Flame blame is a shame

Black SaturdayThe initial media coverage of the interim report by the Victorian Royal Commission on bushfires was discouraging. It focused on who was to blame. This culture of blame is destructive and, if indulged, will undermine the response to future fires.

Mercifully subsequent reporting on the Commission's thoughtful report has been much more detailed and reflective. It has focused on policies rather than on hunting down the guilty.

To seek to pillory people held responsible for the inadequacies in responding to the bushfires is destructive for two reasons. It distracts attention from the nature of the bushfires, and ensures that the agencies entrusted with the response to future bushfires will be ineffectual.

The reality, at once unpalatable and inescapable, of these bushfires was that they were lethal and uncontrollable. The combination of days of very high temperatures, strong winds and low humidity made them so. The stark warnings issued on the previous day acknowledged the terrible threat they posed.

On Black Saturday, the fires burned at will where the supercharged wind took them. Despite the limited success of firefighters to control some sections of the fire, houses, settlements and lives were lost or saved by changes of wind and the vagaries of fortune.

The reality was that this bushfire had the same relationship to the fires of previous years as did the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima to other bombing raids. Policies and nostrums designed for fires that spread and burned more slowly were as unavailing as the ordinary strategies for civil defence at Hiroshima.

Consequently the deficiencies of controllers and the defects of communication and organisation, while regrettable and costly, were ultimately irrelevant. Even the best of services would have been powerless in this bushfire.

The lesson to be taken from these bushfires is that in circumstances as extreme as those of Black Saturday there is no assured safety for those who live on the edge of bushland. They will be safe only if they are somewhere else when fire comes.

That is a harsh truth from which we would like to escape. That is why the urge to blame people is so dangerous. It enables us to imagine that if we find the right people to protect us, our houses and lives will be safe wherever we live. That is pernicious nonsense.

If that truth is accepted, the painstaking work of the Royal Commission will be invaluable in improving the procedures and responsibilities that help protect lives and property in more conventional bushfires. But we might hope, too, that the Commission will consider the likely effects of future catastrophic fires.

Black Saturday, we may hope, will be a once in a lifetime event. But it would be prudent to assume that global warming will more regularly lead to spikes in temperature and conditions similar to those earlier this year.

The second danger in asking who is to be blamed is that it makes those responsible for dealing with fires defensive. If they know that they will be made scapegoats for fires that result in a loss of life and property, they will focus on meeting performance indicators, on ticking each box and leaving a paper trail that will show them to be blameless. The initiative and the courage that are needed will be eroded.

When footballers are dominated by the fear of loss and of blame, they play badly and lose anyway. The same is true of other organisations.

This risk is doubled if the reality of Black Saturday is denied. If fire officers are made responsible for defending the lives and property of people who are living in areas that under extreme conditions are indefensible, they will focus their attention on attending to prescriptions and not on acting effectively.

People respond best to dangers when they acknowledge the reality of the dangers they face and trust one another. The urge to blame obscures reality and corrodes trust.

Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is the consulting editor for Eureka Street. He also teaches at the United Faculty of Theology, Melbourne.

Topic tags: andrew hamilton, Victorian bushfires royal commission, blame, cfa, black saturday



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Existing comments

RE: Blame; The Royal Commission thus far has uncoverered what all Victorians need to know, who is or was responsible for what duties and when.

When we hear testimony thaat the goverment ignored advice, did not understand its own chain of command and what actions were needed one can only look at the executive branch and lay blame on its inept leadership, and this goes to the very top.

This week we read that the Victorian government is more concerned about protecting itself from future liability and blame and putting the eonus of responsibility back on the citizen. Evacuation now means Relocation, what a load of garbage.

James | 24 August 2009

Thank you for this well thought through article. As human beings we have tended to think that there is a reason and therefore an answer for everything - and if not then someone is to blame. Would that we could grow up and realise that in the face of Nature our great rationalities are so often misguided and puny.
Janet Marsh | 24 August 2009

Thanks to Andrew Hamilton for his thoughts but, as one who lost all material things in such a fire here but without loss of life on Xmas Day 2001, he has missed an essential point.
Our bush will always has wildfires - it lives on it. But like a child, the bush needs discipline otherwise it will kill us. When the bush was systematically disciplined by keeping the undergrowth fuel well controlled, you have a very good chance of survival with not only less damage to the environment but rather its enhancement and security.

