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An interviewee shows a researcher the impact the bushfire had on his property. Photo: NSW Rural Fire Service.

An interviewee shows a researcher the impact the bushfire had on his property. Photo: NSW Rural Fire Service.
An interviewee shows a researcher the impact the bushfire had on his property. Photo: NSW Rural Fire Service.
Release date
01 Jun 2018

Research gives insight into community bushfire response

By Dr Josh Whitaker and Dr Mel Taylor. This article first appeared in Issue Two 2018 of Fire Australia.

In January and February 2017, New South Wales faced some of the worst bushfire conditions ever forecast for the state, including Catastrophic fire danger ratings for many communities. During this time, a number of large and damaging fires occurred, but fortunately no human lives were lost during the worst of the conditions.

Following the fires, the New South Wales Rural Fire Service (NSW RFS) commissioned the Bushfire and Natural Hazards CRC to conduct research into community preparedness and the responses by communities affected by some of the worst bushfire conditions ever forecast.

The research involved interviews with people affected by the Currandooley, Sir Ivan and Carwoola fires, and an online survey of residents in bushfire risk areas throughout NSW.

The fires

The Currandooley fire was caused by a bird making contact with a high voltage powerline and landing in dry grass. Under Severe fire danger conditions, the fire destroyed a house, sheds and two vehicles. Around 200 sheep and cattle were lost.

The Sir Ivan fire ignited from lightning strikes near Leadville, and burnt under Catastrophic fire danger conditions and 35 houses and over 50,000 hectares of land were lost. Many agricultural assets including livestock, fences, pasture and machinery were destroyed.

The Carwoola fire destroyed 11 houses around 20 km south east of Canberra. It was caused by sparks coming from a metal cutting wheel, and burnt under Severe fire danger conditions.

The research involved both interviews (113) with affected residents, and an online survey completed by 549 people threatened or affected by bushfires throughout NSW in 2017. Information was collected about: the effectiveness of warnings; Catastrophic Fire Danger messages; information people sought out in relation to bushfires; the drivers and motivators for those who sought to enter fire grounds; perceptions of risk; how people value assets and prioritise their protection; the influences of previous fire history or experience on decisions and actions; public expectations of fire and emergency services; and opportunities for greater utilisation of local knowledge and participation.

WHAT THE RESEARCH FOUND

Information and warnings

A majority of survey respondents found warnings easy to understand, up-to-date and useful.

Participants expressed a preference for highly localised information. Survey respondents most often identified the ‘Fires Near Me’ smartphone application and website as their most useful information source.

‘Fires Near Me’ was seen as easy to understand (88 per cent), useful (82 per cent) and sufficiently localised (76 per cent). Two-thirds of interviewees felt the information was up-to-date. Interviewees commonly expressed strong support and a high degree of satisfaction with the ‘Fires Near Me’.  

Landline telephone warnings were more often seen as useful when compared to SMS warnings, (78 and 67 per cent), up to date (72 and 66 per cent) and timely (68 and 66 per cent). Nevertheless, survey respondents most often identified SMS as their preferred mode for delivery of warnings. Most people expected to receive warnings from multiple sources. However limited mobile phone coverage, particularly in the Sir Ivan and Currandooley fires, meant that some people did not receive SMS warnings.

Catastrophic Fire Danger warnings

After the 2009 Black Saturday fires in Victoria, the fire danger warnings were revised nationally and Catastrophic was introduced as the highest level of fire danger.

These conditions do not occur regularly – this was only the second time large population centres in NSW had been subject to Catastrophic Fire Danger ratings since their introduction.

Eighty-eight per cent of survey respondents considered Catastrophic Fire Danger warnings to be easy to understand, 83 per cent found them timely and 78 per cent found them useful. However, most people do not intend to leave before there is a fire on days of Catastrophic Fire Danger. Those who intend to leave will wait until there is a fire, and others intend to stay and defend. The research shows that some people may underestimate the risks to life and property if the fire danger is not Catastrophic.

Receipt of an official warning about Catastrophic Fire Danger prompted survey respondents to discuss the threat with family, friends or neighbours (63 per cent) and look for information about bushfires in their area (62 per cent).

Equal proportions began preparing to defend or leave (39 per cent) and a smaller proportion (12 per cent) left for a place of safety.

When asked what they would do next time they received a message about Catastrophic Fire Danger, 12 per cent of survey respondents said they would leave before there is a fire and 24 per cent said they would wait until a fire started, then leave. Twenty-seven per cent reported that they would get ready to stay and defend, while nearly a quarter said they would wait for a fire before deciding what to do.

Analysis of interview data highlights that many people believe it is impractical to leave on days of Catastrophic Fire Danger before there is a fire. Many are also committed to defending, despite being aware of the increased risks to life on such days.

Interviews with people affected by the Carwoola and Currandooley fires suggests that some people underappreciate the risks to life and property on days that are not Catastrophic.

In contrast, some interviewees affected by the Sir Ivan fire did not anticipate the size or severity of the fire, despite forewarning of the Catastrophic Fire Danger they would experience. Many felt that they were prepared to respond to smaller fires, which were more common in the area, but believed there was little they could have done to prepare for a fire of the size and severity that was experienced.

