05 February 2010
Survey throws light on Black Saturday
A year on, researchers are gaining insights into residents’ responses to the fires. Image © istockphoto.
Professor John Handmer.
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A survey authored by two RMIT University researchers will help authorities better understand residents’ actions in the 7 February, 2009, Victorian bushfires.
“This research further informs communities and fire and land management agencies about what happened, and why, on an extraordinary and tragic day in this country’s history,” Professor John Handmer, Bushfire CRC Program Leader at RMIT, said.
“The information gathered will help agencies better work with communities for bushfire, ultimately saving property and lives.”
Professor Handmer authored the survey along with Dr Joshua Whittaker.
The survey explored how the 7 February bushfires affected people and their property – from how information and warnings were received and understood, to the level of householder planning, preparation and response to the bushfires, as well as general information about each household.
Notable findings included:
- Respondents most commonly became aware of the presence of fire in their neighbourhood through smoke, embers or flames, etc, a warning from a family member, friend or neighbour, or a radio announcement
- 72 per cent of respondents indicated that they expected to receive an official warning from authorities such as the CFA, police, other emergency services, or ABC Radio if there was a bushfire in their town or suburb. However, 63 per cent reported that they did not receive an official warning. (Two thirds of respondents who did receive a warning reported that it arrived in enough time to respond safely.)
- Contrary to anecdotal reports, the majority of survey respondents (84 per cent) reported having house and contents insurance. Only 4 per cent said they had no insurance at all.
- 99 per cent of respondents were aware that 7 February was a day of Total Fire Ban. However, earlier interviews with residents found there was little connection between awareness and appropriate action.
- Respondents recognised temperature, wind and luck as some of the most important factors influencing how their home/property was affected by the fires.
- In the 12 months before the 7 February bushfires, the CFA “Living in the Bush” workbooks, ABC Radio, CFA community meetings and television emerged as the major sources of information about what to do during a bushfire, and how to prepare households for bushfire.
- Respondents consistently indicated they would adopt a similar course of action in a future bushfire attack. (77 per cent of respondents who left their homes before the fire arrived stated that they would leave again if there was a similar fire, while 78 per cent of those who stayed to defend their properties declared they would stay and protect their home from a similar fire in the future.)
Professor Handmer said the dataset from the survey needed to be read in conjunction with the qualitative work conducted immediately after Black Saturday.
For instance, the majority of respondents (69 per cent) claimed to have had a firm plan about what to do if a bushfire occurred on 7 February, but interviews with residents found considerable variation in the quality of people’s plans, and that a considerable amount of last-minute planning and preparation happened on the day itself.
“This is only part of the story,” Professor Handmer said, “but this information from both the survey and the face-to-face interviews provides us with a solid foundation upon which future scientific analysis can be based on how communities face the threat of a bushfire.”
The work was completed by the Bushfire CRC, in collaboration with La Trobe University and Risk Frontiers at Macquarie University, as part of a more extensive research project on the Black Saturday fires.