Sadly our modern "so-called greenies" have not learnt from history and reality. Here is where the problem lies.

Our aborigines lived in harmony with nature and protected it. People who live in the bush have done the same as they learnt the lessons from the past. Sadly the present "powers to be" show their ignorance by rejecting experience.

It is easy to blame climate change, which I do not deny, and extreme weather conditions but it essential to show proper discipline of the forests and bush if our country is to survive. It is a question of keeping fire as a servant not an enemy.
Fr John P Evans | 24 August 2009

For people like ourselves who live on the edge of the Dandenongs, and effectively only a few hundred metres as the crow flies from extensive bushland/forest, Andy's article reads as so transparently accurate and applicable. Thanks for such a timely and positive reminder of our responsibilities when the next fires do come.
peter & carmel cowan | 24 August 2009

That the fires were unprecedented, that most houses in their way were indefensible, and that the initial media coverage of the Commission's interim report was generally less than useful, are matters on which I would agree with Andrew.

But I, like James, can't brush aside the matters of responsibility as Andrew appears to me to be asking us to do.

Nobody, so far as I can see, is imagining that 'if we find the right people to protect us, our houses and lives will be safe wherever we live'. But many are questioning why so much of the response plan was found wanting and why command and communication systems appear to have failed dismally.

Andrew asserts that 'the urge to blame obscures reality and corrodes trust'. May I suggest that it is the urge to cover-up and whitewash is even more corrosive of trust, and that that applies to fire response management as much as to other areas of public life, both secular and sacred?
Tom Jones | 24 August 2009

Re: Fr. John P Evans: taking the moral high ground is very safe indeed.
angela | 24 August 2009

I always find Andrew's words to be salutary, incisive, balanced and refreshing. Wonderful title to the article.
vivien williams | 24 August 2009

A very good artical. I am in Rural Fires myself.

Some of the winds generated by a large fire are unimagable. When you are on the fireline your first responsibility is not to risk the lives of those who are risking there lives to save people. The only thing predictable about a fire is it's unpredictability.
If people wish to grow trees close to their houses and live in a one way street, it is not a good situation for any firefighter to be in.

Although controlled burns is a dirty word down south, it at least gives the wild life and people a chance to have a place to hide and a controlable area for the fireies If the fire is in the tree beside your house there is not much hope for you. Please don't expect our Urban Fireies to have to control your fire at their risk of their lives.

Thank you Andrew for a good article. It is easy to point the finger from an armchair. There are also a lot of positions for volunteer fireman in all brigades, how about the criticise and greens go and put on a set of PPE, get dirty and do something to help people instead of shooting us in the foot.
John Mac Donald | 24 August 2009

Here we go again! The Commission has not yet, so far as I am aware, made any finding on the issues of fuel load, preventative burns, or misguided 'greenies'. They may in future, but they have not to date. Yet now we have John Evans laying the blame on 'so-called greenies' and asserting, without evidence, that if only we followed the practice of indigenous people everything would be hunky-dory.

Do you really think 'controlled burns' would have saved Marysville?
Tom Jones | 24 August 2009

The promise of safety is the other side of the avoidance of liability - and something that many current witnesses before the Commission have been careful to warn against. New building regulations, clearing vegetation, bunkers each seem promising at a distance, but come with that risk- that you think you are safe. The golden age of indigenous firestick farming is a similar trope. It may never have existed in Victoria, and if it did, it was technique of a nomadic people without houses to stay and defend. People thought they were safe in a surburban environment, but they were not, nor could ever be. That's why there's still so much anger and fear.
Jeff Mueller | 28 August 2009

The Greens are not to blame.There is an article on line ; in The Guardian that explains that and why.It is a good read.
Cher | 04 January 2020


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