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27 April 2009 @ 09:01 pm
Fires and Four Corners  
It has been over two months since the Victorian fires. Long enough for an inquest to begin, long enough for most of the funerals. Not long enough for journalists to get their heads around what happened, though I don't know if they ever can. You can see the film I am talking about here, it was shot for Four Corners, one of the leading Australian news programs, on the ABC, and produced by Liz Jackson, a good journalist.

The footage shown on Four Corners is astonishing. Darryl Hull, a local resident and worker and amateur photographer filmed some of the fire in Marysville after the firefighters who were there had been forced to retreat to the town oval. There were 50 of them, they had stood up on the Kings Road above the town until the fire grew so intense that they could no longer stay and keep themselves alive, even when turning their hoses on each other. They moved ahead of the fire back to the only defensible space.

Hull took refuge with them, and filmed. You can hear his commentary. 'That was the school, that was the information centre, that's all that's left of that beautiful church ...' Every few minutes, his voice mournfully breathes 'Oh my god ...'

Liz spends her time in the report interviewing emergency services personnel, trying to understand what went wrong. 34 people died in Marysville, some in their houses, some on the road leading out, some running to the road ahead of the fire. She cannot understand this. 'But there should have been a warning,' she says a few times. Some of the people agree, despite the fact they were listening to local radio that was broadcasting alerts.

'They had no siren,' one of the women said. 'I was expecting a siren.'

'Why didn't you sound the siren?' Liz asks Glen Fiske, the captain of the local Country Fire Association. And I am paraphrasing, but this is the gist of it.

'We did,' he said, shaking his head at her. 'It's the alert for the firefighters to gather at the station. They gathered, they were there. That's what the siren's for.'

She clearly can't understand, can't get her head around the fact that they've never needed to use the siren for anything other than calling the firies in to work in the past.

'But you warned the owner of the B&B to get his guests out,' she says to him later in the show. 'Don't you wish you'd warned other people, that you'd ...' and her voice peters out as she realises what she is saying.

Glen's wife and youngest son died in the fires. He lost his phone fighting a spot fire earlier that day. They couldn't call him. By the time he could leave the station to go to his house, it was gone, and they were, too.

'Obviously,' he says gently. 'I dearly wish that. But we had no idea, no one did.'

Liz stammers. She knows this, but she feels sure there must be an answer, must be something that could have been done. There must have been ...

She talks to the fire chief at Alexandra, the more senior officer. His eyes are red, and look as though they have been for weeks. He tells her how they stuck to their systems, but the day kept growing worse. He couldn't get through to the person he needed to sound emergency alarms, not by phone or radio, the state-wide emergency overloaded communications. The stay or go policy didn't work this time, because houses that had previously always been the safest place to hold out through a fire were infernos in minutes.

'But ...' she says.

He looks at her, tired, defeated. She gives up. She goes back to Glen Fiske, and ask him why he wants to stay and help rebuild Marysville.

'Because ...' and now he cries.

'Because you told me you wanted your other children to grow up here, to know it as home, as you did,' she prompts.

'That sense of belonging,' he says, holding his voice level by sheer will.

And Liz is quiet. 'No one should have to pay this much,' she says in her voice-over to the footage of the funeral for Glen Fiske's wife and son. 'There should have been more systems, more support ...'

She can't say what they should have been, exactly, nor how they should have known in advance. Nor can she bear to address the root problem beyond stating a simple fact. The fire, like so many of those that burned through Victoria that day, was deliberately lit.

old_enoughold_enough on April 27th, 2009 04:21 pm (UTC)
Somewhere along the course of my life things changed and somehow, much of what goes wrong in life is supposed to be someone else's fault... and perhaps sometimes it is... but sometimes it is our own fault, and other times it just is what it is and you sweep up the pieces and get on with life. Or it is just too overwhelming, and you don't. :(
blamebramptonblamebrampton on April 28th, 2009 08:02 am (UTC)
I think that your last sentence really encapsulates where many journalists are with this. They just cannot step away from the fact that it was overwhelming, that it was something beyond manageable, and so they are caught in a cycle of looking for someone or something to blame.

Glen Fiske was an astonishing person, he spoke of his gratitude to people for the support his family and he community had received. He didn't seek to place blame, just to move on.
Pureblood Princess: Ophelia sighraitala on April 27th, 2009 04:29 pm (UTC)
It is just so sad.