How people accessed information

Over half (53 per cent) of all survey respondents accessed information via the internet. Respondents most commonly sought information about the location of the fire (91 per cent), traffic and road blocks (64 per cent) and weather conditions (60 per cent).

Websites most commonly used included ‘Fires Near Me’ (in addition to the app); the NSW RFS; Bureau of Meteorology and various Facebook pages, including local RFS and community pages.

Almost two thirds (62 per cent) of all survey respondents used social media during the fires.

Interviewees and survey respondents often sought information about the fire through direct observation. This is reflective of past research, where many residents left their homes and properties to go and look at the fire. For some people, observing the fire appears to have helped ready themselves to defend and, for others, confirmed the need to leave.

Public expectations of fire services

It is generally well understood that there are resource constraints during major fires, such as not enough fire trucks for every property. However, there is less appreciation of the operational constraints of large and dangerous fires, and that often it can be too dangerous for firefighters to directly attack the fire front.

Most interviewees affected by the Currandooley and Carwoola fires praised the efforts of firefighters and did not expect to receive personal firefighting support. Residents in Carwoola were particularly aware of the limitations from fire agencies, a message that had been clearly communicated by the local brigade over time.

Some interviewees affected by the Sir Ivan fire were more critical of the firefighting response. Criticisms centered around the perceived lack of firefighting in the agricultural areas between Leadville and Cassilis. Some saw the fire service as overly bureaucratic and risk averse.

These criticisms reflect a mismatch in expectations and should be viewed in the context of a large, destructive bushfire that burnt under Catastrophic conditions, where there was limited operational capacity or opportunity to deal with such fires due to dangerous conditions.

Conclusion

This research is now being used by the NSW RFS to put in place new processes to better liaise with communities during major fire events, as well as to further strengthen its approach to public information through websites, smartphone applications and face-to-face communication.

The research confirms the tendency for people to wait and observe the fire directly before getting ready to defend themselves or confirm the need to leave. This behaviour presents opportunities for emergency service personnel to meet people at a time when they are seeking and receptive to information and advice.

While there is strong appreciation for the danger of fires under Catastrophic conditions, there is a need to more clearly communicate the risks posed by fires burning under non-Catastrophic conditions. Such messages could be incorporated into community education and engagement resources, as well as emergency warnings and information.

There is potential to develop additional resources to assist agricultural landholders to plan and prepare for bushfire. Resources are needed to help businesses more systematically identify assets and values, prioritise, and plan for their protection. These materials could include best practice case studies and information about insurance.

There is a need to more clearly communicate the limits to response capacity. In addition to limitations due to resource constraints, which are generally well-understood by the public, there is potential for enhanced communication about the dangers large and fast-moving fires pose to firefighters and that it can be too dangerous for direct attack on the fire front.

Findings suggest that local brigades could be effective in communicating these messages; however, this may require considerable engagement and training.

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Index of Editions

Issue Two of Fire Australia for 2018 includes a look at two checklists that are helping emergency management teams when there's a breakdown in communication, the findings on community preparedness after three catastrophic bushfires swept across NSW in early 2017, four utilisation case studies that are helping agencies and incident management tools to enhance communication and capability
Issue One of Fire Australia for 2018 includes a recap of the International Day for Disaster Reduction, investigates what catastrophic flooding could look like in Sydney, asks if your coastal community can cope with rising sea levels, highlights our research in incident management development and looks at predicting blow up bushfires.
Issue Four 2017 of Fire Australia includes research on including animals in emergency planning, details from AFAC17, new priorities in natural hazards research, and a Black Saturday case study to develop guidelines for improved community messaging in bushfires.
Issue Three of Fire Australia for 2017 features new prediction software for predictions of bushfire spread, how NSW's geography curriculum allows students to become agents of change for community resilience, suggestions for reducing the risks involved in prescribed burning, research on the impacts of severe wind during Cyclone Debbie, and new natural hazards science at the Bushfire and Natural Hazards CRC.
Issue Two of Fire Australia for 2017 features information about a weather phenomena called a mountain wave that produces severe fire behaviour, an analysis of flood fatalities in Australia, what we can learn about disaster preparation from Indonesia, and leadership for our emergency service volunteers.
Issue One of Fire Australia for 2017 features firestorms, disaster resilience, fire preparation in Bangladesh and the International Day for Disaster Reduction.
PhD progress, human factors and decision-making capabilities, asbestos risk and the role of pharmacies in disasters are showcased in the Spring 2016 edition of Fire Australia magazine.
The Winter 2016 edition of Fire Australia magazine highlights important research including reducing hazard impacts with smarter spending, fire modelling and wind behaviour as well as the rewarding experience of PhD student placements in the sector.
Mitigating disasters: how damage from floods, fires and storms can be prevented through careful planning and investment; a new approach to flood forecasting using remote sensing data; and case studies from the CRC are highlighting paths to integrate bushfire science into government policy and planning.
Developing a smartphone app to measure fuels for bushfire, 2015's International Day for Disaster Reduction, a case study on the Be Ready Warrandyte initiative and a look at what could happen if Adelaide was hit by a large earthquake.