"Bushfires Unite; Floods Divide": The Cultural Context of Disasters

Susan Baggett


Towards the end of my 1987 year of fieldwork in the Forbes district, central western New South Wales, I jokingly commented that I needed a bushfire or a flood to see how social relations really operated. In August, 1990, while experiencing the peak of the winter's flooding on the property where I now live, I was reminded of my previous comment and asked what insights the floods had given me. While I pondered, a long time resident of the district who had experienced the three major floods of the latter half of the 20th century (1952, 1974 and 1990) commented: 'Bushfires bring people together; floods divide them.' Not yet having experienced a local bushfire, I was nevertheless impressed by this aphorism and its apparent suitability to some aspects of what I had seen. When invited to contribute to this conference, I consulted my newspaper file 'natural disasters' which consisted almost entirely of clippings covering the 1983 bushfires of South Australia and Victoria, and the aptness of the saying reverberated. My decision to take the maxim as the theme for this paper was clinched when I read Poiner's (1985) paper on bushfires where again the imagery of a unified community in the face of the destructive threat of fire resounds strongly. Yet flooding can be just as awesome and costly as fire. Why is an opposing imagery evoked for floods?

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