It is particularly unfair that those whole were in the front-line struggling to contain the fires, are now in the front-line again as everyone tries to find someone to blame, someone who fucked up. As if by heaping condemnation on their heads it would make anything better. Even finding the cretin who lit the fires isn't going to repair the damage.

I'm not suggesting we should be totally fatalistic and just accept that life sucks, like some medieval peasant, but really, we seem to have lost the capacity to accept loss to any degree without finding someone to blame. Energy would be better spent repairing what is broken and thinking about what systems can be put in place in the future.
blamebramptonblamebrampton on April 28th, 2009 08:33 am (UTC)
I agree. The interesting thing was that people like Glen Fiske, who had lost so much, were not looking to apportion blame, just to get on with life.

What I ended up wondering, hours later, was how journalists can approach this story. We are trained to look for causes, sources, narratives. This story resists them, and calls for acceptance, compassion, rebuilding. The stories that are available are those of families coming back, which are worthy but not award winning; investigation of the arson, which is probably going to fall foul of the police investigation at this time; or else the old struggle to make sense of the incomprehensible.

And yes, it's not as though we couldn't come out the other side of this with new systems and new building codes that will prevent it from happening again. It's just that trying to make knowledge work backwards in time ... yes ... as you say ...
Lapin Agilelapin_agile on April 27th, 2009 05:01 pm (UTC)
There is just no way to address the magnitude of what happened. I really appreciated your account of this program with its attempt and failure to account for what happened, to explain it or learn from it in some way. I can't imagine how a community recovers from the terror of wildfire or from the brutal fact that this one was deliberately set.
blamebramptonblamebrampton on April 28th, 2009 08:40 am (UTC)
The truly frightening thing is that several of the fires that swept through Victoria (there were multiple fronts across the state) that day were lit by arsonists. In addition to new building codes, I believe that work to either find or prevent arsonists will be one of the lasting things to come out of this tragedy.
ladyjanevaladyjaneva on April 27th, 2009 06:56 pm (UTC)
I don't know a lot about Australia and the fires besides what was shown in the news here, and that made me cry.

But now I'm curious: those towns that were hit hardest, were they old towns? What I mean is: During the past two decades or so many people in quite a lot of countries (including Germany) have moved their homes to places where no humans lived before because those places are potentially dangerous: fire, floods, etc. In Germany for example many many people were hit badly by a flood some years ago, but quite a high number of those destroyed homes was built in a high-risk area, and people knew that. So, I'm wondering if something like this also filtered into the tragedy of the Victorian fires?

And I agree with that "Liz": it is completely uncomprehensible why someone would commit malicious arson. Have they found the culprits?
blamebramptonblamebrampton on April 28th, 2009 08:51 am (UTC)
They were old towns for the most parts, and ones that had been through a number of bushfires in the past, just never one as intense as this. That's why the death toll was so high, usually you are safe staying inside your house, even if it catches fire it will burn slowly enough that you will be able to get out easily after the fire has moved on. You may lose the house after that, but you will be alive.

This time the fire was so incredibly fast and hot that the houses were blazing while the fire was burning hot all around. Strategies that had always worked before no longer did.

And I agree with you that it is not possible to understand the mind of the arsonists (there were several fires lit in different parts of the state). It was the hottest day on record, with gale-force winds. They must have known that death would be the result. At least one of the arsonists is in custody, investigations are closing in on others.
Admiral of Strange Shipsnoeon on April 27th, 2009 07:08 pm (UTC)
Your last sentence speaks the silent, awful truth. There are so many levels that this is being/will have to be processed on and so many stories and lives wound into it. But the horror of that simple fact is really breathtaking, in the worst way.

Thanks for this.
blamebramptonblamebrampton on April 28th, 2009 08:53 am (UTC)
I know that outside of Australia, it's old news. And so many people here were so wonderful at raising and donating money, I wanted to make sure you all knew a little of what is happening now.
adores_dracoadores_draco on April 27th, 2009 08:55 pm (UTC)
I think the worst part of the whole, enormous tragedy was exactly that: some people lit the fires on purpose. So many others suffered and/or even died just because there were sick (or evil?) individuals who should be locked up somewhere. At least during the dry season.

It's bad enough that fires are started by careless smokers but to think that some people choose to light dangerous fires is beyond awful.

There are times when I try to pretend I'm a nice and understanding person but actually I'd like to say "lock the arsonists up and throw the key away".

Cruel but true. Sorry.

blamebramptonblamebrampton on April 28th, 2009 09:02 am (UTC)
Sick, evil and sometimes greedy. I would like to see very stiff sentences for all those who are convicted in the aftermath.

