Fighting fire with fire: a lot of hot air or plain common sense?
In 1935, my father, aged 14, was the family drover. One of his regular tasks was to drive on horseback herds of cattle from his father's farm through deep forest to a green hill that rose among the trees, an ancient volcanic dome named Mount Deception.
The little grassed mount was a fine resting and fattening resort for cattle. The trick was to get the herd through the forest to the hill without them scattering.
It was, and is, a big forest, the Cobboboonee, in the far south-west corner of Victoria. A boy on a horse could spend a long time searching for cattle that got away in it. It wouldn't do at all to lose a beast. The family would be unimpressed.
On one of these journeys through the bush, a recalcitrant steer kept breaking from the mob and skittering away through the trees, my father and his stockwhip in pursuit. The steer eventually exhausted itself and lay down, refusing to rise.
The young drover remembered a story about the old cameleers. If a camel flopped down and refused to move, it was the practice of cameleers to light a fire close by and the camel would soon find reason to climb to its feet.
My father figured if it worked for camels, it might work for a steer, too. He gathered tinder and set flame to it and sure enough, the steer wasn't at all keen on a scorching. It found the energy to rise and scamper back to the mob.
The fire wasn't so easily persuaded to behave. It leapt across the forest floor, licked into the trees and resisted all my father's efforts to control it. "It just took off," he recalled, decades later, when a historian, Garry Kerr, came with a camera to record his memories for a series of videos about old bushmen. "What happened?" the historian inquired.
"Well, the fire roared through the bush and didn't stop until it reached the next burnt patch about half a mile away," my father said.
"Burnt patch?" I asked my father when I saw the recorded interview.
"We used to burn the bush in patches, big squares really, to clear it up and make sure there was a good growth of grass for the next season," he said, as if it was the most natural thing in the world. "A fire couldn't get a good run on, because it would reach the cleared spot and didn't have anything to keep it going."
Each year, in the cool of late autumn, his family and the families around who leased great stretches of the forest for grazing were in the habit of trickling fire into strategically chosen sections of the floor of the bush, stamping and raking and flogging the flames out at the edges. The result was a pasture beneath the trees.
Where had the idea come from, I wanted to know. Well, said my dad, he'd learnt it from his father. And he'd learnt it from the old granddad, and he'd learnt it from his father before him.
And before that?
"The old Aborigines did it," he said. "We got it from them, I suppose. They liked to make sure the forest had a green pick through it so there'd be plenty of kangaroos and things to hunt."
It's no more than an anecdote, of course.
And it didn't work when the long, hot and dry summer of 1938-39 morphed into days of scorching heat in January and exploded on January 13, 1939, into what became known as Black Friday, when much of Victoria was burnt so thoroughly that ash was reported to fall in New Zealand. Nice little burnt patches of ground couldn't deal with such conditions.
The Cobboboonee is a national park now, and cattle and families with fire sticks haven't haunted it for a long time. It was much mistreated for many decades by loggers and graziers before it was locked up, and few enough would argue that it didn't need saving.
But to walk through it now you are required to navigate made tracks, for large sections of it, like most protected forests across the land, no longer have the soft grassy floor of long ago, which - according to the written records of early explorers and settlers - was there when Europeans first saw it.
Fallen branches and logs and scrub entangle much of the forest floor, and environmentalists argue that this return to nature has aided native species of animals and birds to flourish.
The historian Bill Gammage set a bushfire of his own when he wrote a few years ago The Biggest Estate on Earth: How Aborigines Made Australia. Gammage argued that Europeans had found a land often described as "park-like", which had been managed by Aboriginal people by the use of fire. If you want to get into an argument without end, simply mention the book in a hall crowded with environmentalists and landowners and firefighters.
As the bushfire season returns and the people of the Blue Mountains and elsewhere in NSW survey the ruins of their homes and the ash of their forests, fire chiefs, environmentalists, council authorities, politicians and commentators are engaging, as they always do, in new debates about fire management and the efficacy or otherwise of what is known these days as fuel reduction. Burning off, it used to be called.
The whole matter is granted a modern overlay with discussion about whether or not climate change is aiding and abetting the fierceness and threat of fires out of what had long been considered bushfire season. It is, after all, only October.
When it became known a few days ago that Defence personnel had sparked the biggest Blue Mountains fire by letting off explosives on a hot day last week, I was moved to wonder what might have been the story if a soldier or two had wandered out in the cool of autumn and dribbled fire into judiciously chosen patches of land around.
A few small burnt patches, my old dad might have said, would have been preferable to the loss of 50,000 hectares, several houses, the livelihoods of those who ran businesses in the area and the efforts of thousands of firefighters and a change in the weather to control the disaster.
He was just a bushman, of course, who'd set a fire running himself as a boy.
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