In 2010, when I was awarded the Order of Australia medal ‘For service to the community in raising awareness of bushfire safety’, it was the culmination of 50 years of work in this area and a lifetime of interest in safety in all its aspects.
My interest in bushfires started young. I grew up in the country. I saw the aftermath of the 1926 and 1939’s Black Friday fires. My little-girl heart grieved for its victims. My father was a volunteer firefighter before the days of formal bushfire brigades. I put out my first fire when aged eleven by adept action with a hessian bag: a small fire in grass that threatened our home. I had only my Girl Guide’s learning, its motto Be Prepared, and a quick reaction to the smell of smoke. All big fires have such small beginnings.
I made my married home in what was then close to outer Melbourne’s bushfire belt and as a young mother in the 1960s, single-handedly kept a bushfire away from a neighbour’s home. Having been entirely inappropriately clothed to do so, that day stimulated me to develop the idea of a personal Survival Kit. In 1965, the ground-breaking Doncaster-Templestowe Civil Defence for Bushfire was formed and I was a foundation member. That year also launched my journalistic career and from then on I used my newspaper columns to write information on bushfire safety and survival.
Since the multiple devastating bushfires of the 1960s, I had lobbied government authorities to disseminate bushfire safety information, and urged the Australian Disaster College to shift its emphasis away from hypothetical nuclear attack and onto plans for our real, annual, bushfire disasters. None acted.
The day before Ash Wednesday, 16 February 1983, it was obvious to anyone with insight that a bushfire tragedy was waiting to happen. The lack of bushfire safety information for the public so disturbed me that I hand delivered a letter to then Victorian Premier John Cain, urging him to increase bushfire safety education. He would not see me.
My elder daughter, Katherine Seppings, was living in an extreme bushfire risk area. All summer we talked of safety measures. That terrible day, bushfires killed 76 people, 300,000 animals and destroyed over 3,000 buildings. ‘The authorities will have to put out information’, I protested. ‘They’re not going to, Mum’, she pointed out. ‘You’ll have to do it yourself’. ‘How can I write a book?’ I asked incredulously. For many years my health had been so poor it had been all I could do to get one newspaper column out each week. But I couldn’t bear it that so many people had suffered so needlessly, for lack of knowledge. I realised I had to try. We decided I’d write a book with all the known facts of bushfire safety: for people like her. She would illustrate it.
A few days later an idea came to me of window shutters for house protection. I phoned then Country Fire Authority Chief Officer, Ron Orchard, who not only took that up enthusiastically, but welcomed the idea of me writing a comprehensive book on bushfire safety for the public and, at my request, provided senior officers for checking of drafts during the process. Every relevant authority throughout Australia in turn – bushfire, CSIRO, environmental, etc – gave their approval and co-operation. Over the three and a half years of the work, every word, every idea, insight and understanding was vetted and passed by them. Two weeks after Ash Wednesday, I began writing The Complete Australian Bushfire Book.
As I got into the work of reading everything I could find written on the subject, and interviewing bushfire and related authorities and researchers throughout Australia, I realised that that publications put out by different states contradicted each other on many aspects and even contradicted themselves. (Mind you, there was not much in the way of official publications. Victoria had a small booklet ‘Summer Peril, mostly aimed at people in the land, but NSW had only an A4 flier.) I often found discrepancies between what was printed and the realities of what happened. ‘If the authorities are confused’, I thought, ‘it’s no wonder that the public is’.
I questioned many platitudes and practices: the safety of community refuges, the practice of forcibly denying householders’ right to defend their home, and the routine of last-minute evacuation orders.
Many of the concepts now common in bushfire authority brochures were first raised in this book: the family bushfire safety plan, actions lists of what to do at various stages of bushfire threat, the personal Survival Kit, need for a Plan B, the potential dangers of community refuges, how to shelter safely, protective window shutters, the bushfire-safe garden, special needs of children and the frail, care of pets, travelling and holiday safety, safety for precious possessions … and many more. My in-depth analysis of the evacuation enigma has helped shape official policy.
The Complete Australian Bushfire Book caused a revolution in bushfire safety for the public when first published in 1986. The first book of its kind, it was declared the definitive work on bushfire protection for the public. Reviews such as ‘Bushfire classic’ and ‘bushfire safety Bible’ hit the headlines. ABC radio said, ‘This is not an ordinary book’ and the Melbourne Herald acclaimed it as ‘writing of considerable power’. Authorities enthused with ‘compulsory reading’, ‘a masterpiece’ and ‘the most authoritative publication available’. It was used in bushfire authority officer training. It was short-listed for the BHP Pursuit of Excellence Award 1987.
In 1988, schools and other public buildings had been designated as community bushfire refuges. I drove through Victoria’s Dandenong Ranges to see them. I was appalled. Far from being suitable to protect people in time of bushfire most were in such hazardous conditions as to endanger the lives of shelterers. With the help of a Channel 9 TV crew the public and authorities were soon shocked out of their apathetic acceptance.
My campaign had great results. My book was used by architects and the Ministry of Education as the major resource in the planning and designing the first specially constructed school bushfire shelter at Sassafras Primary School in the Victoria’s Dandenong Ranges. This was a new and unprecedented initiative unique to Australia – indeed, unique worldwide. Others schools in the Dandenong Ranges (Region 13) followed. The Education Department, in consultation with the Country Fire Authority Victoria, police and State emergency services, drew up a Code of Practice for Schools in Fire Hazard Areas for Fire Protection of School Grounds, 1988 and Code of Building Practice for Schools in Fire Hazard Areas.
In 1990 I received the Australian Fire Protection Association’s Community Safety Award.
For the book’s second edition in 2000, the title was changed to The Complete Bushfire Safety Book.
The following year I agreed to write a ready reference,for those who did not have the time or inclination to read a large in-depth book. It was to be titled Essential Bushfire Safety Tips.
In 2008 this was updated for CSIRO Publishing, whose editing process incorporates a scientific peer review. In 2010 the Victorian catastrophic Black Saturday fires occurred and subsequent official overturning of previous bushfire safety advice. I agreed to another update. But for two years I had to battle against the publisher’s bullying attempts to force me to do a book that followed the latest official line. Never in all the non-fiction aspect of my writing career have I written anything but verifiable fact – and I wasn’t going to start in my 80s.
Essential Bushfire Safety Tips is the definitive, easy-read ready reference. It details safe reaction at each stage of bushfire threat and explains the benefits and dangers of every alternative option. Its endorsement by the Country Fire Authority, Victoria states: ‘An outstanding achievement. A book that certainly could help save lives.’
‘Your book was critical in helping to save our house on Black Saturday.’ -Taggerty.
‘Your book enabled my daughter to save their own place and a neighbour’s.’ – Kilmore East.
‘Your books have taken the fear out of summer’ – Daylesford.
‘Joan, you are my hero.’ – Daylesford.
Melbourne Age: ‘The research is prodigious’
Radio talkback caller: ‘Joan is God’.