THERE ARE ENOUGH Black days in modern Australian history to fill up a week several times over – Black Sundays, Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays – and a Red Tuesday too, plus the grim irony of an Ash Wednesday. Yet we keep being taken unawares. There is something personal about fire, something frighteningly irrational and ultimately beyond our comprehension. It roars out of the bush and out of our nightmares. It makes its victims feel hunted down and its survivors toyed with. Why did the fire destroy the house next door and leave mine unscathed? As one bushfire survivor confessed: ‘I felt as if the fire knew me.’ A book about the 2003 Canberra fires takes as its title a child’s question: How did the fire know we lived here? The great international fire historian Stephen Pyne keeps telling us that fire ‘isn’t listening to the rhetoric, the research, or the parliamentary resolutions. It doesn’t feel our pain. It doesn’t care. It just is.’ Why does he need to reassure us of this?
The Black Saturday fires in Victoria, according to the fire ecologist Kevin Tolhurst, released energy equivalent to fifteen hundred times that of the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima. Of the 173 people killed on Black Saturday, two-thirds died in their own homes. Of those, a quarter died sheltering in the bath. There were relatively few injuries: the annihilation was total, and the day after brought an awful stillness and silence. The wind change was a killer, but if it had not arrived when it did the Kilmore East fire might have swept into the thickly vegetated suburbs of Melbourne’s north-east.
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