Firefighting the ‘Paradox of Place’ – The Risks and Dilemmas Associated with Knowing the Place of Fire

This is a paper presented at the 2013 Bushfire CRC Research Forum.

This research investigates the relationship between firefighters and landscape, and considers how ideas about the location of a fire can affect firework. In 2012, interviews were conducted with 68 Australian bushfire firefighters from selected agencies and volunteer brigades in contrasting localities: the north-east coast of Tasmania, the urban-rural interface of Canberra, and the grazing farmlands of western Victoria. Stories of fire events and the various roles undertaken were analysed. What emerged is how the ‘place’ of fire can be a paradox for firefighting and this can play out in several ways. Firefighters attending a fire in their local area would seem a safer proposal, then when deployed to a distant fire, surrounded by many unknowns. However, local fire crews will arrive first on scene and despite knowing the landscape must resist taking more risks in defence of their place. Instead, they must work toward a structured order of firefighting. The fire further afield has many potential hazards for deployed firefighters because they do not have local knowledge, yet, the fire will be burning for hours or days and the command structure will be set up by the time the non-local firefighters arrive. The ‘paradox of place’ is where the local fire can at times be more hazardous for local firefighters because of their ‘local knowing’ of place. In contrast, proceeding cautiously at a distant fire, can make for safer firework. The involvement of both local and deployed firefighters at any fire, must strive to find the ‘right balance’ of local knowledge, adaptive decision-making and risk, whilst operating safely within the structure and rules of firework. This is one of our findings associated with aspects of firefighting and place, which indicates the complexity inherent in the concept of local knowledge.