And yes, smokers make me crazy. At least there seems to be some level of understanding that throwing butts out of windows is a bad idea these days, finally ...
jamie2109: general - coffeejamie2109 on April 27th, 2009 09:16 pm (UTC)
Oh thank god, Thank you for the link! I meant to watch but got side tracked by biggest loser finale. OMG they guy that won that lost almost 90kg, more than half his body weight and he is 57 years old.
blamebramptonblamebrampton on April 28th, 2009 08:54 am (UTC)
That's more than a me! Good grief! Well done, old sir!

It is worth watching, but I recommend watching it a bit at a time rather than all in one hit. I had to look away any number of times, but am filled with respect and affection for the Fiske family and wish them every good thing for their future.
pingridpingrid on April 27th, 2009 09:26 pm (UTC)
Gorgeous post, BB, if horrendously sad. I have goosebumps. *hugs and feeds you meds*
blamebramptonblamebrampton on April 28th, 2009 09:04 am (UTC)
I feel so sorry for Liz because I know that she just wants to understand the whole thing, but even little things like the fact you can't have a siren running constantly at a fire station because you need to be able to hear the radio traffic to keep all of your firefighters safe were just outside what she could get her head around.

Thanks for the meds! Urgh!
feralcheryl on April 27th, 2009 09:40 pm (UTC)
I saw the ads for 4 corners after the news. G Man looked me in the eye and said' you are not watching that.'
I didn't, I'm glad and I'm grateful for your eloquent summary.
blamebramptonblamebrampton on April 28th, 2009 09:10 am (UTC)
Yeah, G Man is wise. I felt I should after so many people on the old flist were so fantastic about raising and donating money to the Red Cross and other agencies at the time. I know that outside Australia there is no news coverage about the aftermath. Goodness knows there's little enough inside.

On the positive side, Glen Fiske is a really fantastic father, and the people within the communities seem to be doing what they can for each other. If only it didn't all come at such a cost.
Meredythmeredyth_13 on April 27th, 2009 10:58 pm (UTC)
I couldn't watch it - although I'm sure it was moving and incredible coverage.

But I get so fucking frustrated. Not over the fires, because they were horrific and tragic but this is australia and fires and life happens. I get exhausted by the fact that it seems to have become a national pastime to be make a Masters Degree out of Recrimination 101.

I'm tired of how journalism can't just report - it has to sensationalise, even when the story itself is more than sensational enough. They have to find the controversy, even if they have to manufacture it. I'm tired of the media viewpoint (and therefore the mindset of a disturbingly large part of our population) going from 'OMG those people are heroes - thank god they were there and they tried and we shall all get behind them to the end' ... to 'whose fault is it, who can be blamed'.

It happens so fast my head spins.

And I'm tired of the journalists targetting their coverage on the minority who didn't get the memo on 'life happens', and continuing to build their stories based on that one part of the much larger picture.

Please don't think this means I am not wholly sympathetic to those who have suffered and lost. But I am very unsympathetic to our shift of focus away from gratitude for life's gifts and survival, and our battling spirit, towards this ongoing call for an even greater cotton-wool society where someone or something has to take the blame for shit that just happens. God help us if we ever get hit by a truly devastating natural disaster. I'm thinking violently erupting volcano underneath Sydney Harbour would be interesting. Go find a siren for that one, peeps.

/rant of the truly tired of society

*returns to dark cave*
blamebramptonblamebrampton on April 28th, 2009 09:36 am (UTC)
As I said to Raitala, I think that one of the key problems is that there are only so many ways that journalists are used to telling stories.

To do Liz justice, she was looking at bigger system issues, such as why some communications lines were overloaded, why the local radio was reporting an encroaching firefront and recommending evacuation some two hours before the ABC and why the websites for the emergency and fire services just fell over under the demand.

There has been an early warning system plan around for years, it just hasn't been implemented yet because no one wanted to pay the $20mill tag attached. I think that it's legitimate to be concerned about issues like that, and Liz did go some way down that path.

