Living in a Fire Landscape

Home is more than a house

This article was published in the Winter 2013 edition of Fire Australia magazine.

Understanding how people view their surroundings— including nearby bushland—as part of ‘home’ helps researchers better address community risk and bushfire education.

Picture the native vegetation of the Adelaide Hills, the Dandenongs, the Blue Mountains, the Perth Hills—all around is fuel for a bushfire. But the natural landscape is also the main reason why people live in such places.

Bushfire CRC researchers are gaining a better understanding of how communities in peri-urban areas perceive native vegetation as both a risk and a benefit.

The lead end user in the project Fuels and risk planning in the interface is Mike Wouters of South Australia’s Department of Environment, Water and Natural Resources. He believes the research is important for fire and land management agencies addressing the issue of community risk and bushfire education.

“It is essential to understand the reasons why people live in these bush areas and why many do not see the vegetation as fuel. This will help them [fire agencies] understand why, for example, communities might oppose fuel reduction burning and other fire mitigation measures.”

Mapping how and where people live
Researchers at the University of Melbourne are using what they call social–ecological place mapping as a starting point to engage with community groups about fire risk management practices. Workshops have been run in South Australia and Victoria.

Starting with a blank sheet of butchers paper, the researchers ask the group, with input from all individuals, to draw where they live and the major features of the built and natural landscape.

As lead researcher Dr Ruth Beilin, Associate Professor in the Department of Resource Management and Geography, explained, participants are then asked to add fire to this complex social and ecological picture.

“This map is a visualisation aid for memory. Our researchers ask, ‘why did you put this on the map, why is this thing important to you?’ So, the mapping process is coupled with an in-depth interview as we go along,” said Dr Beilin.

“If you are an interviewer in a face-to-face interview and you ask a question, the person focuses on you with their answer. But if you are an interviewer watching them draw a map they never leave their own space. They are always interacting with what they are drawing because they are using that as a prompt, not you.”

By the end of the session, the butchers paper is a complex mix of features, including the individual’s home and property, adjoining roads, bush and parkland, buildings and other structures, rivers and hills — and past evidence of fire and the likelihood of future fire impacts.

“The mapping is a visual research tool. And it is a qualitative tool that gives a greater richness and depth than traditional surveys. It is a catalyst for people to access their deeply held memories and the values that underpin their social understandings of where they live.”

How it works
This research project incorporates two broad domains of knowledge—rational knowing and intuitive knowing. Rational knowledge is what we know as objective scientific knowledge, but intuitive knowledge is more linked to the stories that people have of places—the memories, the social meanings they attach to places and sometimes the traditional or local practices that are attached.

The aim of this research is to understand the intersection between an ecological and biophysical science-based rational knowledge of bushfire and a place-based local knowledge that is social, grounded in daily practices and is often intuitive.

“We know where to find objective knowledge: we find it in ‘facts’, data, ‘truths’, and it is often associated with scientific ways of knowing. But intuitive knowledge is a little harder to access for researchers and in engaging in community activities,” said Dr Beilin.

“Our research considered how to bring together the social and ecological ways in which people engage with their local places in relation to fire risk and management practices. To do this we explored how mapping and mapping ‘your’ places is a useful tool to connect these two types of knowledge.

“We argue that this sort of visual method— place mapping that is combined with an interview process, which itself engages with the local person’s construction of their landscape—presents a better way to engage with communities and their fire management practices and understandings of fire risk.”

To understand how this works, it is necessary to understand three underpinning ideas:
1. how people use memory to construct their landscape
2. what it means to talk about ‘home’
3. how these concepts can be harnessed by fire and land managers to build a community that is more resilient to the need for reorganising and improving their fire mitigation practices.

The research looked at the idea of social and ecological memory. The workshop participants draw from their rational memory as they build their map, but are questioned as they do this. The questions attempt to understand the underlying decision factors and values. The map, not the interview process, is the focus of their attention.

