Annemaree Docking - Sustain Board Member and PhD Candidate with Deakin University’s Centre for Regional and Rural Futures

Over the last few months, as the fires have burned so much of my beautiful home, Australia, I have found myself struggling to make sense of my emotional response to the catastrophe that is unfolding before us all as a nation, and as global citizens.

It is only now that I am starting to make some sense of it and I am realizing the depths of our collective grief. And, more pointedly, that we are all to blame and responsible for this mess.

To give some background context to my emotional response to this crisis, I will point out a few key elements that make this ever present and very real to me.

I have lived in fire prone regions of Australia most of my life. My current home is in central Victoria, around 15 kms west of the ignition site of the Kilmore East fires of Black Saturday, (February 2009). Summers used to be a time of joy, recreation and fun, but they have now turned into a time of fear, vigilance, preparation and constant alert. I have been on this property for almost 13 years now and I plan to be here for the rest of my life, if I can. I moved into central Victoria as a 19 year old from suburban Melbourne. Notwithstanding a couple of years in the Hunter Valley in NSW, this is where I still am as a 44 year old woman. This is my home. This is where I farm. It is my community, where I raise my animals, where I understand the soils, the plants, the ecology, the weather, where I have watched the sun and moon rise and set for so very long – it is my dream come true. My country.

But the reality is that it is not if I get burnt out, but when.

I remember looking over the shoulder of a check out girl at Coles and seeing the column of smoke in Kilmore East that ominous day in 2009 and thinking – that’s not good, not today, not with these winds and this heat.  I won’t go into details of the next few days, but let’s just say it involved not knowing where friends were, listening to ABC emergency broadcasts so incessantly that the intro music still creeps me out and makes my skin crawl to this day. It was lack of sleep, evacuating horses from friends properties to ours, communicating with people through road blocks with feed, food, fuel, beer and cigarettes, standing around at road blocks with large groups of people all trying to find out information, feeling a wind change and not realizing the devastating implications until they played out, assisting in a relief centre in Wallan and then, through my employment with Mitchell Shire Council and as a result of having some emergency response training through my time in State Government, I ended up running the Wandong Recovery Centre for the following three months. I was under prepared and under qualified, to say the least.

At the Recovery Centre, I listened to lots of stories – personal accounts of their fire experiences. We directed human traffic, refugees from their homes, to the different support services that people needed. I’m going to repeat that because Australians think refugees happen somewhere else other than Australia – these people were refugees from their homes – many not knowing if they had homes to return to. Loved ones lost. Animals lost. Environments lost. Years of endeavor – all lost. True refugees from their homes. I saw my friends, colleagues and community members at a loss, wandering, vacant and deeply distressed.

I saw the best of community as people stepped up to do everything in their power to help. We could move mountains in that immediate aftermath of the fires. I saw the best and worst of humanity in those days. I won’t mention the bad that only added to the trauma. But I saw what a community can do when they are all pulling in the same direction and looking out for each other. Amazing things happen.

I continued to work in bushfire recovery for the following year. As we got further from the actual event, the natural bureaucracy of government crept back in and we could no longer move mountains. It became harder and harder to get things done. And so the natural divisions and animosities crept back in too. The trauma was magnified. The rest of the world moved on, but our community still had such a long road ahead. I remember standing at the 12 month memorial ceremony on the site of the recovery centre I had spent so much time in and realizing I was done – I had done all I could and for my own self-preservation, I needed to go back to my agricultural and environmental work. I needed some normality back. But I was convinced then, as I am now, that climate change underpinned our experience. No one wanted to talk about it.

We documented everything that happened in that recovery centre and I tried to give those books and accounts to some sort of official response for three years after the event. The Council didn’t want them, the Royal Commission weren’t interested and in the end, after carrying them around for those years, I dumped them in a shredding bin at my office as I couldn’t carry them around anymore. Those learnings were lost. But I still carry those stories. They will never leave me.

And then a few years later, it was our turn. The Mickleham fires blew towards us from the south from the outskirts of Melbourne – an unusual direction for fire attack in our area. My partner at the time and I decided to stay. We had prepared our property. We are in grassy woodlands, not the forest environment that carries so much more risk. There were too many animals to evacuate. They are my responsibility. So we stay. I can’t explain what I felt in the pit of my gut when I saw that red glow on the top of the range to our south that first night. Terror. In spite of our equipment and preparations, I did not feel personally prepared. How do you prepare for this? This was the first night of a week of fire fronts and vigilance.

