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Victoria’s trial by fire: why we still need to tackle complacency

Community is the secret to preparing for and fighting fires. David Crosling/AAP

The lessons learned since the deadly Black Saturday bushfires five years ago have helped save lives and minimise the loss of property during Victoria’s current fires, according to the state’s Premier Denis Napthine.

But while Victorian emergency services agencies and some individuals have been better prepared this summer, research shows there is still widespread complacency about the need for bushfire preparation.

Even in fire-prone areas of country Victoria and on the outskirts of Melbourne, a July 2013 report by the Bushfires Royal Commission Implementation Monitor noted some “disturbing” findings, including:

Many Victorians are unclear on what adequate preparation entails and are likely to overestimate their levels of planning and preparation…. There is still uncertainty among Victorians about the meaning of Fire Danger Ratings and low recognition of how to use them as a trigger to leave.

The 2013 report concluded that “that there is still a great deal of work to be done to address the prevailing levels of public complacency”.

Warrandyte is a good example of a community that has made important headway in managing its fire risk through local preparedness initiatives.

Preparing Warrandyte

Located on the north-east fringe of Melbourne, Warrandyte is a bushfire-prone suburb that came under direct threat on Black Saturday but was saved due to a wind change.

The Be Ready Warrandyte program is a community-run education and preparedness program. In September 2012, researchers at the Centre for Risk and Community Safety at RMIT ran a household survey for Be Ready Warrandyte to assess the level of community preparedness for fire, and asked what could be done to increase the number of homes with a bushfire survival plan.

The survey found that residents preferred to learn about bushfire risks from a range of sources (from downloadable planning templates to agency-run programs) and in a range of ways (including interactive group workshops and having community meetings with expert guest speakers).

The local Be Ready Warrandyte website has proved to be a useful hub of community interaction, serving as an online noticeboard.

A sample fire plan has been developed to give residents guidance in developing their own strategies. Humour has also been used to attract more more attention to the project.

A serious message with a bit of humour: a video made by the Warrandyte Community Association.

Of the 34 homes confirmed as destroyed in the current Victorian fires, three have been lost in Warrandyte.

But the value of bushfire preparation was shown at the local supermarket. Over the weekend, 15 customers, nine employees and three dogs took shelter inside the supermarket during the fires.

As the store’s owner Julie Quinton later explained, she now rosters on only skeleton staff on extreme fire danger days as part of a post-Black Saturday fire plan.

Preparing too late

Australia-wide, more people are being exposed to more ferocious fires, more frequently, as a result of growth at the edge of cities and climate change. We live on the most fire-prone continent on Earth.

Yet community preparation in many parts of the country for bushfire events remains limited.

According to Dr Jim McLennan, only a small percentage of the population use the educational programs delivered by fire agencies. Community interest in fire preparation generally peaks when fire threat is imminent.

Research shows that 30% of fire-prone individuals decide to “wait and see” under direct threat of fire. Those who would “wait and see” in the face of fire do so because they perceive their personal threat to be low, because they are unsure of the correct action to take, because the information they are receiving is unclear, and/or they are waiting for unambiguous official instructions. This is despite many publications stating this is a very risky approach.

Tongue-in-cheek advertisements produced by NSW’s Rural Fire Service reflect the reality that many people are unprepared for bushfire.

Learned helplessness or shared responsibility?

The Royal Commission following Black Saturday considered community engagement with bushfire risks of fundamental importance. It was noted that “advice about bushfires must… be provided to the community in a way that engages them”, and that education about fire risks must “capture people’s attention”.

Despite extensive changes to emergency responses since the 2009 Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission, widespread community complacency about bushfire risk continues.

Environmental historian Tom Griffiths argues we need more bioregional and local fire plans. Understanding our region’s fire history can help us to more effectively prepare for future fire events.

Other researchers argue that the framing of fire risk in the past has led to community disempowerment. Jon Boura from the Country Fire Authority argued in 1998 that the public needed to overcome the “learned helplessness promoted by inaccurate and sensationalised reporting on wildfires”.

However, over the last few years, communities, government and fire agencies have been encouraged to take “shared responsibility” for Victoria’s bushfire risk. This approach is designed to empower communities to use local resources and local knowledge to best prepare for fire.

Local knowledge is power

As a 2004 national bushfires inquiry rightly noted, “improvements in bushfire mitigation and management will be significant only if the community is better educated and engaged”.

A decade on from that report, the need for locally-driven community fire preparation remains as important as ever.

Communities that make the most of local knowledge in preparing for fires offer guidance to the rest of us. Indeed, well-prepared communities can be “the solution, not the problem”.

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