According to Dr Beilin, this process allows for deeper values and memories to surface, and these are not necessarily part of their rational knowing.

“One of the things you see during the mapping process is negotiating memory. Even though there is a diversity of construction of parts of the map, we note that with individuals and with groups there is also a tying it together so they seem to arrive at a ‘certain’ story in the end. What they choose to remember and what they choose to forget is important.

“What this shows is that memory is as much a forward construction as it is a reconstruction of the past. Memory is not just what we remember; it is something we actively create, alone and with others.”

This is an important finding for people trying to understand and change community behaviour. “We are often passive in the way that we think about other people’s stories, whereas if you are thinking about changing those stories you need to be more active in listening to the construction of those stories.”

This research is about how people construct a sense of place in the landscapes they live in. After the researchers did the interviews, they realised that the most significant place for people was the place they called home. When it comes to bushfire, researchers and fire managers tend to think about house and home as interchangeable concepts.

But, as co-researcher Dr Karen Reid explains, home is much more than your house. A house is where you live, but a home is how you live in the landscape.

“The research showed that what people think of as ‘home’ includes outdoor places—especially their gardens, but also their neighbourhood and surrounding bushlands. So home, really, is found in the whole of the landscape, which is quite different from how home has been thought about up until now,” said Dr Reid.

But it goes even further. In their gardens, people often emulate what they see in the landscape around them. Sometimes this means gardening with native plants to reflect connection with the local ecological systems seen in national parks. It can also mean fitting in with what your neighbours are doing—showing yourself to be a good community-minded neighbour.

This behaviour has meaning for fire managers and the notion of shared responsibility in a landscape that is on one hand somebody’s home and on the other public land and infrastructure. The researchers suggest that this is why there is sometimes a tension between the requirements of homeowners to mitigate the risk before a fire and the lack of control during a fire. The homeowner is granted that control before a fire but loses that control once a fire starts. Fire agencies don’t want them at home and expect them to leave.

Some important implications for fire managers arise from this mapping process. Being at home or returning home during fire risk is about protecting values greater than just the house. It’s about the home being the whole of the landscape.

After a disaster, our tendency as a society is to resolve to ‘bounce back’ and rebuild the community and the landscape as it was before. The researchers think this is because people feel safe with the familiar landscape and because the pre-disturbance landscape is assumed to have been an ideal ‘stable’ state. However, resilience theory suggests that social and ecological systems are dynamic rather than static. There are, therefore, multiple pathways to recovery after a disturbance like bushfire.

Rather than ‘bouncing back’, adaptation to the new post-disturbance state may help communities better respond to future shocks. But adaptation is difficult to achieve, and one reason is that communities need to be able to imagine alternative future landscapes.

Place mapping may offer a method that can help agencies and communities recognise how dynamic their landscapes are and to imagine new ways of managing them. During the mapping process it emerged that on the butchers paper people began to construct what they perceived as familiar and stable landscapes, and tried and true ways of getting things done.

However, under questioning by the researchers, the individuals were prompted to consider alternatives to their scenarios. For example, the person may draw their map with the bushfire coming from the north, because that is the accepted wisdom in the area. But what about a fire from the south? This may be an anomaly, but it may also happen, or may have happened in the past.

“This becomes a transition moment in the interview, when the interviewee explains how the fire from the north may not be the only direction. We ask, ‘What will you do now?’ What follows is that another fire plan then emerges. And we see that it is through the mapping process that another path opens up for negotiation on fire risk in the area,” said Dr Reid.

Developing your own workshop
This research aims to help fire planners and community engagement managers better understand how people view the landscape in different ways. By applying the interview techniques of social–ecological mapping, fire agencies can use this understanding to ensure that all parts of the community are better prepared for fire and other emergencies and better able to recover from disastrous events.

The Bushfire CRC is developing a guide for agencies to run their own social-ecological mapping workshops in their communities. Resources can be found at projects/13/fuels-and-risk-planning-interface.