by Greg Volz
It was 4.25 in the afternoon when the first announcement came over ABC Radio. Something about a hazard reduction burn, some fire fighters missing. Carol Deane didn’t really notice. It was at Mt Kuring-Gai National Park. Claire, her daughter, worked at Lane Cove. The ABC mentioned it again at 4.30pm. When the news was mentioned a third time, Carol suddenly switched on. “I thought, where was she going?” She remembered the night before, her 25-year-old daughter snuggled up in her arms, in tears. Upset after a long, hard day. Her first ever working on a hazard reduction burn. Just her second month with the National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS). She didn’t like it, didn’t like fire, wasn’t impressed with the way it had been organised.
Now Carol was alert, as more news filtered through. She phoned around, trying to find out where Claire was. A quick call to husband Trevor, telling him she wouldn’t be joining him for a 5pm meeting in Chatswood. More calls. Yes, Claire was out at Mt Kuring-Gai that afternoon. No, she hadn’t come in yet. Jigsaw pieces, coming together. A helicopter may have spotted the four missing members of the team. They were walking back in. And then, a world turned upside down, a stranger’s voice, coming down the phone. “I’m sorry Mrs Deane, but Claire is deceased.”
It’s one of those magnificent spring afternoons at the end of September, just over 12 years on from that day. Aqua blue sky. Little wind to speak of, and when it does blow, it is clean and fresh. Even the sunlight feels new and healthy, not yet clogged with summer’s humidity and grime. In short, a perfect day for bush care. And the Claire Deane Bush Sanctuary in Forestville, a small vacant lot nestled between two houses and the Garrigal National Park, is bush care central.
Four times a year, a small, dedicated band of workers, friends and former neighbours, join Trevor and Carol Deane, working next door to their old house in Coolabah Crescent. Planting natives and removing weeds, honouring the memory of Claire and three colleagues who died that day. People like Jenny Talbot, who used to work with Trevor and lives near-by.
“There’s a few persistent weedy grasses,” says Jenny. “Once they get a grip on a place they are hard to eradicate.” In the middle of the reserve is a glorious wooden seat, carved from a eucalypt, bearing a motif ‘Angel of the Bush’. A small sign describes how the seat was made by the local wood turner’s guild from a tree that grew opposite where Claire grew up.
But bush care is not the only activity taking place today. Across the state, some 97hazard reduction burns have been taking place during that week. Taking advantage of the same conditions, mild, with no humidity and little wind. And in five days, submissions to the Enhancing Hazard Reduction in NSW– Discussion paper, which argues for a 45 per cent increase in hazard reduction activity across the state, will close.
John Ritchie describes the theory behind hazard reduction pretty simply. “Fires don’t start on a tree trunk,” he says. “They start on the ground. They start in that litter. If there’s not much litter, there’s less intensity in the flames and if there’s less heat in the flames, it makes it hard to carry up trunks, because trunks are thick and dense.”
John has been a fireman for 27 years, working for Fire Service NSW at various stations around Sydney. He has sympathy for those who believe in hazard reduction. But he also recognises, as the discussion paper itself points out, that the very big fires, such as the 2009 Victorian bush fires that killed 173 people, are more the result of extreme weather conditions than the amount of litter on the ground.
“What happens is, one fire will roll into another, they will continue to spot fire and create little fires that build and build. It creates its own cycle that human beings can’t do a lot to control.” Back at the Claire Deane Bush Sanctuary, Lyn MacDowell, a retired botanist and bush care regular, has other reasons to be unhappy with hazard reduction burns.
“They are doing a lot of it right now. That means the plants haven’t had a chance to set seed. Obviously the birds and the animals are disrupted from their breeding processes. And, a lot of the time burns get out of control.” Just how safe is hazard reduction burning? Well, one thing’s for sure. It wasn’t safe back on that day in June 2000.
Trevor Deane still calls his daughter ‘Clairey’. A father’s pet name for a daughter, now lost. He has not read the coroner’s findings for a long time. In the early days after the fire, Trevor was determined to chase leads, tie up loose ends, find out exactly what happened. He now recognises this as part of his grieving process.
Carol sees her grieving as more of a journey, more personal. It includes writing stories. Like the one about an earlier bush fire that nearly consumed their home in Forestville. An exploding eucalypt, a foreboding of the apocalypse to come.
The inquest into the death of the four NPWS staff who died took place over a year after the fire. It revealed that maps Claire’s team relied upon to get them out of the fire when it shifted, were wrong. Their path to safety was blocked by a 30 metre high cliff not even marked on the map. There were other things that contributed too. Like the lack of protective fire proof clothing worn by some staff, the lack of formal training around planning and executing the burn.
NPWS would later plead guilty and be fined for failing to ensure the health and safety of its workers in the Industrial Relations court. There is a hint of other things, not in the coroner’s report, not involving NPWS. Trevor starts to talk about them. Carol leans across the coffee table where they are sitting, touches his hand. “Let it rest,” she says gently. A conversation they have had more than once.
A colleague describes Bob Conroy as a “very nice, exceptionally caring and capable man. And an absolute guru in NSW on fire related issues”. Today, he is Director of Conservation, one of NPWS’s most senior officials. “I remember that day clearly.” he says softly. “It was a perfect winter’s day. Ideal conditions.”
Even now, 12 years on, his voice sounds slightly bewildered at the shear devastation that was wrought that day. Among the four people lost to the fire, Bob had known two for nearly 25 years. Three more who survived were left badly burned. It was a body blow for every-one at NPWS. But there is no bewilderment when Bob talks about the lessons learned from that awful day.
“Hazard reduction is a dangerous activity,” he says. “But substantial changes have taken place since June 2000, to try and mitigate the risks.” It’s all there, laid out in the NPWS Fire Management manual, 223 pages of detail. The improvements to the quality of mapping. Training and accreditation of staff before they can plan a hazard reduction burn. More training for those actually carrying out the work. The high quality protective equipment for all staff that is now mandatory. It captures what was learned about the impacts on staff.
“The events of that day had a traumatic effect on me and my colleagues,” says Bob. But no text book can teach you how to support the families of those who have lost a loved one. Bob Conroy kept in touch with both Trevor and Carol Deane in the early years after the fire, and clearly admires them. “They were very forgiving,” he says. Bob can see the number of hazard reduction burns increasing, and with it, the risk of something going wrong. “That’s why there are more contingencies and better planning, but you can never fully mitigate the risk.”
It’s hard to know just what Trevor and Carol Deane think about hazard reduction burning these days. They say they take comfort from the knowledge that Claire had told them she believed in it, as much as she hated fires. Perhaps it’s just that they are focused on continuing their journey. They have a wisdom that is hard earned, at once admired but never coveted. Perhaps a clue to what they think lies in the final words of another of Carol’s short stories, the haunting description of that awful day, when a hazard reduction burn went horribly wrong.
Blackened trunks sprout pink new leaves, green shoots adorn sedges and seedlings celebrate new life amongst the grey ash. Soon wildflowers will bloom in their new-found sunshine. The bush survives. This sandstone scrubland has been rejuvenated. The houses on the ridge are safe for a few more years.
The Last Kiss, Carol Deane