Burn: The epic story of bushfire in Australia
Allen & Unwin, $35 pb, 420 pp, 1741750539
In November 2002 Paul Collins fulfilled ‘that dream of the urban middle class’ and bought a bush block and a shack in the Snowy Mountains ‘where I could be close to the environment’. In late January 2003 his block was scorched by probably the most widespread bushfire since European settlement, and certainly the worst one since the horrific bushfires of 1939. Those two archetypal fires – Black Friday 1939 and the alpine fires of 2002–03 – are the events around which the author has shaped a narrative of bushfire over two hundred years. His strong account of the Canberra fires of 2003 reminds us that they were the outer edge of a massive alpine event.
Drawing especially on newspaper accounts, Collins offers a vivid narrative of bushfires in which he focuses on the human dimensions of the drama. His history is full of personal heroism and tragedy. The author is determined that the awesome force of nature that is fire should not overwhelm the particularities of human suffering and survival. This was, for me, the most impressive feature of the book. Collins tells the individual stories – a myriad of them – and together they effectively carry the central argument of the book, which is that fire is ‘part of the very fabric of our continent’, a positive and renewing force that Australians must learn to live with. The writing is clear and compelling, and the relentless cascade of human drama in the face of fire confronts one with its ubiquity and power.