At the National Gallery of Australia this year I watched a video by the artist rea. I didn’t record details of its title, but its subject matter needed little explication and the imagery hit me powerfully at the time. It is a spooky, silent piece of work. The artist is seen running through a landscape that had been devastated by a massive bushfire. Little remains except blackness: ashen grounds, charred trees stumps. rea is clothed in a long, full satiny black gown of formal Victorian design. It is a mourning dress.
She appears to be pursued through this haunting, sloping landscape, or perhaps she is simply seeking a safe haven in the blighted emptiness. The imagery fades and dissolves. Finally, at the conclusion of the piece, she is struck repeatedly by gobbets of color, red, white, blue. The implication that she has been attacked by invaders from the realm of the Union Jack is clear. As the dress drips with color, as her body is pummeled repeatedly, the image fades one final time into an all-encompassing blackness and oblivion.
The destruction of Indigenous peoples in the midst of a destroyed landscape isn’t hard to read. Nor is the implication that the environment has been equally brutalized by the incursion of settlers who find it alien, and who are themselves alien to it. Given the fundamental identification of Aboriginal people with their country, this twinned destruction, mute, inescapable, seemingly inevitable, is obvious.
Or perhaps it felt so clear to me because I was then in the midst of reading Adrian Hyland’s shattering chronicle of the Black Saturday bushfires, Kinglake-350 (Text Publishing, 2011). The fires, which broke out on February 7, 2009, after weeks of temperatures over 40 degrees Celsius (105+ F) and two months of scant rain, destroyed over a million acres of country and 3,500 structures (including more than 2,000 homes) and killed 173 people. The worst of the fire centered on the Victorian towns of Kinglake and Marysville, and Hyland’s own home and family barely escaped the desctruction, if not the devastation that followed.
Kinglake-350 (the title is taken from a police call-sign) is a demanding book. At times it will force you to keep turning pages, skittering like windblown embers from one page to the next, whether you want to or not. At times it will exhaust you, make you put it aside, unable to bear its catalog of horrors for another moment. It will make you weep without knowing precisely why. When you do put it down unfinished–as I was forced to do–it will call you back relentlessly, out of curiosity and out of a duty to witness and to endure.
The story that Hyland narrates is huge, and he tells it with extraordinary skill. He encompasses Aboriginal fire management, including his own experiences in Central Australia living with Warlpiri people and coming to understand their fear of and respect for fire. He brings in large chunks of fire history and fire science from around the world. There is chemistry and geology to his story, meteorology and physics to help explain how fire moves, how it consumes, how it destroys and replenishes the environment. There is human as well as natural history that charts how people came to be in this crisis on that summer’s day nearly three years ago.
But mostly, Hyland tells the story through the lens of the work of a single man, Roger Wood, the acting sergeant of the Kinglake Police on that incendiary day. As I look back over the pages of this remarkable book, I find it hard to believe that the story Hyland tells unreels in a mere 36 hours or so; hard to believe that Wood, his fellow police officers, and the heroic members of the various Country Fire Authority (CFA) crews endured so much in such a short space of time.
Although fires had been burning in the region for days, the maelstrom that destroyed Kinglake and environs on February 7 ignited shortly before noon when high winds snapped power lines, sparking a conflagration some kilometers away in Kilmore East. Winds of over 125 miles an hour drove the blaze east through a pine plantation into the region of Kinglake. The speed at which it traveled, the quirks of topography, the failures of communication and bureaucracy, the sheer unbelievability of what was about to happen, all conspired to delay both evacuation and effective response. The hoped-for turning of the wind near sunset of that day, which should have brought cooler temperatures and forced the fire back the way it had come onto lands whose fuel might have already been largely consumed, instead defied expectations and brought destruction raging in from every point of the compass, from above and below. According to reports published months afterwards in The Australian, the power of the firestorm that day was 1,500 times that of the energy released by the atomic blast at Hiroshima.
Hyland tells his story through the actions of the heroes of the day; although he doesn’t fail to count the human cost, he wisely steers his narrative away from the grisly details of the day’s disasters. We get to experience the panic, the exhaustion, the alternating hope and hopelessness, but we are spared the worst. I am glad he chose this narrative strategy; his discretion allowed me to learn the lessons of the day without flinching from them. There is no shortage of fear and adrenaline here, yet it is a book that children can–and perhaps should–read.
Hyland also wisely stays out of the story, although he was there in the midst of it and his family, though they survived physically unscathed, has probably been forever altered by the events of the day, like all the others who came through hell alive. Hyland is here to teach us a lesson, to help us better understand how precarious our lives are, and how powerful the elements we take for granted can be. This is not the story of one man, not even of the hero Roger Wood, but the story of a community, a society even. It is a tale told by a wise man, but nonetheless full of sound and fury. What it will signify remains unknown, but I hope that Hyland’s passionate narrative and well reasoned arguments will augur a change in the direction of sanity and safety.
Adrian Hyland is the author of two superb novels of Central Australia, also published by Text, that feature the Aboriginal police officer-cum-private eye, Emily Tempest: Diamond Dove (2006) and Gunshot Road (2010).