ABC’s Fires a drama, not a doco

Miranda Otto and Richard Roxburgh play ‘Kath’ and ‘Duncan’, two dairy farmers who are burnt out by the 2019/20 fires.

The ABC debuted the first instalment of a six-part series on the 2019/20 bushfire season last Sunday night, and while the drama titled ‘Fires’ has received critical acclaim, few locals have felt like they could stomach the show.

The program comes with a warning that people who experienced the ‘unprecedented’ fires might find the episodes ‘triggering’, but a number of residents of the Snowy Valleys told The Times they couldn’t get past the inaccuracies in the show long enough to feel triggered by any of the actual events.

Ian Smith of Tumbarumba Fire and Rescue said he watched the first show for “five minutes max”, but felt it was “rubbish.”

“I don’t think it was very satisfactory,” he concluded. 

Others complained of a lack of fact-checking, with scenes that showed fire fighters driving directly into the fire.

The program begins in Queensland in September 2019, with two young volunteer fire fighters who are caught in a burnover. 

The next episodes will focus on the fire approaching farmland, with Miranda Otto and Richard Roxburgh playing ‘Kath’ and ‘Duncan’, dairy farmers who return home after an evacuation to find their property destroyed and most of their cattle lost. 

As the episodes progress, they will include appearances from a range of well-known Australian actors, including Noni Hazlehurst, Sam Worthington, Dan Spielman, Kate Box, Helana Sawires, Daniel Henshall and Mark Leonard Winter.

Snowy Valleys Mayor James Hayes said he started the program, but didn’t get far before changing the channel.

“I watched the start of it and then I turned it off,” he said.

“It’s a bit raw, I think.”

Cr Hayes has property near Adelong which was threatened by the fires. 

“I didn’t get a couple of minutes [into the program],” he said.

“I don’t know why. Just didn’t want to go there, didn’t want to test the emotions.”

Inspector Ben Shepherd of the NSW RFS said the program’s developers had approached the RFS for technical support and accepted some suggestions, but that the program was ultimately intended as a drama, not a documentary.

“While the NSW RFS does not appear on screen, in other than stock or news footage, the Service did provide some technical support to ensure members were represented fairly and to ensure some scenes were handled sensitively,” said Insp. Shepherd.

“Prior to the programme airing the Service communicated with its members noting that if they did decide to watch and find themselves wanting to reach and talk with someone, that Critical Incident Support Services were available.

“Commentary on internal social media groups about the production has been mixed. Some enjoyed the show while others decided to perhaps give future episodes a miss.”

Insp. Shepherd said the details of fire fighting within the program were constrained by the plotline which the program’s writers wanted to tell. 

The program is targeted more at an urban viewership, aiming to give a better understanding of the experience of the fires to those who weren’t close to the events of 2019/20. 

However, locals expressed frustration that the real work of RFS and Fire and Rescue fire fighters was overshadowed by the drama of the show. 

The Sydney Morning Herald gave the program a four-and-a-half star rating, describing it as “a raging success”, describing it as “powerful, convincing, deeply moving.”

The review was written by critic Karl Quinn, who acknowledged that his experience of the actual fires was “one of cancelled camping trips, beloved bush and wildlife destroyed, the oppressive heat and orange-shrouded skies”, though he wasn’t directly impacted. 

Danielle Clode, an Associate Professor at Flinders University, similarly reviewed the program, describing her past experience with the Victorian Country Fire Authority, developing bushfire simulators to help prepare people for “the realities of a bushfire.”

“The series explores the way in which people make decisions around fire preparation, defence and evacuation: when to protect property and animals and when to save yourself,” she explained, but acknowledged that it wasn’t entirely true-to-life.

“This episode may generate some heated technical discussions among Australia’s nearly 150,000 volunteer fire fighters around safety procedures, equipment and protocols (which are generally much better than depicted here) but hopefully the show will recruit new and younger members for fire brigades, which are currently at a 10-year low,” said Ms Clode.

She concluded with the hope that, despite any inaccuracies, the series will encourage Australians to think about ongoing bushfire preparation and make “more people take their own fire safety seriously.”