Fires near Sydney stir deep cultural issues

Dry winds and lack of rain fuel some 100 bush fires in Australia.

This holiday season is one Cheryl Ward is already trying to forget.

And with good reason: On Christmas Day, a 120-foot-tall fireball bounced through her neighborhood, destroying seven of her neighbors' homes and singeing her lawn even as it left her house almost freakishly untouched.

"She lost everything," Mrs. Ward says, as she looks at the pile of debris and charred appliances that was her neighbors' home and stood just 20 feet or so from her own largely intact timber barn.

She just smiles bemusedly as she says, "No," the fires will not prompt her to move from her home in the highly inflammable Australian bush northwest of Sydney. "It could be another 30, 40, or 50 years before anything like this happens again."

For more than a week, a thick blanket of smoke has been hanging over Sydney and outlying suburbs like Kurrajong as a result of the worst wildfires to hit the city since 1994. So far, 150 homes have been lost, some 1,000 people have been evacuated from their homes, more than 600,000 acres have burned, and some 8,500 firefighters have been dispatched to fight more than 100 fires that, were they to be lined up next to each other, would cover a front almost 400 miles long.

But even as residents watched the tragedy unfold in their own backyards, people such as Ward have greeted the fires with a remarkable stoicism driven by a simple fact: Australia is a country that has a relationship with fire unlike any other.

"Fire doesn't surprise Australians," wrote David Marr, one of Australia's leading social commentators. "It's terrible, but it's natural. We grow up knowing the country burns."

The smell of smoke here triggers the usual panic. But it also prompts scientific debates about the extinction of prehistoric animals and cultural battles between white farmers and Aborigines as well as environmentalists and homeowners.

"There are other nooks and crannies of continents that are very fire-prone. But Australia is the most fire-prone continent on earth," says David Bowman, a landscape ecologist who has spent most of his career studying how fire has shaped Australia's physical characteristics.

That, Mr. Bowman says, has made fire an emotional issue that reaches into many corners of the country's psyche.

One of the dominant debates now raging in Australian academia, for example, is whether Aborigines' use of fire some 40,000 years ago was responsible for the extinction of the giant kangaroos and other "megafauna" that once roamed Australia. The theory was first advanced in the 1994 book, "The Future Eaters," written by Tim Flannery, one of the country's leading natural historians.

The debate extends further to what impact white Australians had when they arrived in 1788 and immediately began burning land to clear it for agriculture and stamping out fires lit by Aborigines as part of a highly evolved traditional burning regimen.

At the end of the day, "you can't say one way or the other [is right] because there isn't enough evidence," says A. Malcolm Gill, one of Australia's leading fire experts. "You can trace fires [in Australia] back a million years and probably further."

But the debate over how to use and control fire also has more practical facets.

Travel through Australia's tropical north toward the end of the May-to-October dry season on any given year, and you'll find frustrated cattlemen trying to protect valuable grasslands from Aborigines who see burning large swaths of the country as a cultural duty.

Closer to cities such as Sydney, the battle is between environmentalists and homeowners who want preventive fires lit to help reduce the potential danger in forests abutting residential suburbs.

"It's an emotive issue because it's a clash of cultures and it's a clash of lifestyles," Bowman says.

Aborigines created a fire-dependent habitat by regularly burning off the Australian bush over thousands of years, as they used fire both as a tool for hunting and as a way to prevent large, out-of-control fires, Bowman says. As a result, many trees rely on fire as a trigger for reproduction, or to keep down undergrowth, which allows them to prosper.

"It's not just trees, either," Prof. Gill says. "There are animal species that are dependent on fires indirectly."

It's a case, they say, of Australians needing to learn how better to live with fire, even as they recognize it as a natural phenomenon they have to contend with.

There are other caveats too. Some environmentalists argue that burning the land stunts the growth of what are really rainforests suppressed by thousands of years of man-made fire.

Authorities have also blamed arsonists for up to 40 of the 100 fires now burning around Sydney. But while the fires are monumental in scale, they are by no means the worst fires Australians have had to face.

So far, no one has died in the fires. In 1983, on a day now known as Ash Wednesday, 72 people were killed and some 2,000 homes destroyed as a result of wildfires.

The key to fighting the past week's fires has been the network of volunteers who make up the Rural Fire Service in Sydney's home state of New South Wales. It is responsible for fighting - and preventing - fires in 90 percent of a state bigger than Texas.

Anthony Church joined the Winmalee Bush Fire Brigade when he was just 15 and has been among the hundreds of volunteers fighting the fires in 12-hour shifts in the Blue Mountains west of Sydney this past week.

While the members of the Winmalee Bush Fire Brigade have been consigned to mostly preventive duties in recent days the worst of Sydney's Christmas firestorm may not be over.

Authorities still expect many of the current fires to burn through the end of this week.

Then again, that hasn't helped people like Ward or Naomi Annabel who watched flames flare-up briefly again in her backyard after five tension-filled days of trying to keep her home in the Blue Mountains safe.

"Hopefully it's all over for us now," Ms. Annabel says, as firefighters put out the last remaining embers. "It hasn't been much of a Christmas, that's for sure."

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