John Schauble of Emergency Management Victoria noted in his submission to the 2009 Bushfires Royal Commission Inquiry. Schauble reminds us:

Calls for the inclusion of bushfire teachings in schools are hardly new and can be dated at least as far back as the 1939 Stretton inquiry.

Elizabeth Mellor’s Bushfire (2011) deliberately addresses the lengthy grieving process that can accompany survival, thus demonstrating a growing awareness of the importance of story-telling as part of the healing process. Her story begins with the utter terror of the fire itself, but is concerned primarily with the lengthy recovery process.

A burning tree in Upwey, east of Melbourne on February 23, 2009. AAP Image/Joe Castro

As a counsellor, social worker and educator, who has herself been involved in a bushfire, Mellor is more conscious than most of the power of narrative in fire-affected communities, and her novel has been a significant resource for primary school children involved in the Black Saturday Fires of 2009.

Wilson’s Can We go Home Now? has a similarly therapeutic direction, defining itself as a “story of recovery” and carefully situating itself as one of many possible stories. Although it is identified in its cover matter as “for [children of] primary school age”, this book in fact offers two parallel stories: that of Kirk, the youngest child of three, and his mother, Kate.

While Kirk persistently asks when he can return to the home destroyed by fire, his mother’s story is more complex, beginning with managing the family in the face of homelessness, while struggling with insurance claims and the need to accept “charity”.

One day Kate is unable to get out of bed and the story charts her depression, which doesn’t end – as she thought it would – when the family move into the home they have rebuilt. In an afterword, Wilson is candid about her need for professional support that went beyond the counselling she took up in the immediate aftermath of the fires.

Her book acts as a guide to the very young, confused at a parent’s inability to get out of bed, but it also cleverly speaks to the adult reader, who may be grappling with extreme emotions.

Firefighters battle an out-of-control bushfire in Western Australia on February 5, 2015. AAP/supplied by DFES WA

Inevitably, most fictional accounts of bushfires concentrate on their destructive qualities, but for some they can be beautiful and exhilarating. Amanda Lohrey – speaking of some of the research she undertook for her novella Vertigo (2008), which contains a dramatic account of a bushfire – has remarked that survivors can feel invigorated by their involvement in a fire.

In an interview with The Age in November 2008, she commented:

Some felt enlivened by it [the fire], more connected to the natural world. One couple who had to run to water when fire swept through their property said they felt it was a privilege to have lived through it.

These more positive engagements with flames emphasise fire’s significant natural role and can play an important part in the movement from trauma to acceptance, which often punctuates the grieving process of those who have lost friends, relatives and homes in a fire.

While for many, reading about fires and their after effects can be a trigger for flashbacks, literature for both children and adults has an important role to play in understanding fire and in helping readers to recover from its effects.

Stories can offer guidance, through empathetic identification with characters undergoing a similar ordeal. Yet as Lohrey suggests, reading about fires can also be exhilarating. Speaking in 1994, Phil Cheney, a CSIRO scientist, commented:

At the moment, (fire) is considered as a dangerous animal which charges across the countryside whereas, in fact, it’s as natural as the rain spreading across the land.

Reading about the beauty and destruction of the bushfire may, then, offer one way of learning to accept its importance as part of Australian ecology, while at the same time helping us to live alongside it.

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