The Black Saturday fires that ripped through bush, communities and people’s lives last year are the ones that people remember. That’s understandable. But they were not the only fires that flared at that time. Others burned as well, and in these we can see the other side of Australian fires.
On Sunday 8th February Victoria awoke and tried to comprehend the unimaginable. How could so many, so much, have been taken in a single day? Such things should not happen here. On that day, as the news from elsewhere became worse and worse, lightning struck near Sealers Cove, on the east side of The Prom. The fire that was sparked did not claim any human lives. It did not burn any buildings. This fire was started by nature, not the hand of man. Dry lightning and drought are nature's fire starters, one the flame, one the kindling. Not all fires here have such origins.
Nature started this fire, nature helped the fire flow and nature called a halt. And in the end nature will be in charge of the recovery as well. Many beautiful places were burnt, but this story does not have the grief and loss of the northern fires. This is a different kind of fire side story. Here you can visit and see the recovery without the guilt of voyeurism. You are not walking through the graves of strangers for your own pleasure.
(In Gallipoli, I felt the same discomfort at my presence. There were bones in the soil and you were careful where you put your feet. While the streets of Marysville had been swept clean, you were still careful where you put your feet.)
Burning for over five weeks, more than half of the park was flamed. As the fires passed the ecological clock for the habitat was pushed back towards zero. A kind of successional blank slate. Here was a pattern that had happened before and will, without question, happen again. The bush was not destroyed as was claimed on the news. Such statements ignore the fact that fire was here before humans and has shaped the landscape of this droughted land. Humans may have changed the way fires are, but fire is a constant.
I first visited the Prom's fire sites in April, when many areas were still closed. Fear of falling branches, litigation, damage and caution kept the paths closed. The land was in the first stages of recovery. Small shoots. Fragments of green. But life was everywhere. This was not an ecosystem that had been destroyed, just traumatised. Intensive care came in the form of rain and time. Both smooth over the damage. Both act as a balm to a fire scorched land. From hidden buds, buried roots and scattered seeds, life recovered.
Different plants react in different ways to fire. They cannot run, they cannot hide - they must find other ways to endure. Some give up their lives but throw their genetic legacy to the wind, only releasing their seeds after the fire has passed. A fertile seed bed made from the ash of their parents nurtures the growing seedlings. Sibling rivalry will be strong, many will fall by the way side. But the fire-opened seed pods and cases will rain life on the land. Such plants don't just survive fire, they need it. For the protective pods will only open in the presence of smoke and heat. In the end a lack of fire would kill these species, overtaken by plants that do not need to be licked into action by the fire's tongues.
Other plants take cover under the soil, or hide behind insulating, thickened bark. Sprouting back from secured living tissue, they may have given their limbs and leaves to the fire, but inside their fire shelters they persist. Seeds and secured cells bring life where there only seems to be death. I visited this place at Easter and knew that others were telling stories of resurrection. At The Prom there were no myths, no symbols, but there was life after death and a vision of persistence. Our ecosystems have not survived this far without adaptations that match the challenges they face. Natural selection has tooled them for success. Fire had rolled a stone across the grave, but adaptation pushed it back and life burst forth. People said the Prom had died, but I saw it living that day. Need we really look elsewhere for inspiration?
The fires did not sweep cleanly across the ground, it rushed here, slowed there and in doing so built a patchwork of burn. Sprinting up hills and running along ridge lines. Faltering where any dampness lingered. You could see this in the colour of the leaves. Some leaves burnt to brown paper crisps, that still fell in the wind almost two months after the fire. Some trees still with last year’s leaves, scorched, but still green. Often you saw such trees within meters of each other. The fire burnt the wooden support of a park sign and left the plants around it untouched. It melted road signs and baked path-sides hard. In places you could see where the fire had stopped. On one side ash, a meter or so further on, deep leaf litter, untouched by flame. It was as if the fire had said, enough is enough, and had just stopped. In some places it made no sense at all. Half way up hills. One side of a tree.
But even after only eight weeks the amount of growth was remarkable. Many trees were tinsel wrapped in leaves. Sprouting from trunk and branches. A burst of growth to kick start the recovery. Grass trees had a brown fringe to their wiry leaves. They looked like cheap fibre optic lamps, with the ends a dull brown and the base a vivid green. Fiddle heads of bracken pushed through the ash that had been soil. If you got on your hands and knees and looked, tiny flecks of life could be seen. A green economy rushing full tilt from a recession.
But I was wrong. On the road to Millers Landing, open now for the first time, the grass trees flowered like I have never seen before. Flower spike after spike, stretching into the distance. In the past these areas had been dominated by a dense low scrub, but this had been burnt off by the fires. Now the verticals in the landscape were the flowers of Grass trees, looking like clusters of spears. I had been glad to see one or two in the past, now there were thousands. Honeyeaters flashing from plant to plant, and with a relaxed and indifferent look Eastern Grey Kangaroos cropped the green pick of new growth.
In the streams the rain from the hills flowed to the sea's edge, the plants hurried towards maturity. The vivid green of the new growth and the black of the old stems, an abstract painting, with rapid, bold brush strokes.
Fire is a central process in Australian ecosystems. Remove it and they will change. We value them for what they have now, and what they have now is due to fire. This means we must come to value fire in our landscapes, as well as fear the things it can bring. Such a balancing act, between fear and value, will be a considerable challenge.