Helping Children Be Bushfire-Ready
This article was published in the Summer 2011-12 edition of Fire Australia magazine.
Pioneering Bushfire CRC research is helping children learn about bushfires and other hazards as well as helping education, emergency service and other authorities enhance the effectiveness of bushfire education campaigns.
Before Bushfire CRC PhD scholar Briony Towers began talking to children as part of research into children’s knowledge of bushfire hazards, few if any researchers into disasters and hazards had asked children what they knew about such matters, instead getting their information from parents or others close to children.
Up to December 2008, Briony interviewed 131 children aged from 5 to 12 in high-risk locations in Victoria (Macedon and Warrandyte) and Tasmania (Huonville and Bothwell). Through the use of child-friendly qualitative research methods, such as group discussion, drawing, structured scenarios and puppet play, the children were able to articulate their knowledge of the conditions and processes that create bushfire hazards as well as the conditions and processes that mitigate or prevent them.
Because her data was collected before the February 2009 Victorian Black Saturday fires, the children’s knowledge and understanding had not been affected by the high profile of those fires.
“The research challenges the notion that children lack the abilities to participate in bushfire hazard management,” says Briony. “Rather, when provided with the opportunity to engage in fire-related discussions and activities that respect their perspectives and capacities, they are able to comprehend many of the concepts and processes that reduce bushfire risk. As such, children represent an important resource, albeit currently under-used, for the development of resilient households and communities.”
Briony’s work has been recognised as so outstanding that various authorities began drawing on it well before she presented her PhD thesis in late 2011.
In 2009, the Australasian Fire and Emergency Services Authorities Council (AFAC) and Victoria’s Country Fire Authority partnered with 3D animation company Ettamogah to develop the Li’l Safety Club – a children’s bushfire education campaign for television, radio and internet. Briony’s research provided an evidence base for the development of ten 30-second safety messages that were screened across all free-to-air channels across south-eastern Australia during children’s viewing time over the 2009-2010 bushfire season.
In 2010, the research was used for the development of a bushfire preparedness scenario for the Triple Zero Kids Challenge, an award-winning online safety game for children. In developing the script for the scenario, Fire and Rescue NSW drew heavily on the research to ensure that the game would accommodate the knowledge and misconceptions of children. The game is available at http://kids.triplezero.gov.au
In 2011, the research was used by the Victorian Education Department for its Bushfire Education Curriculum. The department drew on various elements of the research, particularly findings relating to children’s misconceptions about bushfire behaviour.
AFAC also worked with State Emergency Service agencies nationally to develop a Natural Hazards Children’s Awareness and Education program. Ten safety stories were created using the Li’l Larikkins characters, based on the formula developed for the CFA stories that was underpinned by Briony’s research. The aim was to increase children’s awareness of the potential dangers inherent in floods, storms, cyclones, tsunamis and other natural hazards. The program has received two national awards – Nationally Significant category winner in the 2011 Australian Safer Communities Awards presented by the Commonwealth Attorney General, and Best Primary Education Video Resource in the 2011 ATOM (Australian Teachers of Media) Awards.
Each of the projects outlined above represents a new approach to children’s hazards education – an approach which recognises the importance of accommodating the unique perspectives of children and capitalising on their capacities for knowledge and action.
Briony found that the most common hazard impacts of bushfires identified by children included death or injury, property damage and environmental degradation.
She says the sophistication of children’s knowledge can vary substantially. For example, children’s plans to stay and defend often belied a somewhat naïve understanding of the task with many children suggesting that they would try to stop the fire front from reaching the house before fleeing at the last minute. However, several children articulated a more sophisticated understanding of staying to defend, suggesting that they would extinguish embers around the house as the fire approached, take refuge inside the house as it passed over, and return outside to continue extinguishing spot fires after it had passed.
When children were given the opportunity to participate in bushfire-related discussions and activities, they were able to develop accurate, detailed knowledge of bushfire hazards.
“This research challenges the notion that children lack the intellectual capacity or agency to understand or communicate bushfire hazards,” Briony says. “It demonstrates that when children are given opportunities to engage in genuine discussion and participate in constructive activity, they are able to build a detailed, accurate understanding of both the conditions and processes that create bushfire hazards and the actions that can be taken to manage them. Thus, children represent an important target group for bushfire education programs.
“The value of targeting children is further highlighted when we consider the powerful influences they exert on the knowledge, attitude and behaviours of their parents. Through a series of in-depth interviews with parents in each of the study locations, it was revealed that their decisions to plan and prepare for bushfire were often a result of having children in the home or of having risk-related discussions with their children.”
A major finding of the research was that the variation in the sophistication of children’s knowledge could be explained by their direct experience with fire in the environment; fire-related discussions and activities at school; fire-related discussions and activities at home; and participation in the research focus group interview itself.
“Put simply, when children had been given the opportunity to participate in bushfire-related discussions and activities, they had been able to develop accurate, detailed knowledge of bushfire hazards,” says Briony.
Children’s common misconceptions about bushfire hazards
Children in Briony Towers’ research articulated a number of common misconceptions about bushfire hazards, which will need to be explicitly addressed by bushfire education programs. Some of the most common misconceptions include:
• Bushfires can ignite spontaneously as a result of the sun shining on trees, leaves or other combustible fuels.
• A bushfire spreads from one fuel source to another via a chain of direct flame contact. If fuel sources are too far apart to facilitate direct flame contact, the fire will not progress any further.
• If trees, bushland or other fuel sources are not touching the house, there is no potential for ignition via direct flame contact and the house is safe.
• Brick houses never burn down while wooden houses usually do.
• The fire brigade will always be available to protect houses under threat.
• If you decide to evacuate, you should pack up your belongings and wait for the fire to reach the property before leaving.
• If you decide to stay and defend, you should do your best to extinguish the fire front before it reaches the house. If this can’t be achieved you should evacuate at the last minute.
• Bathtubs and swimming pools are appropriate places to shelter from a bushfire.
• It is possible to outrun a bushfire on foot.