But again – I saw a community pull together. I got to know my neighbours in a way that I couldn’t have imagined and have bonds with those neighbours that are literally forged in fire. I sat with binoculars on top of my hill letting neighbours know when the front was about to hit their properties and homes. As luck would have it, our neighbourhood and my property sat at a strategic junction in the landscape. I remember watching from my dam wall in the small hours of the morning a large contingent of CFA firefighters back burning very calmly, very competently under the direction of loud speaker from a calm, composed voice directing all actions, only meters from my front gate and cypress lined driveway in an attempt to stop the progress of the fire. It worked. We were safe.

I felt useful, not a burden to those fire fighters. I moved animals, cut fences, directed them to water supplies they wouldn’t have been aware of, cleared space in paddocks for trucks and helicopters, I helped black out after the fires had been through so those amazing, well trained people could get on with the real work, not the mopping up which we could do.

On the point of staying rather than evacuating. I know this goes against the current party line and many people will disagree with me. It is something that needs to be assessed according to many variables – the environment in which the property sits, personal fitness and capacity, property preparedness etc, but I feel personally that I am stuck between a rock and a hard place. If I don’t stay, who is going to manage these animals and ensure their welfare? Even if the fire doesn’t affect them, they won’t last long without food and water. It is part of my role as a farmer to do my best to care for them and their safety.

We could train and equip our communities better for resilience, rather than scaring them into retreat. We could build competence and capacity. Instead, our governments instill fear. Properly trained and supported, we could be a part of the solution. Fund small grants for firefighting equipment for neighbourhood use, like pumps, tanks and slip ons. What about discounts on better preparing homes in risky areas, like sprinkler systems and fire shutters. Let’s actually plan and practice a fire response as a neighbourhood. Why not involve the community in managing strategically placed fire breaks? Community coordinated back burning of risky sites in the neighbourhood in conjunction with CFA and DEWLP? There is so much that could be done, but government’s current approach is to reduce liability, not increase community. I won’t even go into the lack of Neighbourhood Safer Places or the dismal approach of Community Fireguard.

And here we are again – just bigger this time. It seems it keeps getting bigger. And I don’t think we are learning from the past or preparing for the reality of our future.

I think what scared me most this time around – and perhaps it is the now ever present social media that changed this dynamic – is our lack of calm leadership and, as a result, how quickly the community conversation deteriorated and people started to try and administer blame. Maybe it is because I am a little more distant from the event this time and am not busy with real work occupying my attention, but this is the time we needed to pull together and look after each other, not the time for fake news and misinformation. We, as a nation and even as an international community, are in deep confusion that is being fed by this misinformation.

In essence - we are grieving. Deeply and sincerely grieving as a people and a community. We have lost – friends, colleagues and community members. We have lost those who have stepped up to the front line to protect us. Because they tried to protect us, they have lost their lives. We have lost entire ecosystems. We have lost animals that we identify with and love as national treasures. We have lost significant parts of a national herd of cattle and flock of sheep. We have lost pets precious to us. We are yet to actually understand the magnitude of this. So much we have to grieve and that will increase as we pass from response to recovery and our awareness and understanding of the losses grows.

Adding to this is that we are not sure if we can rebuild all that has been lost. If there was ever a time for deep, united and significant grieving – it is now. This will change us as a people forever – because our country has been changed forever.

There is an additional layer to this somewhat unique perspective of mine. I have been involved in climate change action through my government work, studies and research in agricultural science which have a focus on climate response, and also as an activist for over 20 years. The simple truth of it is that the research has been pointing towards this for a long time. A very long time.

As we move forward into our recovery, I think what we need to acknowledge is that blame does not lie elsewhere. We cannot point the finger and say this is someone else’s responsibility.

Blame lies soundly and wholly at our own feet - all our feet. We ALL need to do better – much, much better if this is going to turn out ok. As a global community – we are all to blame. We knew what was coming and we have ignored the warnings, pointing the finger elsewhere for action.

Our response as a community after emergencies like fires show that there is a different way. We pull together, we fight shoulder to shoulder. We look after each other. We move mountains! We are capable of this! This is the attitude we need if we are going to unite and succeed in this battle for Mother Earth, our home. She is counting on us.

The reasons behind the increase in fires is complex. And as a result – we need to be smarter.

We need to listen to the experts, the scientists, the foresters, the land managers and those that spend time really immersing themselves in this work. They know. Shooting off some random article you saw on Facebook and perpetuating the misinformation doesn’t help! Check your sources. Be a critical information consumer and beware vested interests. Social media is a valuable space for community conversation, but not if it is mired in misinformation.

And you know what – all these experts, they are not all going to agree! Amazingly enough, there are different opinions out there, but the disagreement does tend to be on the details, not on the big picture stuff. There, the experts tend to pull in the same direction.

