Black Saturday communities respond to survey
A survey designed to help better understand residents’ actions in the 7 February 2009 Victorian bushfires has been completed by the Bushfire CRC as part of more extensive research project on the Black Saturday fires.
The Bushfire CRC Research Task Force was established in the immediate aftermath of Black Saturday by the Bushfire CRC on behalf of fire and land management agencies, as well as fire researchers both in Australia and internationally.
The Task Force was funded by the Victorian Government and attracted substantial in-kind resources from other states, and researchers and small businesses to look at a range of issues including fire behaviour, building and planning, and human behaviour and community safety issues. In addition to more than 600 interviews with residents in fire affected areas, the Task Force mailed a survey to more than 6000 households in October 2009.
The survey explored how the 7 February bushfires affected people and their property - from how information and warnings were received and understood, to the level of householder planning, preparation and response to the bushfires, as well as general information about each household.
Notable findings include:
- Respondents most commonly became aware of the presence of fire in their neighbourhood through sensory cues in the environment such as smoke, embers or flames, etc, a warning from a family member, friend or neighbour, or a radio announcement
- 72% of respondents indicated that they expected to receive an official warning (from authorities such as the CFA, police, other emergency services, or ABC Radio) if there was a bushfire in their town or suburb. However, 63% reported that they did not receive an official warning. (Two thirds of respondents who did receive a warning reported that it arrived in enough time respond safely.)
- Contrary to anecdotal reports of insurance levels within fire affected areas, the majority of survey respondents (84%) reported having house and contents insurance. Only 4% said they had no insurance at all.
- An overwhelming 99% of respondents were aware that 7 February was a day of Total Fire Ban. However, the earlier interviews with residents found there was little connection between awareness and appropriate action.
- Respondents recognized temperature, wind and luck as some of the most important factors influencing how their home/property was affected by the fires.
- In the 12 months prior to the 7 February bushfires, the CFA ‘Living in the Bush’ workbooks, ABC Radio, CFA Community Meetings, and television emerged as the major sources of information about what to do during a bushfire, and how to prepare households for bushfire.
- Respondents consistently indicated they would adopt a similar course of action in a future bushfire attack. (77% of respondents who left their homes before the fire arrived stated that they would leave again if there was a similar fire, while 78% of those who stayed to defend their properties declared they would stay and protect their home from a similar fire in the future.)
“This research further informs communities and fire and land management agencies about what happened, and why, on an extraordinary and tragic day in this country’s history,” said Professor John Handmer survey author and Bushfire CRC Program Leader at RMIT University. “The information gathered will help agencies better work with communities for bushfire, ultimately saving property and lives.”
Professor Handmer said the dataset from the survey needs to be read in conjunction with the qualitative work conducted immediately after Black Saturday. For instance, the majority of respondents (69%) claimed to have had a firm plan about what to do if a bushfire occurred on 7 February, but interviews with residents found considerable variation in the quality of people’s plans, and that a considerable amount of ‘last-minute’ planning and preparation occurred on the day itself.
“This is only part of the story,” said Professor Handmer, “but this information from both the survey and the face-to-face interviews provides us with a solid foundation upon which future scientific analysis can be based on how communities face the threat of a bushfire.
This research was funded by the Victorian Department of Sustainability and Environment, the Country Fire Authority and the Office of the Emergency Services Commissioner. The survey was conducted independently by the Bushfire CRC.