It has been reported that 35,000 people have asked to join their local fire service in the wake of the 2019-2020 fires. This is a wonderfully commendable response.

Just as those living near surf beaches are encouraged to join the local surf lifesaving club, so people living in the bush are feeling the urge, more than ever, to join the local fire service (the RFS in NSW, the CFA in Victoria).

Contrary to ‘Scotty from Marketing’s’ assertion that you don’t need to ‘hold a hose’ to contribute, there are many things they can do: logistics, maintenance, food, temporary accommodation, administration and so on. A role for young and old, but I fear for what the new recruits may find.

The brigades will remain under-funded and under-resourced. The restoration of the funds stripped out by governments (the NSW LNP took $27.6m from the RFS in the last budget) will no doubt be delayed until the results of the wholly unnecessary Royal Commission are released. And by then the ardour for meaningful action expressed in the recent past will have cooled.

The volunteers will quickly discover that this lack of government support is the new normal in Australia. Because we have one of the lowest tax-to-GDP ratios in the OECD we are becoming increasingly reliant on philanthropy and volunteering to patch over the cracks in social services. And volunteering ang giving donations is how we will survive.

Volunteering is great, but we have seen how volunteers become understandably exhausted in the recent prolonged fires. Which begs two questions: how to compensate the volunteers for lost time and income when fighting fires; and do we need more full-time professionals in the brigade?

The answer is yes to both; of course, you volunteer your time to learn, but you will lose the enthusiasm if every holiday is eaten up by the increasing fire activity. And just as paid ‘life guards’ supplement the volunteer ‘life savers’ (and star on TV in Bondi) so we need more professionals year-round in the brigades.

And what will these pro-firefighters do in the increasingly short ‘off-season’? Well, no doubt the Royal Commission will hear lots about the need for hazard reduction, reduced fuel loads and logging in national and state forests. This, they will say, will be the work for brigades to undertake, despite the current and former fire commissioners saying that hazard reduction is of limited, to no, use in the fires we saw this season.

When a fire is crowning out through the tops of eucalypt trees, with embers driven on by the high winds, it moves forward at such a rapid pace it becomes an uncontrollable fire. No amount of hazard reduction or reduction in fuel load will assist in the control of that fire. But that won’t stop the crimsons advocating for it.

A resolution of this impasse would seem to lie in indigenous fire management. We’ve heard a lot about the promise, but what exactly are we seeing here? So, we welcome a book released this week called Fire Country, How Indigenous Fire Management Could Help Save Australia, by Victor Steffensen, a Tagalaka man from the Gulf of Carpentaria.

Steffensen tells a personal story in a series of yarns about experiences in the bush, mostly at the hands of two mentors who take him out on country, showing how the indigenous uncover its secrets and spirits, and in particular the uses of fire to manage the ecology. Understanding fire is both incidental and central to his learning to read and love of the bush.

The reader will be disappointed, but not be surprised, by the grievances exposed in the telling of these stories, showing the way that Aboriginal peoples have been sidelined, marginalized and ruled over in the last two hundred years. The elders talk often about the ‘authorities’ which Steffensen calls the 3 P’s: police, parks (and wildlife) and pastoralists.

But it is also about future hope, about how his younger generation are reclaiming country through the lessons of the elders. And central to that reclaiming of country are the traditional fire practices that interact with all other aspects like hunting, controlling animals, wayfinding, sheltering, surviving and importantly calling on the spirits of the country.

This is consummate storytelling. Not the textbook that many, myself included, had wanted. But it does illuminate many things that will become increasingly apparent: most importantly that fire maintenance is different in different regions. Different landscapes require different fire controls; some are never burnt and some require almost continuous monitoring and burning.

It all depends on knowing the local land, the spacing of trees, the understory species, the ground covers, the terrain slopes, the soil and its moisture content, the prevailing wind direction in summer, and crucially in winter when it is the optimum time for fire control. There will be textbooks on all this, but they will be written in a thousand different, local, ways.

It is a perfect time for a roadmap on how to make people and homes safer in a fire. And no doubt the crimsons would love a text extolling hazard reduction. This book does neither but is a crucial first step in understanding how we can manage fire to advantage the country, rather than watch helplessly as it burns it away. How fire can be our friend not the malevolent enemy that we have seen so recently.

Country of fire, or fire country. Time to choose.

Tone Wheeler is principal architect at Environa Studio, Adjunct Professor at UNSW and is President of the Australian Architecture Association. The views expressed here are solely those of the author and are not held or endorsed by A+D, the AAA or UNSW. Comments can be posted here or addressed to [email protected]

PS. There is a seminar in Sydney this Friday on bushfire design called ‘Building Back Better’. It is being organised by the Australian Institute of Architects to promote better bushfire design. The seminar is free; 350 have already registered; information is available here.

PPS An addendum to last week’s whinge about the lack of architecture on TV, along comes a new program on SBS: Secrets of our Cities hosted by HG Nelson Greg Pickhaver. Sunday nights at 8.30pm. Very much worth seeing.