Harnessing eccentricity

In uncertain times we need to be able to draw on people who think differently, like Peter Hicken.

Most who knew the late John Evans, Tasmanian fisherman, artist and deep thinker, would see him as eccentric, in a different orbit from most of us.

Evans, who died in 2012, was a big-picture person who believed that our “advanced” lifestyles were taking us into a global disaster. Compared with such weighty matters he found government regulation trivial, and sometimes exchanged harsh words with public officials trying to get him to toe the line.

On Evans’s list of email correspondents was another eccentric, also bothered by the state of the planet and how authorities are managing it – or not. Peter Hicken lives on a few idyllic hectares in the hills overlooking D’Entrecasteaux Channel and Bruny Island.

Like Evans, Hicken is an autodidact who has thought deeply about the state of the planet. What drives him is fire in the landscape – specifically, how we can use it to keep the bush healthy and lessen the risk of being consumed in a firestorm.

A former volunteer with his local Middleton fire brigade, these days Peter Hicken is a self-described “fire restrainer”. That entails applying his skill and knowledge to look after his own land and help others in his neighbourhood who seek his advice and practical support.

Hicken is a retiring type, not one to put himself out there, but if anyone asks him about managing fire he has plenty to offer. In fact he’s written books about it, self-published and distributed to a small select readership – full of information, advice and personal views about fire emergencies.

Hicken’s fire manuals are truly idiosyncratic, right down to the dodgy spelling. Every page is its own story, told as a map, a diagram, a photograph, a quiz, a checklist, a cartoon, and a lot of text. His latest edition is about understanding the chaos of wildfire and planning ahead to deal with it.

The manuals are also a mine of genuine information, not just about fires in our Australian landscape but also about what happened over the years and decades leading up to the destructive force of nature that we saw last summer. Needless to say, climate change is a big part of that story.

Using fire to reduce the risk of dangerous wildfires features prominently in Hicken’s manual. Among his guides are the fire regimes of Indigenous Australians. For tens of thousands of years they effectively managed their lands by means of regular, highly controlled, low-intensity burning.

Hicken carefully takes readers through the steps required for a successful prescribed burn, covering both on-site factors (weather conditions, use and maintenance of fire suppression equipment, clear boundaries, overhead fuels, power lines and such like) and formal clearances from police and fire authorities.

In his manuals Hicken provides a checklist for handling disputes with others, including advice to stay calm and see the best in them. But that doesn’t always seemed to have worked in his favour. Some of his controlled burns have resulted in brushes with police and fire officers questioning his credentials and authorisation. He was once fined for a permit transgression.

In his drawn-out dispute with the Tasmania Fire Service, Hicken clearly thinks its officers have unfairly targeted him, undervaluing his practical fire management expertise and his success in reducing the wildfire risk on his and neighbours’ land.

My own experience with the Tasmania Fire Service has been very positive. I value the work and expertise of the local brigade in my own community and the professional TFS officers I have encountered. I find they make a lot of sense when talking about practical matters – routine or emergency – as well as the bigger picture, including our warming climate.

After a decade of correspondence, hearing his story and reading his manuals, I believe Hicken has much to offer his community. I can also see how, in defending his turf and responding to what he saw as unfair demands, he has sometimes rubbed officials up the wrong way. His is a very human response to broad-brush regulations that we must all learn to live with.

While he intends to continue applying his fire management knowledge and skill within legal constraints, Hicken is wrestling with how he might resolve his differences with the TFS. I hope he succeeds.

As a community, a state and a nation, we need to come together to manage summer fire seasons. Our best interests call for fire and other officials and dedicated, public-minded eccentrics like Peter Hicken to value each other’s strengths and find ways of making them work for all.

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