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Fighting and dying: blokes and bushfire in Australia

“Record-breaking Heatwave”. “Australia Burns”. “Heroes of the Flames”. Headlines such as these will be familiar to anyone who has lived though a bad bushfire season in Australia. These past two weeks have…

Research shows that men are more likely to stay and fight bushfires than women. AAP/Tony Phillips

“Record-breaking Heatwave”. “Australia Burns”. “Heroes of the Flames”.

Headlines such as these will be familiar to anyone who has lived though a bad bushfire season in Australia. These past two weeks have been no exception. The speed of the flames; the turn of the wind; the strength of the heat. An understandable awe is repeatedly expressed at the sheer power of these forces of nature.

But disasters are not simply natural occurrences; they are, fundamentally, social events. Disasters are the clash of hazards with people and social structures. What matters is not just the environmental impact a disaster has, but the loss of human life and social havoc it wreaks.

Research from around the world is uncovering, more and more, the importance of cultural and social factors in determining how people prepare for, respond to, and recover from, disasters. And this has increasingly involved a consideration of gender.

There is a growing recognition that of norms around femininity and masculinity provide important insight into most, if not all, human behaviour. Disasters are no different. Unfortunately, in terms of accepting the significance of gender, Australian research on bushfire still lags behind. Yet it is practically impossible to ignore the heavily gendered nature of bushfire response in this country.

Take the ongoing TV coverage of the most recent fires. Sooner or later, the camera throws to a fire agency representative and, almost invariably, this will be a man in uniform. Which is, after all, only representative of the agencies themselves. These are heavily masculinised institutions, often with militarised histories. This legacy lives on today, with research showing that women make up less than a quarter of all personnel in rural fire services around Australia. Many of these women are in non-operational, support, and administrative roles.

But the issue is not just one of fire agencies and formal bushfire response. The image of a man fighting a bushfire on his own roof (or the roof of his local pub), with only a hose and bucket still has a beguiling popular currency in Australia. Any awareness campaign to preference early evacuation over staying to defend, will come up against this kind of powerful cultural narrative about bushfire and (masculine) heroism.

And understanding gender and masculinity goes to the very heart of understanding historical trends in civilian bushfire fatalities. Between 1900 and 2008, almost three times as many civilian men as women died in bushfires.

Not only is this a substantial over-representation, but it is also an inversion of international trends. Globally, it is women, rather than men, who are more likely to die in disaster events. Following the Asian tsunami in 2004, it is believed that women made up more than three-quarters of the dead in certain parts of Indonesia, India and Sri Lanka.

Given the anomaly of the Australian context, it is quite striking that a discussion of bushfire and gender still appears so far from consideration in most media reporting and academic literature. The international research on gender and disaster suggests there are substantial gendered differences with regard to risk exposure and perception, preparedness, warning communication and response, physical and psychological impacts post-disaster, as well as recovery and reconstruction efforts.

Many of these differences are thought to result from the gendered division of labour and women’s disproportionate burden of care-giving for children, the sick, and the elderly. Women are also commonly socialised to be more risk-averse than men.

None of these areas have become central to bushfire research, but there is some evidence, particularly from the 2009 Royal Commission into Black Saturday, to suggest there may be notable patterns of gendered difference at work in Australia too.

For instance, Professor John Handmer submitted the following to the Royal Commission:

There is evidence of disagreements as the fire approached. In virtually all cases this was between women who wanted to leave and take the men with them and men who either wanted to stay and defend or who felt they had to support others in that role … This led to some people changing their plans at the last minute. This appears particularly the case for couples. There are instances where women who fled under these circumstances survived. Conversely, there is also evidence of such disagreements where males refused to leave, but relatives decided to stay, leading to additional fatalities.

It is generally assumed that researching gender is some sort of special academic code for researching women. But it is just as important to ask what role men and conceptions of masculinity play in these dynamics. It is a question that has not often been asked regarding bushfires, or even disaster preparedness and response more generally.

It now seems remiss not to consider the importance of masculinity as crucial to better understanding gender roles, community norms, risk, and individual behaviour, surrounding bushfire safety in Australia.

Join the conversation

28 Comments sorted by

  1. David Clerke

    Teacher

    I wonder what Eva Cox would have to say about this, Sexism?

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  2. Mat Hardy

    Lecturer in Middle East Studies at Deakin University

    I'd also like to see data supporting my hypothesis of the link between fire service spokespeople and bushy moustaches.

    Also, I suspect there is a strong link between gender and arson. Is that the case? It seems that both ends of fire disaster are very masculine affairs.

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  3. Aaron Troy Small

    Student

    There is also an enormous disparity in the number of women in Volunteer (and career) Fire Services and in the roles they seek to fulfill when they do join. Quite simply, the male domination of the Fire Services comes in a large part from the nature of the role, it is hot, dirty, bloody hard work. Most males cannot cope with the physicality of the role, while only the most dedicated, hard-working and strong-willed women tend to make the effort.

