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Humanity endures in bushfire tragedy

'Bushfires and humanity' by Chris JohnstonDuring the financial turmoil this summer, images of fire have abounded. The economy is said to be going into meltdown. Shareholdings turn to ashes. On the stockmarket, an inferno destroys value. The images always seem a little stretched, a little self-important. This weekend we have seen why.

Bushfires, the lives they take and diminish, the lands they leave blackened, and their unbelievable force, set the human activities which we usually regard as of vital importance, like banking, administration and politics, within their proper framework. In the face of a fire that in a couple of hours can run 40 km from mountains to sea, these are incidental occupations. In the face of the sudden and terrible death of about 100 people, financial troubles are put into perspective.

The central realities are the uncontrollable power of the fire and the spirit of the human beings who endure and engage with it. Science and crystallised experience count, but ultimately the moves that the fire makes and the success of the engagement are unpredictable. One house is taken, another is left. One family dies; another escapes.

Those who stay to endure the fire bring with them little more than their simple humanity. Courage, generosity, prudence, empathy, compassion and solidarity are words that come to mind to describe people's attitudes.

I was struck in particular by the exchange between radio reporters and fire service officers who reported on the fire fronts. The reporters, as is their job, invited the fire officers to make quick judgments for their audience. Was this person stupid who went into his property in shorts and thongs, or this family who tried to drive through a fire front? Was this bushfire worse than Ash Wednesday?

The officers would evade the questions. No one could know what necessity led particular people to do dangerous things. Fire fighters, focused on saving life and livelihood, would find it inconceivable to make comparisons of this fire to other fires. The officers' focus was on the heartbreaking human dimensions of the bushfires.

The simple human reality of the bushfires has been of a shared and simple humanity: shared struggle, shared loss, shared tears, sharing of small resources like food and blankets, sharing of accommodation. Those involved at the fire front have shared this directly; others vicariously.

The Governments have responded at the same level. Victorian Premier John Brumby showed himself to be properly overwhelmed by the destructive power of the fire and by the death and suffering it brought to so many people.

He saw it as involving the Victorian community, and not simply individuals. He recognised the gallantry shown by those who were involved in facing and fighting the fires. He asked those not directly involved to keep those affected in their thoughts and prayers, to give help where possible, and to contribute to the fund.

And he promised modest but sustained help from governments. He spoke as a human being with a Premier's responsibility, not as a Premier who happened to be a human being.

This immediate sense of solidarity will inevitably be tested by the frustrations and angers that are natural to grief. People who are in everybody's thoughts in their immediate loss, slip from mind during the slow processes of their rebuilding.

But the first shock of these bushfires makes us ask instinctively what really matters to us as human beings. The stories of death and escape from death remind us that our lives are a gift, a vulnerable gift. The way in which people have faced and fought the fires is an enormously encouraging response to these questions.

These things also judge the way in which we evaluate and address what matters in the metaphorical bonfires lit in the economy.

CFA Current Incident Summary
Victorian Bushfire Appeal — donate online

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

Topic tags: victorian bushfires, marysville, kinglake, bendigo bank bushfire appeal, john brumby tears



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Existing comments

I can understand mother nature starting bushfires, but firebugs are detestable. These pyromaniacs should be jailed never to be released.

Terry Stavridis | 09 February 2009  

A wonderful article - congratulations.
I have circulated it
to my colleagues at Caritas Australia.

anna Orchard | 09 February 2009  

While not questioning John Brumby's real distress when confronted with the bushfire devastation, one cannot help but ask why politicians, both Labor and Liberal, have done so little to help alleviate climate change, despite repeated warnings of the catastrophic effects global warming would have in this part of the world.

Terry O'Neill | 09 February 2009  

As one of the lucky ones who stayed throughout the Duffy fires five years ago and saved my home, I am very moved by this article, not to mention the firest themselves. And I heartily agree with Terry Savridis. One's humanity is sorely tested when thinking of firebugs. One feels they should be strung up and a slow burn ignited under them. But I guess one should not claim an eye for an eye. They must be demented.

Alison Young | 09 February 2009  

Thank you for this excellent article Andrew.

I too will circulate this balanced perspective on the value of what really matters.

Adele Howard | 09 February 2009  

Another 'Thank-you',Andrew, for a thoughtful balanced and sensitive article which can be shared.

Maryrose Dennehy | 09 February 2009  

Fair enough. But don't forget that the things trivialised at the beginning of this article underlie one
important thing. JOBS! And if they go on a large scale there will also be a lot of suffering. And we can all relate to such a catastrophe more easily than we can to global warming (which probably had nothing to do with bushfire).

Phil Smith | 09 February 2009  

Given that Victoria's bushfire horror is now officially recognised as the worst in Australia's history....and it is not over yet by a long way...this is a golden opportunity for governments as well as society at large to respond in significant proportion.

For example, Prime Minister Rudd is beseeching the nation to 'dig deep' for the bushfires appeal. I agree. I urge him to immediately lift the Commonwealth's donation from $10 million to at least $150 million. Huge?...not really. Ponder the enormous destruction.

Equally, the federal Government should urgently re-think its $42 billion recession buster package...and have regard to the havoc wrought from one end of the country to the other through fire and flood.

Such terrors, such horrors must produce big picture responses...not the tired responses of the past.

I'd suggest the appointment of a National Disasters Minister...though I'd understand the reluctance of likely candidates to wear such a label. The military would be one of the strings attached to such a portfolio as well as State co-ordinators.

Given we are all conditioned to wear the thought of dreadful casualty rates from terrorist attacks...perhaps now's the time to transfer that thought to nature's catastrophes like those we now face...please!

Brian Haill | 09 February 2009  

Andrew, Thank you!
Your words stir me. They make me believe in the in the essential goodness of mankind.
I read what you have written and remember the lines by P.J.Hartigan from his poem 'The Kookaburras',
'The kookaburras bless the world,
Because the world is good.'

John McQualter | 10 February 2009  

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