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Black Saturday is an Australian tragedy that redefined the way we live with fire

I’d visited the Latrobe Valley a few times before I really took in Hazelwood power station. Of course, I’d seen it. How could anyone miss it? But now I beheld the concrete behemoth, its towering chimney stacks creating their own thin, brown cloud-stream.

I was writing about the adjacent town of Churchill, built in the late 1960s as a dormitory suburb for Victorian electricity workers. In 1971, a toddler named Brendan Sokaluk had moved to Churchill with his parents, who believed the coal fields would provide a better life for their children. Brendan was raised in the town, and never left. Aged 39, he woke on the morning now known as Black Saturday, and just after lunch, got in his car – a view of Hazelwood visible from his street – and took the short drive to a eucalypt plantation where he set a blaze that engulfed the surrounding world.

Driving to the town, and the area devastated by what is called the Churchill Fire, meant passing the power station, and for the first time I didn’t just half-look at the building.

Hazelwood was the It-power station, one of the dirtiest in the OECD; a grand temple to coal in the eyes of the hard-right, and a brutalist monument, emblematic of Australia’s ongoing climate policy debacle, to environmentalists. This fight left those living in the station’s shadow feeling unseen and uneasy about their own futures. But at that stage no one appeared to be seriously talking about its decommission. The place almost stank of the ideological impasse. And I’m ashamed to admit it, but as I set out to investigate what I imagined was the exotic psychology of arson, I had a fleeting, lazy thought, “I wish that wasn’t there.”

Often the element a writer doesn’t want to face is most central to the story.

Black Saturday is an Australian tragedy. It is a day that has redefined the way we consider living alongside fire. But it is also a tale of our wretched electricity system.

On 7 February 2009, of the 173 people who died, 161 perished in fires ignited by a poorly maintained power grid.

The Kilmore East Fire, north of Melbourne, which burned through 125,383 hectares and killed 119 people, began when an electricity line or conductor fell. The conductor, which was probably 43 years old, ultimately failed because no one had noticed a component part, called a “helical termination”, was incorrectly inserted in its thimble, causing 5000°C plasma to be discharged onto surrounding vegetation. This inferno joined with the Murrindindi Fire – also caused by a fallen power line –which went on to kill 40 people.

In north-eastern Victoria, in the Beechworth-Mudgegonga Fire, two people died after a tree fell onto a power line. The tree had probably been struck by lightning 18 months earlier, however, as it was just outside the “clearance zone” checked by SP AusNet’s “vegetation inspectors”, no one noticed its threat. “Had the tree … previously been seen by an arborist,” states the report from the 2009 Victorian Bushfires royal commission, “the potential hazard would probably have been apparent.” Unfortunately, none of the vegetation inspectors were actually arborists.

In Coleraine, in the state’s west, a conductor’s tie wire from 1961 or 1962 corroded and broke starting a fire. In Horsham, a pole cap on a line constructed in 1963 or 1964 came loose and started another.

The electricity in those failed lines most likely came from Hazelwood or one of the other power stations in the Latrobe Valley.

Victorian school children were once proudly taught that the Valley was the “Ruhr of the South”. Here were the largest brown coal fields in the world, mined and burned by the government-owned State Electricity Commission, an industry which drove Victoria’s economy for years. When the SEC was privatised and disaggregated in the mid-1990s, thousands of people lost their jobs, and $23bn in sales’ profits flowed elsewhere.

The unofficial slogan of the SEC was “slow, easy and comfortable”, but, as revealed in the Bushfires royal commission, the modern culture of our electricity providers focusing on their bottom line, and ignoring the proper maintenance of ageing electrical assets, is hardly an improvement.

After the privatisation, lax regulation left us vulnerable to accidental electrical fires. In the Latrobe Valley the restructuring perhaps also gave rise to the conditions that lead to arson.

It’s the old story. We know from vast international experience that there are higher levels of social dysfunction around resource extraction sites. Once the jobs left the Valley, those who stayed watched a rust belt form in real time. With economic decline, followed all the associated problems: high levels of poor health, addiction, and crime, particularly domestic violence, and child abuse.

This was the mise en scène, if you will, to Brendan Sokaluk’s life prior to Black Saturday. Sokaluk, who was diagnosed after his arrest as being autistic with an intellectual disability, had suffered horrendous bullying as a child and teen and had emerged scathed, a difficult, isolated adult.

I’m not suggesting that the disaggregation of the SEC caused Brendan Sokaluk to set a deadly fire. There are people using arson to express their problems and grievances all over the country. But arson is more likely to occur in communities where high unemployment meets the eucalypts, and arsonists tend to come from backgrounds of disadvantage, neglect and abuse.

As I continued visiting the Valley, Hazelwood seemed to rear up from every vantage point: the smokestacks a reminder that here fire was a constant.

It was weird, frankly, to be writing about a fatal bushfire with this power station in my peripheral vision. Every year there is more evidence that in a warmer world fires are becoming more destructive. As the ecologist and master chronicler of fire, Stephen Pyne has written, our use of coal is “rewiring the circuitry of the earth”, causing this planet to “shed its cycle of ice ages for a fire age.” And in the Latrobe Valley I couldn’t help feeling there was an unholy loop between the power stations’ carbon emissions and their social fallout: the region has one of the highest rates of illegal fire-setting in the country.

In 2017, Hazelwood was unceremoniously decommissioned by the multinational corporation that owned it. The money needed to bring it to legal safety requirements made the venture economically unviable. No clear plan for regeneration followed, although last year, Tony Abbott cycled through the Valley, an elegiac ride to be sure, campaigning for Hazelwood’s reopening. (One hopes his impressive lung capacity wasn’t unduly affected by the area’s airborne pollutants, which are still emitted on a scale that Environmental Justice Australia reports would be illegal in the US, China and Europe.)

Sometimes I envy the mind-set of climate sceptics, bringing their talismans of coal into parliament, while the rest of the world connects the dots and braces for drought, extreme heatwaves and more fires burning more ferociously, more often.

So, as those who grieve loved ones gear up for Black Saturday’s public recognition on the 10th anniversary – every day, of course, remains a private memorial – how do we do justice to their loss?

Our politicians will, I’m sure, speak very movingly about the existential terror of fire in the Australian psyche, maybe they’ll quote Henry Lawson on the courage and resilience required to live in the bush, and highlight the real bravery of those who fought so hard that day so more people didn’t die. All these things will be true, while evading another truth. For the last decade these same politicians’ quibbling has brought us no closer to any coherent energy policy nor action on climate change. Just for a moment, why don’t we, the bystanders, close our eyes, and honour the dead by imagining a government tackling the policy areas that make the threat of feral fire graver by the day.