    I don't know, maybe it is an extremely old social phenomena, someone had to take the risks and fight in a team, others had to protect those who were too young, old or infirm to look after themselves. I honestly don't know, but it is very, very visible, especially at staging areas.

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    1. David Clerke

      Teacher

      In reply to Aaron Troy Small

      Perhaps it is summed up in the song recorded by Julie Collins (although I do not know if she wrote it) "Men were born to fight in armor women born to survive."

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  4. Ewen Peel

    Farmer

    Every major fire on the TV coverage seems to show a homeowner who is a Bloke in shorts, wearing thongs and no shirt, maybe a cap or hat, waving around a hose that does not have enough pressure.
    And if he is really having a go, then he will have a stubbie in the other hand and possibly on the roof.
    As a volunteer firefighter i would have to agree that fires are a blokes business although we do have some active women who are very good, it is male dominated.
    Overall i think that even though the fire prevention message gets put out there every year, people like the stubbie drinking firefighter just don't listen and don't care until it is to late.

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  5. Jodie Lia

    Ecologist

    Having worked as a firefighter for a number of years, I think that the low comparable number of females in operational fire roles is caused by a number of factors, but don't really see it as an issue. Certain people are suited to certain jobs dependent on their ability and personality. Firefighting is a physically and mentally strenuous job and by sheer biology, males are generally more suited or attracted to this role. And from my own experience I find that it is just as much the individuals ability to get along with and work well equally in a team as it is the physical demands of the job. I believe this is the same with the military.

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  6. Chris O'Neill

    Victim of Tony Abbotts Great Big New Tax

    "Between 1900 and 2008, almost three times as many civilian men as women died in bushfires."

    A significant number of volunteer firefighters died in the past because of communication failures and shortcomings in organisation. Communication is far better now so hopefully the better outcomes for survival we're seeing this year will continue.

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  7. Yoron Hamber

    Thinking

    "Globally, it is women, rather than men, who are more likely to die in disaster events. Following the Asian tsunami in 2004, it is believed that women made up more than three-quarters of the dead in certain parts of Indonesia, India and Sri Lanka."

    1. Doesn't state that they stayed and died due to them wanting to fight fires, does it?

    2. What about cultural differences and attitudes towards women? Some cultures deem women as worth less than a man. Would that skew your interpretation?

    I expect it to be the man feeling the need to protect his family, and I also consider it resting on physiological factors, and history. Meaning that it is just recently (historically) we see women and men competing for the same jobs.

    We are not the exact same, if we were life would be even more boring than it can be :)

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    1. Meagan Tyler

      Lecturer in Sociology at Victoria University

      In reply to Yoron Hamber

      Social differences in the way men and women are treated is undoubtedly an issue, indeed, this is the point of the article. This is well recognised with regard to gender and disaster studies internationally.

      Men may well feel more strongly the need to protect their homes and/or families by staying to defend (I have no doubt women also feel a need to protect their families) but, if so, this is undoubtedly related to particular constructions of masculinity.

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    2. Yoron Hamber

      Thinking

      In reply to Meagan Tyler

      Yes, but when a woman protects her family it is the children I would expect her to care for in the first case, you may call it a 'inner circle of protection'. And men I would expect to act as the outer buffer? At least I think that is the way it has worked historically but with new ideas, technology, and life expectations that may change? But some of it I actually expect to be biologically imprinted in us, and that won't change just because our technology does.

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  8. Colin Kline

    logged in via Facebook

    #History Of (Australian) Fire Fighting Strategies#

    Fire Fighting authorities (& Govts), on both sides of the Pacific, are frequently reported as obdurately pursuing policies that guarantee large numbers of people, animals, homes, forest will be regularly annihilated.

    These catastrophes will repeat, and increase, with Global Warming.

    Authorities have arrogantly (and frequently) refused to use better & more appropriate technologies, viz - replacing Miniscule Manpower and Piddling Planepower…

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    1. Jodie Lia

      Ecologist

      In reply to Colin Kline

      Well. That is quite the rant. I note that you posted the exact same spiel verbatim onto at least four seperate articles on The Conversation over the past 2 weeks.
      So, rather than engaging in intellectual discussion about the actual topic of each article, you are cut and pasting a conspiracist anti-government rant that generally makes no sense.
      Either get involved in "the conversation" properly or keep you unsubstantiated claims and accusations to yourself.

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    2. Colin Kline

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Jodie Lia

      -
      Hi Jodie,

      Yes. I acknowledge mine WAS an energetic post - mainly because the CFA has refused to acknowledge it on other fire-fighting sites.

      No, I am not a Govt conspiracist.

      But I do clearly identify Liar-Denialism from those who SHOULD know better, i.e., fire-fighting authorities, which are an AGENCY of Govt, not THE Govt.