But at the same time, I think she, like most people, just can't get her head around the fact that a lot of it can't be pinpointed to single causes. Aside from fuckheaded arsonists.
brinian: colton puppy facebrinian on April 28th, 2009 12:38 am (UTC)
Oh wow. The depth of the losses is staggering. No matter what happens there will always be things that could have been done differently. The nature of an emergency is just that. When I was on the emergency response team we had a saying "one casualty/incident is an accident/emergency, two is careless" - meaning the initial accident was just that, if the responder got hurt, they weren't taking proper precautions as they were trained to do. But when something moves this fast, I just can't get my head around how you can possibly execute well, much less flawlessly as a first, second or even third responder. My thoughts are still with those who lost their loved ones.
blamebramptonblamebrampton on April 28th, 2009 09:58 am (UTC)
The fact that they got most of the fire crews out alive is nothing short of astonishing to me. As you say, the nature of emergencies is, essentially, organised chaos; I think it's impossible for journalists to really understand that there were a lot of successes on the day, because they look at the end point of so many dead and so many houses lost. But compared to what could have happened, there were remarkable stories of things working properly.

At least big-issue things like new building codes that reflect the new dry climate and a national alert system are now on the table, whereas before they were 'too hard'.
katrijnvan_dkatrijnvan_d on April 28th, 2009 01:06 am (UTC)
Thank you for the way your write so eloquently - I always enjoy reading even if it does bring a tear to my eye. I have to agree with meredyth_13's comments - I too get tired of the blame game. By all means blame the arsonist (BTW I cannot comprehend for the life of me how someone can do that) and accept the landscape we live in. I live in an area where I am paranoid of fire too - we came close with a lightning strike but nothing like what they had in Victoria. My nephew who lives with us is in the Bush Fire Brigade here in NSW and he went to Victoria to help - I know what he went through and it wasn't even on the worst days. He saw the devastation and destruction - I wish the media would give these guys a break. They have to live with it everyday - they don't need people questioning what they did or would they have done things differently. They did the very best they could in a terrible situation. To the media: How about helping them instead of bagging them about what they wished they could have done. What about a 'thank you' for all you've done? Aargh!

Back to my lurking......
blamebramptonblamebrampton on April 28th, 2009 03:27 pm (UTC)
Good grief! Hello you!

I think that it is very hard for journalists to know how to frame this story. We are taught to look for narratives and answers and understanding, causes and effects and so on. A story like this, in which so much of what happened was just nature is a bitch, is almost incomprehensible. So people in good faith try to get to the 'bottom' of things, only to come up against the fact that it was beyond what we knew could happen.

The end of Four Corners was a lovely moment, when Fiske said thank you. He showed such grace.
(no subject) - katrijnvan_d on April 28th, 2009 11:43 pm (UTC) (Expand)
AutumnHearti_autumnheart on April 28th, 2009 06:14 am (UTC)
I tried to watch Four Corners last night, but was completely unable to cope, and had to turn it off after about ten minutes, after bursting into tears listening to the Marysville CFA Captain (I didn't catch his name, but assume that was Glen Fiske) who lost his own wife and child (and house) while out on another call... I don't know them personally, but I know so many families who have been in similar situations (including my own), and it was all a bit too close to home.

Looking at the footage I saw in that ten minutes, though, no extra systems or warnings would have helped: the communications channels were so overloaded that the CFA did a phenomenal job with what they had.
blamebramptonblamebrampton on April 28th, 2009 03:30 pm (UTC)
Yeah, I made myself sit through it with a stiff upper lip, but I have a lot more distance than many, so it was less hard. That was Fiske, he was amazing.

He said the same thing. Aside from a state-wide emergency system, there was nothing that would have worked, and when they used the jury-rigged one for the fires down there a week or so later, everyone complained that it was overkill!
monster_o_lovemonster_o_love on April 28th, 2009 07:24 am (UTC)
I don't really know what to say other than that just reading this made me cry again.
blamebramptonblamebrampton on April 28th, 2009 03:31 pm (UTC)
No crying! Just ... be nice to someone. It seems the only appropriate response to something so damaging and unstoppable.
(no subject) - monster_o_love on April 28th, 2009 11:44 pm (UTC) (Expand)
Mific: pohutakawamific on April 28th, 2009 11:23 am (UTC)
God, this is so heartbreaking. Thanks for describing the video, as I have trouble running them as am ashamed to say I'm still having techie problems getting broadband set up. Intense love-hate relationship with computers continues. I can't understand the fucking arsonists - we had the same here with some bad scrub fires down Blenheim way a while back, but nothing like the tragedies in Aussie of course. I can't be liberal about it - imprisonment's too good for them.
blamebramptonblamebrampton on April 28th, 2009 03:33 pm (UTC)
I am the queen of techie uselessness, so you do not need to explain to me!

Arsonists are genuinely sick, and one of the few categories of criminal where I can accept that you may need to curtail their liberties in some way (such as ankle tagging).