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As I write this article in my Adelaide Hills home, surrounded by native eucalypts and introduced fruit trees, large areas in New South Wales are dealing with the consequences of some of the worst bushfires in recorded history. Remarkably, given the unseasonally extreme weather, the rugged terrain, and the ferocity of the fires themselves, there have been few human casualties. Nevertheless, the cost will be enormous, not only in terms of the physical reconstruction required, but also of the effort required for individuals and families to rebuild lives from the ruins of their destroyed habitations. I live in a bushfire-prone area, in a house that could not be easily defended in the inferno of a firestorm. We have made our plans. We think we know what to do in the face of the fire emergency we hope will never eventuate. But how would we cope in such a situation? In practice, we have no idea.

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And the world is fire.

And the sky wears a smoky veil.

And the bloodshot sun stares.

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At the height of summer fire danger, on Friday, 13 February 2004, the ABC launched on its website an online documentary about the most awesome bushfires since the European occupation of Australia. The Black Friday fires of 1939 still represent the ‘worst possible’ conditions in a continent of fire. The website reveals just how deeply Black Friday burned into the national conscience, and how profoundly it changed attitudes to society and nature. It also took lives and left survivors with enduring emotional and physical scars. Some of those stories are told for the first time.

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