Community Members' Decision Making Under the Stress of Imminent Bushfire Threat - Murrindindi Fire

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TitleCommunity Members' Decision Making Under the Stress of Imminent Bushfire Threat - Murrindindi Fire
Publication TypeReport
Year of Publication2011
AuthorsMcLennan, J, Elliott, G
Date PublishedJuly 2011
InstitutionLa Trobe University
AbstractThis is a report of findings from a pilot analysis of three data sets concerning experiences of those affected by the Murrindindi Fire on Saturday, 7 February 2009: (a) 51 transcripts of interviews with survivors conducted by members of the Bushfire CRC Research Taskforce; (b) 15 lay witness statements to the 2009 Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission; and (c) evidence presented to the Royal Commission concerning the 38 fatalities that occurred on 7 February 2009 as a result of the Murrindindi Fire. The Interim and Final Reports of the Royal Commission were also consulted. There were two aims: First to investigate community members‘ plans, decisions and actions in relation to the Murrindindi Fire. Second, to develop data analysis procedures to apply subsequently to: (i) the complete data set of 608 Taskforce interview transcripts; (ii) the complete data set of approximately 100 Royal Commission lay witness statements; (iii) the evidence presented to the Royal Commission concerning the 173 fatalities resulting from the 7 February 2009 Victorian bushfires. The body of the report describes findings from the pilot study of decision making by community members under imminent bushfire threat. The procedures developed appear to be suitable to apply to the three larger data sets: (i), (ii), and (iii), described above. Ten ‘lessons’ about decision making by community members under imminent bushfire threat emerging from the pilot study are proposed. 1. Lack of accurate, timely, specific, and personally-relevant information about the fire threat undermines sound survival-related decision making. Uncertainty is a major threat to survival. (page 55) 2. Communities influence decision making by individual members via shared, normative, beliefs about bushfire risk. If a majority of community members believe that their community is not at risk, most individuals will be psychologically unready to make sound survival-related decisions under imminent bushfire threat. (page 54) 3. Advice and information from particular ‗others‘ will be a major determinant of an individual‘s decision making—the more so under conditions of uncertainty. Information and advice from close family members, and from people perceived to have bushfire-related expertise (firefighters, SES, police) will be extremely influential. (page 55) 4. What others are observed to be doing is an important determinant of an individual‘s decision making. People are social beings and take their cues about what to do by noting what others are doing in a given situation—especially a situation characterised by uncertainty. (page 55) 5. Under imminent bushfire threat decision making and action is gendered. Men are more likely to stay and defend their property; women are more likely to leave—especially if they have strong feelings of responsibility for the physical or psychological wellbeing of other family members. (pages 12, 28, 43) 6. Commitment to a bushfire plan may be a path to disaster—especially a plan to stay and defend. Better that any plan is conditional upon specific conditions being met before being implemented, and has fall-back options. (pages 10, 12, 18, 35-39) 7. The legendary ‗Murphy‘ was an optimist with regards to bushfires. All involved should be warned to expect and be ready for something really important going seriously wrong at the worst possible time with potentially fatal consequences (page 19, pages 35-39). [The general literature on human factors aspects of safety in hazardous environments suggests that thorough rehearsal and practice of intended actions may offer some protection]. 8. Some individuals should not be in a situation where they are at risk of bushfire attack: people under 18, those aged 70 or more, those with disabilities or other impairments—physical, social, psychological. (Table 3, pages 51-53) 9. In extremis, an individual‘s ability to: (a) down-regulate negative emotions like fear and anxiety; (b) maintain an attentional focus on emerging threats from the environment; and (c) keep actions coupled tightly to surviving in a potentially lethal environment will largely determine survival. (pages 21-23). 10. For a variety of complex reasons, some individuals will choose to act in ways that jeopardise their safety, and the safety of others. (Table 3, pages 51-53)