Wednesday, September 14, 2022

Review: A useful retelling of the catastrophic Currowan fire

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Review: A useful retelling of the catastrophic Currowan fire.

#Australia #Bushfires #Climate Change #Book Reviews

Owen Hsieh

Currowan: The Story of a Fire and a Community During Australia's Worst Summer

Bronwyn Adcock
20 Sep 2021
Black Inc.
288 pp

Currowan is a dramatic history of the Currowan bushfire which tore through New South Wales with devastating effect in the 2019-2020 fire season. The fire began with a lightning strike in November 2019 in remote bushland. It quickly grew out of control, scaling up to burn through half a million hectares, destroy hundreds of homes and lead to the death of three people. The fire was only extinguished in February 2020, after heavy rains bought flooding to the Eastern most part of NSW.

Bronwyn Adcock is a very competent journalist and author. She is a long-term NSW resident, living in a forested semi-rural area hard hit by the fire. Her own experience, and connections to the land and community inform a visceral, raw retelling of the events leading up to the natural disaster, throughout the period and its aftermath.

In her prologue Adcock describes the endemic conditions of drought and heatwave in NSW. In a warming and drying climate, extreme fires will increase in both frequency and magnitude. No exception to the rule, the Currowan fire was at one point “880 square kilometres in size. Unlike normal fires which move in one direction it was burning on all points of the compass – reaching out to multiple communities” (p. 77).

Iconic image of 11 year old Finn Burns piloting a small boat used by his family to flee the flames on land. 

Documenting the events of the fire, from its discovery, the extensive spread to its eventual control, Adcock provides something of a panoramic view of the fire-fighting effort, with interviews from high ranking fire captains, frontline fire-fighters, farmers, and various other community members. People survived with little in the way of government support, largely by dint of their grit and ingenuity. These are amazing tales.

As one example; Adcock writes about local residents fitting their trucks out with small water tanks and improvised portable firefighting units (cubes). As the RFS became overwhelmed these DIY operators saved many lives and homes.

 “Late one night, Dave and his sons raced out to help an elderly man they knew whose home in the forests was about to be swamped by the fire. Debbie stayed in town, trying unsuccessfully to get a fire truck sent out – but with their cubes the boys managed to save the house and the man’s life.”

In the concluding chapters, Adcock writes about the clean-up effort, the emotional toll of visiting her ‘partially damaged’ property, seeing the associated loss of community and the ‘eerie stillness’: “There was no sign of wildlife, not even a single bird – the silence was so loud as to be deafening”. The sense of loss and grief is palpable.

Adcock's discussion of the technical aspects of firefighting is fascinating. She explains the phenomena of Crowning fires – in which the fire races rapidly through the tree canopy, and ember attacks as the hot air from the fire throws burning branches and leaves high into the air and can light new spot fires up to one kilometre in front. She even includes eyewitness accounts of the rare Pyrocumulonimbus phenomena in which


  “…hot air from an intense fire burning over a large area rises up in a smoke column, drawing in cooler air, before punching through the stratosphere upwards of 15km above the ground. It’s here that the cool air and latent heat combine to create a thunderstorm inside the smoke plume, producing lightning, turbulent winds and vertical blasts of air that hit the ground. Under such intense conditions, fires can spread rapidly in any direction, embers fall instead of rain, and spot fires start dozens of kilometres away. Fire tornados have even been known to form.” (p. 99)

Adcock also discusses the efficacy of the various methods of control – backburning areas ahead of the fire to deprive the fire of fuel, while blacking out the flare ups. She also discusses wet and dry fire-fighting methods and references changes to wind speed and direction. Adcock frequently refers to the importance of utilising aerial support such as water bombers to control the fire.
She questions the efficacy of leasing large air tankers from the northern hemisphere, an increasingly unviable strategy given there is increasing competition for fire-fighting resources in a warming climate globally. This is really the main thrust of the book, polemicising for greater aerial resources.

She gives one example of a spot fire starting in a remote, deep forested Gully north of her farm, despite its quick detection, and their pleas to RFS air traffic control for resources to initiate rapid initial attack, their request is denied and the spot fire grows to a large uncontainable fire that rampages through the bush, snowballing to open a new front which threatens lives and homes (p. 89).

While she makes many valid and useful comments exposing the missed opportunity with the lack of aerial support, that isn't the only opportunity for improvement. The fire brigades Adcock met with are heavily reliant on a small, aging volunteer force using outdated equipment.

Adcock is a very gifted writer and conveys well the emotional impact of living through a catastrophic bushfire. She uses her long-standing ties to community to draw insight and capture the impact of the fires on a broad swathe of society – rather than simply her own household. She also explains the technical component of firefighting very well.

While Adcock urges greater resourcing and aerial support for fire-fighting, she has little to say on mitigating and averting climate change, apart from a brief mention of “the climate wars”, bemoaning “a decade of lost time, where a persistent campaign was waged by vested interests in the fossil fuel industry fanning scepticism about the existence of climate change” (p. 16). It would appear that she has accepted that idea that climate change is here to stay and is unavertable as good coin. This is to the book’s detriment.

The fires of 2019-2020 were catastrophic in every sense of the word and the brutal images of the fires will be burned into public consciousness for a very long time. The towns of Mallacoota and Cobargo have become household names and are forever associated with the disaster. The dystopian images show us what the future entails for many country towns across Australia if firm action is not taken to mitigate and avert the worst of climate change.

Owen Hsieh is an independent Marxist living in Western Australia, an avid bibliophile with a special interest in Eastern European Literature. Favourite authors include Dovlatov, Bulgakov, Pelevin, Serge and others. 

Twitter @OwenHsieh3

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