Issues in Community Bushfire Safety: Analyses of Interviews Conducted by the 2009 Victorian Bushfires Research Task Force
Note that we have used the term ‘bushland’ to include any and all of forest-both native and plantation, woodlands, scrub, bushlands, and grasslands. We considered using ‘wildland’ as an alternative umbrella term but received strong feedback that ‘bushland’ was more appropriate in an Australian context.
1. Immediately following the 7 February 2009 Victorian bushfires the Bushfire CRC organised a multi-agency Task Force to investigate and report on four aspects of the fires: arson (in collaboration with Victoria Police); fire behaviour; building survivability and infrastructure; and human behaviour and community safety. This last involved interviewing a cross-section of survivors about their experiences.
2. A total of 552 field interviews were conducted, resulting in 496 usable and informative interview transcripts. The transcripts were analysed following coding of aspects of survivors’ accounts. This report describes findings in relation to issues of householder bushfire knowledge, planning, preparedness, decisions, actions, threats, and hazards.
3. The aim of the report is to inform fire and emergency services agencies about survivors’ beliefs, plans actions, and experiences which may have implications for current community bushfire safety policies, priorities, programs, and practices.
4. Survivors’ accounts covered eight fire complexes: Beechworth, Bendigo, Bunyip, Churchill, Horsham, Kilmore, Murrindindi, and Narre Warren. Of the 496 transcripts, 360 were from residents of isolated rural properties, 99 were from residents of rural towns, and 37 were from residents of bushland-urban interface (suburban) streets.
5. Bushfire survival plans: It is estimated that 81% of those who planned to stay and defend had undertaken more than minimal long term preparation to do so, while 34% of those whose plan was to leave safely had undertaken more than minimal long term preparation to do so. Overall, 6% of survivors planned to ‘wait and see’ before committing to a course of action; 9% had an unclear household bushfire plan; 70% of bushland-urban interface survivors had no household bushfire plan.
6. Actions on the day: Of the 496 survivors, 8% were not at home on 7 February 2009 by chance; 2% were not at home by choice to be somewhere safer; 28% left safely before impact of a fire; 16% left under hazardous conditions; 36% stayed and defended their home successfully; 9% stayed and attempted to defend but were unsuccessful; 2% sheltered in place passively.
7. Overall, less than one-third of those interviewed had undertaken a high level of long term preparation to implement their household bushfire survival plan. A little more than half of the bushland-urban interface residents had undertaken no preparation.
8. Although many of those interviewed did not provide information on awareness of fire danger weather, 50% of those who did evidenced a high level of awareness of fire danger weather on 7 February 2009. However, these were all residents of isolated rural properties or towns: almost half of the bushland-urban residents were not aware of the predicted fire danger weather in relation to a potential threat to their property from a bushfire.
9. On five indicators of bushfire ‘readiness’ (long term preparation, awareness of fire danger weather, physical readiness for a possible bushfire, awareness of an approaching fire, and readiness to act upon knowledge of an imminent bushfire threat) residents of isolated rural properties described higher overall readiness levels than did residents of rural towns and bushland-urban interface residents—the latter described very low levels of readiness to survive a bushfire.
10. It seems that most residents of isolated rural properties had a reasonable level of awareness of bushfire risk in general, and had personalised this and undertaken long term property preparation to defend against bushfire which may have been adequate for ‘typical’ low to moderate intensity bushfires.
11. Most residents of bushland-urban interface dwellings did not understand themselves to be at-risk of bushfires, notwithstanding their proximity to bush or grassland. Residents of rural towns varied: some had an understanding of their risk similar to those who resided on isolated rural properties, some had an understanding similar to bushland-interface residents in relation to bushfire risk. Others had bushfire risk understandings intermediate between these.
12. There is some indication that those interviewees who stated an expectation that they would receive an official warning that their property was under threat, and/or that they would be given firefighting assistance had lower levels of general readiness to survive bushfires.
13. The most immediately useful sources of information for residents under bushfire threat were cues from the environment: smoke, flames, embers, sounds.
14. Most of those whose bushfire plan was to leave did so. Most of those who planned to stay and defend did so—however, 20% decided to leave instead when they became aware of the intensity and/or proximity of the fire. Most of those whose ‘plan’ was to wait and see left, as did the majority of those who had no plan and most of those whose plan was unclear.
15. Most (80%) of the homes which were defended actively survived, while 52% of the homes not actively defended survived.
16. There was no compelling evidence that house survival was related to level of long term property preparation.
17. Compared with those who left, those who stayed and defended described higher levels of bushfire readiness in the form of: long term preparation; general knowledge of bushfires; awareness of predicted fire danger weather; physical readiness for a possible bushfire on the day; and awareness of an approaching fire. They were also less likely to report expecting a warning from authorities that their properties would be threatened by a bushfire.
18. Overall, those who stayed and defended were exposed to considerably higher levels of threat to life. However, 8% of those who left were exposed to severe or extreme levels of threat when forced to take last resort shelter as a result of leaving at the last minute.
19. The major determinant of residents’ decisions to stay and defend was a prior commitment to this course of action, coupled with a belief that their preparations were adequate and that they were capable of defending successfully. For most of those who left, the decision to leave was a complex mix of neither intending nor preparing to defend, and triggering by information about: the proximity and intensity of the fire, the perceived threat posed by the fire, and concern for the safety of family members.
20. Almost two-thirds of those who stayed and defended reported that their efforts were compromised to a greater or a lesser degree by equipment failure—involving mostly water and power supply. Three quarters had no back-up plan in the event that defence failed and the house burned.
21. About one in five of those on their property on the day reported that the safety of pets and/or livestock was a factor in their decisions and actions.
22. One quarter of those on their property on the day indicated that a lack of official information and warnings about the fire potentially exposed them to greater risk.
23. It seems that many residents who choose to stay and defend are likely to: underestimate the potential severity of a bushfire attack; overlook vulnerabilities of the house structure; not take into account possible failure of equipment and physical capabilities; and not prepare for survival in the event that defence is unsuccessful and the house burns.
24. It seems that bushfire survival plans to leave safely are difficult for many at-risk householders to prepare for, commit to, and implement. Few are likely to relocate to a place of safety before there is some indication of an actual bushfire threat (not just a prediction of a total fire ban day), and many are unlikely to leave in the absence of a trigger event which leads them to conclude that their property is likely to come under attack and it is ‘time to leave’.
It should be noted that that many of these findings based on survivors’ accounts correspond closely with Key findings concerning the bushfire fatalities reported by J. Handmer, S. O’Neil, and D. Killalea in their report to the 2009 Victorian Bushfires