Tag Archives: bushfire

Bundanoon History Group bushfire archive project

Amid the restrictions of COVID-19, the Bundanoon History Group managed to complete phase one of its bushfire project in time for what turned out to be a cool and wet summer. Its messages have been distilled in a poster hanging on the History Shed in the main street and in a short video made for the National Museum of Australia’s Momentous online project.

We live with fire in this beautiful part of the world, so recording its history and is important, as was ensuring that a local perspective on Black Summer was included in the national record. One gap in our archive remains the Indigenous perspective, which the BHG will seek to rectify. Knowing about Aboriginal fire practices is now acknowledged to be an important way to avert some of the disastrous consequences of bushfire.

Wingello is said to be an Aboriginal word meaning ‘place of fire’ or ‘to burn’. It was indeed such a place, not just in 2020. In 1965 – in the month of March – 31 houses were burned down in Wingello. Bundanoon fared better thanks to 1000 firefighters, volunteers, troops and police who fought back the fire, helped by wind changes. In January 1939, Bundanoon escaped the fate of Penrose, which lost nine houses, two stores, a fruit-packing shed, a church and eight farmhouses. Bundanoon’s own Holy Trinity Anglican Church was destroyed by bushfire on New Year’s Eve 1904.

When reading about these previous incidents, the similarities are stark: both the causes − climatic conditions and human error – and the way we cope with them. Writing in the Sun Herald, Max Suich observed that three things would be remembered about the horror of that week in Bundanoon in March 1965: courage, generosity and humour, sentiments familiar to all those who lived through last year’s Black Summer.

Thanks to a grant from Oral History NSW this project will continue in 2021. Contact Francesca Beddie if you wish to know more and can see how our project links with others recording the events and impact of Black Summer.

Australia Day: occasion for collective mourning

In early January, the leader of the Opposition, Anthony Albanese, suggested the first sitting day of Federal Parliament for 2020 be devoted to marking the unprecedented bushfire crisis. That got me thinking about Australia Day.

Why not make it a day of mourning, not just for Indigenous Australians as it explicitly became on 26 January 1938 but for all those heartbroken by the devastation that has swept our land.

26 January 1938 marked the 150th anniversary of the landing of the First Fleet in Australia. On that day a group of Aboriginal men and women gathered at Australian Hall in Sydney. They moved this resolution:

“WE, representing THE ABORIGINES OF AUSTRALIA, assembled in conference at the Australian Hall, Sydney, on the 26th day of January, 1938, this being the 150th Anniversary of the Whiteman’s seizure of our country, HEREBY MAKE PROTEST against the callous treatment of our people by the whitemen during the past 150 years, AND WE APPEAL to the Australian nation of today to make new laws for the education and care of Aborigines, we ask for a new policy which will raise our people TO FULL CITIZEN STATUS and EQUALITY WITHIN THE COMMUNITY.”

After the phrase ‘callous treatment of our people’, that resolution might have carried the words ‘negligent care of our country’. In 2019/2020, that negligence has had horrific consequences.

White people have not been good at heeding advice about the treatment of this ancient land and its first peoples. Before he embarked on the Endeavour expedition in 1768, James Cook, whose arrival on Australia’s east coat 250 years ago will be widely commemorated this year, received a set of ‘hints’ from the president of The Royal Society, James Douglas, 14th Earl of Morton. Lord Morton exhorted Cook to remind the crew it was their moral responsibility to do no harm to the Indigenous inhabitants and to respect Indigenous land occupation. The British Admiralty also instructed Cook only to take possession of advantageous positions with the ‘Consent of the Natives’. Cook proceeded without any such consent.

Kevin Tolhurst, whose name became so familiar during the 2009 Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission, has pointed out that, after 57 formal public inquiries, reviews and royal commissions related to bushfires and fire management since 1939, we have also had plenty of advice about bushfire management. The problem lies more with implementing the findings from these reviews. One lesson from the Black Saturday tragedy is that ‘stay and defend’ is often not the best course of action. The ‘leave and live’ option has saved lives this bushfire season.

Other recommendations have not been adequately followed up. In 2012, the Council of Australian Governments signed off on a national policy, which listed 14 national goals. One of those was to ‘further integrate traditional burning practices and fire regimes with current practices and technologies to enhance bushfire mitigation and management in Australian landscapes’. This goal recognised the benefits of widespread, low-intensity, patchy fires across the landscape as a way to build resilience to climate extremes.

Francesca M. Beddie