Fighting and dying: blokes and bushfire in Australia

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.