      Yes "Intellectual Discussion" is fine, in its place.

      But "Fire-fighting" is no PoMo exchange of screaming subjectivities. Is that the kind of website you're seeking ?

      So, until YOU, Jodie, contest my post(s) with FACTS, I will continue to deny your posts in like manner !
      -

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    3. Jodie Lia

      Ecologist

      In reply to Colin Kline

      Clearly you consider yourself more of an expert in Australian firefighting than the Australian fire authorities, despite providing NO FACTS to back up your claims.

      The only claim that you have provided FACTS for is that Australia (or more specifically the Victorian Govn) does not own an aerial fire tanker.

      Nothing else in your rant is supported by any of your links, all of which are North American based articles and not relevent to your hateful pursuit of the CFA.

      Where are the FACTS for your claims that authorities are "pursuing policies that guarantee large numbers of people, animals, homes, forest will be regularly annihilated"?

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    4. Colin Kline

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Jodie Lia

      -
      Jodie, here are my facts, where are yours ?

      Section 6.1, of the 2003 ESPLIN report on Victorian Bushfires :

      "The Committee was told of concerns with equipment
      and technology and with the training and management of personnel.

      It is not merely a matter of what resources fire managers have at their disposal. It is the question of how those resources are used that is vitally important.

      This matter was alluded to in the interim report of the inquiry into the Victorian fires:

      '... the…

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    5. Colin Kline

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Colin Kline

      Jodie,

      BTW, I live in a highly fire-prone region, W. Victoria, and am currently Prez of our local fireguard.

      Thus I know and admire MANY fieries.

      But I despise the abundant ignorance, bombast, and lethal incompetence of CFA management !

      Pick your targets better.

      And join in some actual fire fighting, getting empirical data, instead of flying your PoMo hypercritical desk (& computer) in a building nowhere near the real world.
      -

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    6. Colin Kline

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Colin Kline

      -
      More facts Jodie:

      PLUCINSKI Report :
      http://www.bushfirecrc.com/managed/resource/dc-10_evaluation...

      This summarises a Victorian test of JUST ONE AIR TANKER, the DC-10, and totally ignores the many other suitable air tankers used around the world successfully.

      Did I mention the word "incompetence" of Victorian Fire Fighting management?

      By assessing just one kind of plane, with just one drop mechanism, these bureaucrats GUARANTEED that this test would arrive at the results they desired, viz, "No change".
      -

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    7. Jodie Lia

      Ecologist

      In reply to Colin Kline

      You must really be quite bored. Four more comments, six days later? Am I the only one that responds to you? Well here's some final comments, then I am unsubscribing from these updates.

      - I never exploited my opinion as being the truth like yourself, therefore there are no FACTS that I am required to present to you.

      - the Esplin Enquiry and Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission are good evidence to support many arguments about what could be done better - this is exactly what Royal Commissions…

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  9. Dan Dewar

    logged in via Facebook

    It would be nice to have references and data to support these statements. Otherwise all we can do is assume you are trying to pass off opinion as fact.

    "Research from around the world is uncovering, more and more, the importance of cultural and social factors..."

    "These are heavily masculinised institutions, often with militarised histories..."

    "There is a growing recognition that of norms around femininity and masculinity..."

    "Globally, it is women, rather than men..."

    "The international research on gender and disaster suggests there are substantial gendered differences..."

    "Many of these differences are thought to result from the gendered division of labour and women’s disproportionate..."

    "It is generally assumed that researching gender..."

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    1. Meagan Tyler

      Lecturer in Sociology at Victoria University

      In reply to Dan Dewar

      Actually, the piece (as per the disclosure statement) is based on research, and there a number of references throughout the piece which you can follow up. Obviously all the pieces on TC are essentially informed op-eds and so do not conform to the standards of an academic journal article.

      If you do want to follow up on the research there is an in-depth discussion paper about these issues available via the CRC: http://www.bushfirecrc.com/resources/gender-matters-applying-gendered-analysis-bushfire-research-australia

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  10. Whatmenaresayingaboutwomen Jay

    logged in via Facebook

    This is a typical response that feminists make. They tried to legislate and force more women into fire-fighting by changing the rules as they have done in the USA. Two thousand women joined after they reduced the requirements for women only, sexism much, but after two years, 160 females were left of the 2000 that originally joined. It would appear to be the case that feminists just hate any positive exposure that men receive as they have been pursuing the maligning and denigration of males for decades. Their actions are sexist and discriminatory.

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    1. Meagan Tyler

      Lecturer in Sociology at Victoria University

      In reply to Whatmenaresayingaboutwomen Jay

      The article at no point suggests that there be legislation to force more women into firefighting. The point is that we must recognise that an institution which is heavily gendered (in this case masculinised) will be skewed in particular ways and we must take these into account. Trying to simply level out the numbers of men and women in the fire services just misses the point.

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