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Heritage expert asks whether bushfire memorials commemorate human catastrophe or bush folly

26 September 2013

Australians’ memories of bushfires are short, yet as Deakin University’s cultural heritage expert Professor William Logan argues bushfire memorials are one instance of Australian heritage where it would be best if we didn’t need to create the memorial in the first place.

“Bushfire memorials, like individual war memorials help us to remember individual and community pain and suffering, but they divert us really from the more fundamental questions about why they the residents in bushfire prone areas, like soldiers in war, were there in the first place,” he said.

Professor Logan’s comments follow new research looking at how Victoria’s bushfires in particular Black Saturday, 2009 and Ash Wednesday, 1983 are recorded and commemorated.

His research has prompted him to urge people living in bush fire prone areas to take responsibility for themselves and has called on researchers and local authorities to pay more attention to how bushfires are memorialised.

As a global expert on the heritage and memorial issues surrounding places of pain and shame, Professor Logan has looked at how places such as Long Tan, the Thai-Burma Railway and the Hoa Lo prison in Hanoi are commemorated, but he admits the bushfires research was a challenge.

“Places which have been ravaged by bushfires are different from the usual places of pain and shame, because they are difficult to memorialise since fire by nature is destructive and there is usually very little left,” he said.

“Despite their prevalence and a degree of romanticism of bush living in Australian history, there is also very little in the academic realm about this kind of event or the desire to commemorate it.”

Professor Logan said bushfires were written into Australian history and psyche and were something all Australians, migrants included, had in common.

Artists capture some of our earliest memories of bushfires, their work however is not of specific places, but imagined,” he said.

“Their paintings work on the emotions which if anything entrenches the romanticism of bushfires.”

Professor Logan said in contrast to the early history, the public record of later bushfires, particularly Black Saturday was extensive ranging from the detailed work of the Royal Commission, the stories of drama, heroism and emotion carried by the print and electronic media and the community galleries.

Despite the long history of bushfires, only three heritage sites have been officially recognised in Victoria as places of bushfire significance.

“South Warrandyte Hall is registered at a local level as a community meeting place, destroyed by fire and then recreated,” he said.

“St Andrews Anglican Church was a rare survivor of the 1960s bushfires and is recorded as an area of local significance.

“Cockatoo kindergarten is the only bushfire-related heritage place inscribed on the State Heritage Register. It was inscribed because of ‘its ability to resonate with other fire affected communities and the wider Victorian community and interpret to them the experience of seeking refuge’.”

Professor Logan said the kindergarten as it stood now was a rather forlorn example of heritage.

“The roof leaked badly and the kindergarten moved. Since then, the building has remained empty and unused.

“Yet in 1983 it was a refuge for 300 people during the bushfires.”

Professor Logan said the story that surrounded the kindergarten was one of luck.

“There were 300 people in this glass building, the fires were advancing towards them at night time, so they would have been able to see the bushfires coming,” he said.

“Fortunately for them fires are pretty spotty in the way they impact on the ground and it missed them, but it could easily have been a disaster.”

Professor Logan said it was important for authorities to capture the memories of people after bushfires as an oral form of cultural heritage.

“Clearly this would need to be done with great sensitivity and under strict ethical guidelines, but people could be invited to tell their stories, capturing that intangible heritage of personal loss. Places and material objects/artefacts can be commemorated as more tangible forms of heritage,” he said.

“People’s memory of the trauma bushfires cause is remarkably short but the romantic notion of living in the bush survives.”

Professor Logan said even the Government seems to have been caught up in the sentimental notion of living in the bush and has resisted insisting on people shifting their homes out of dangerous bush settings.

“People have been allowed to rebuild in the same location and changes to planning ironically allow them to cut down the trees around their homes, which means the bush they seek has gone,” he said.

“In a 2010 survey, 80 per cent of people living in high fire risk areas said they would make a decision about whether to stay or abandon their homes only when faced with a direct fire threat.

“Yet reading the accounts in the Commission reports, one is forced to wonder at what point did the people who perished realise they had made a catastrophic mistake to stay.

“Catastrophic bushfires will happen again. “Ultimately people need to take responsibility for themselves and especially for their children and other loved ones; people shouldn’t just wait and see.”

News facts
  • People’s memory of the trauma bushfires cause is remarkably short but the romantic notion of living in the bush survives
  • Bushfire memorials help us to remember individual and community pain and suffering, but they divert us from the fundamental questions about why they the residents in bushfire prone areas, were there in the first place
  • Catastrophic bushfires will happen again - people need to take responsibility for themselves and especially for their children and other loved ones and not just wait and see

Media contact

Sandra Kingston
Deakin Media Relations
03 9246 8221/0422 005 485
sandra.kingston@deakin.edu.au

Bill Logan

Deakin University Professor Bill Logan's research looks at how Australian bushfires have been remembered.

Deakin University Professor Bill Logan is interviewed on ABC Local Radio South Australia about the research and memorials

Cockatoo Kinder

Cockatoo Kindergarten is one of only three heritage sites officially recognised in Victoria as places of bushfire significance.

Deakin University acknowledges the traditional land owners of present campus sites.

7th October 2013