With all the complexity, there are a couple of things that underpin what is going on here. Climate change is the big one, and lack of management is the other.

I’ve had this discussion with so many people – smart people who are dismissing the threat of climate change. Misinformation is rife. So – I’ll put it simply. If I presented my current PhD research to any academic institution in the world and made the statement that I was unsure if climate change is anthropological (caused by humans), I would be looked upon similarly to a flat earther. This is not a matter of belief, but of evidence and the evidence is sound. It has been for a long time. The scientific community is getting on with the job. Please – let them! Climate change must be addressed. Don’t be played by vested interests.

Yes – we need to do more back burning. Be aware that it is not without its risks. In 2015, a back burn close to Lancefield (about 30 kms west of my farm) got away and that community was significantly impacted and is still recovering. Windows of opportunity for back burning have been impacted by the changing seasons and the shortened time available for burning, particularly in close proximity to communities. That is climate change. Welcome to it. Any of us who spend time year after year in the elements can see it. And the data supports these observations. Add to that increasing population densities in the landscape, and you have a real problem on your hands!

Yes – we have taken cattle out of the high country and that has probably increased fuel loads. I am actually not dismissing the strategic use of herbivores for forest management, but there are greater minds than mine working in this space and I will defer to them when making decisions at a policy level, as well as the on ground management of these forests. I do know that handing a public resource to those with economic interests is likely to end up exploited rather than strategically managed, so I am not a fan of just handing back some of the most fragile ecosystems in the world to those that wish to exploit them for economic gain. And don’t under-estimate the increase in fragility of the ecosystems with the change in climate either. They need our care, husbandry and clever management for restoration and health. Not our exploitation.

I would question the ‘lock up and walk away’ approach towards conservation in some of these areas too. How many forestry managers are funded by our governments? The occasions I have spent with those working in forest management when collaborating on weed control, biodiversity management, and pest animal control when managing adjacent agricultural properties to these forests has always been a struggle for resources – governments and other public land managers (including those such as Vicroads and Victrack) are notoriously bad neighbours in this regard with limited funding and resources for meeting their obligations under the Catchment and Land Protection Act, manage weeds and pests, and just generally to look after the landscape properly.

And our roadsides – so many opinions on how they should be managed – including one I heard on talk back radio that all roads should be cleared for 20m each side! An element I will point out is that our roadsides in some areas, particularly highly modified agricultural landscapes, represent some of the best remnant vegetation we have and the last habitat and linkages through the landscape for endangered and threatened species, both flora and fauna. So again – they need our care, husbandry and clever management. Fine fuels are what present the biggest fire risk, so encouraging the community to pick up fire wood isn’t going to solve the problem unless they are educated about how to clean up the roadside responsibly and enhance biodiversity values – not just take the big useful bits and leave the really flammable stuff! Simply clearing and slashing by Councils will not manage the situation effectively, as they don’t have the resources to do it effectively. But educating and organizing community to clean up responsibly whilst respecting the ecological and habitat value of these spaces would be a step in the right direction.

We need to acknowledge the impact we have had on this country. We need to understand these are foreign ecologies to our predominantly European ‘mechanical’ minds. It takes a significant shift of mindset for our western, capitalist outlook to maneuver from exploitation of resources to husbandry, care, value and love of habitat and ecology, but shift it we must. This is our habitat! Not just our precious flora and fauna, but our habitat, our home - needs our love or we will have no water to drink, no air to breathe and nowhere to grow our food.   That means we need to draw on what remains of our indigenous knowledge and resources, our scientists and experts, our practical experienced land managers - and heed what they have to say. Really listen – not just lip service. Let’s bring together the best science, indigenous and practical expertise. And then we have to fund the work and involve the community in being a part of the solution – hands on.  

And so – let us grieve. As a people, let us grieve together. Let us put all our weight behind our affected communities. Let’s care for each other, be kind to each other and do all we can to help heal and rebuild. And know that this is a long haul. The communities affected by Black Saturday are still healing 11 years on. Stick with it. This is a big job.

But also – let us take real action and address these complex issues that need our collective intelligence and consciousness to overcome. Let us band together. Fight together. Let us be one people working towards a solution. If we have the courage to each shoulder our share of the blame then out of that comes the realization that we are all responsible and can do something very real towards the solution. We do need to call on our leaders to take a higher quality response driven by evidence, but we can each start to do our bit in our own neighbourhoods and communities. Let us all take responsibility for our part in shaping a beautiful future.

This is how we as a community respond to emergencies. We move mountains. The time is now. Because time is running out.