Fire and Community Resilience

“If you live in bushfire‐prone environments then you have a responsibility to understand and prepare for that risk” (Holmes 2010).

Since 1957, improvements in firefighting technology, better training, the formalisation of the NSW RFS, coordinated hazard reduction operations, improved and diversified means of communication, and the introduction of bushfire‐conscious development controls represent crucial advances in our capacity to respond to and mitigate the effects of bushfire. Despite these advances, the preparedness of individuals, households, and communities remains crucial for bushfire survival. The Black Saturday fires in Victoria in 2009 drove home the fact that individuals and communities must remain vigilant and prepared because fires can overwhelm response capacities. Furthermore, some fires start and spread so quickly that there is no time for any warning at all. Individuals and communities have a large role to play in bushfire preparedness, response, and recovery. In fact, there is a need to continue to build community capacity in order to engender a wider sense of shared responsibility, behavioural change, and appreciation of the fire‐prone nature of the Blue Mountains (Ellis et al. 2004).

Community Preparedness
“It is not just the responsibility of the Bush Fire Brigade, the Council, or the Government to prepare the community for the danger of fires. It is the responsibility of every resident of the Blue Mountains.” (Cunningham 1998).

Eyewitness accounts from 1957 suggest that Blue Mountains residents were caught completely by surprise and were generally unprepared for the fires. Today, every resident is encouraged to prepare a Bush Fire Survival Plan.

Some key messages within the Plan are:

  • The most important decision is whether you and your family will Leave Early or if you will Stay and Defend your well prepared home.
  • Know the current Fire Danger Rating for your area – you and your family’s survival may depend on it.
  • In an area where a bush fire can start, Leaving Early on Catastrophic Fire Danger days is your only safe option. On Catastrophic days, no properties in areas where a bush fire can start will be defendable.
  • While Leaving Early is always the safest option, on Fire Danger days other than Catastrophic, you should only Stay and Defend if you have a well  maintained property and if you are physically, emotionally, and mentally prepared to defend your home.
  • The majority of deaths during bush fires result from people trying to leave their homes at the last moment.
  • Most houses are burnt in bush fires because of ember attack. This results in houses many streets away from the bush being vulnerable to fire as embers can cause fires many kilometres in front of the main fire.

The current Fire Danger Rating may be found on the NSW RFS website (www.rfs.nsw.gov.au) or by calling 1800 NSW RFS (1800 679 737).
The Royal Commission into the 2009 Victorian Black Saturday fires confirmed that Leave Early is the safest option and noted that on Catastrophic fire days it is the only safe option. Other recommendations included:

  • Many people did not have a well‐thought‐out fire plan and were left to make their own decisions without the benefit of assistance from the authorities.
  • Being close to a heavily forested area can increase the ferocity of an approaching fire and the likelihood of heavy ember attack, making it harder to defend a house.
  • Defending a house also requires at least two able‐bodied, fit and determined adults who are physically and mentally prepared to work long and hard in arduous and dangerous conditions.
  • Staying in fire‐prone areas on days when conditions are as severe as those on Black Saturday involves grave risk to one’s life.
  • Community memory of ferocious fires can fade because of the relative infrequency of such events. In these circumstances there is a risk of individual and collective underestimation of the risk – and possibly complacency.

A well prepared home is more likely to survive a bush fire. Even if your plan is to Leave Early, the more you prepare your home, the more likely it will be to survive bush fire or ember attack. The Bush Fire Survival Plan from the NSW RFS lists preparation actions. Some include:

  • Clean leaves from the roof, gutters, and downpipes. Fit quality metal leaf guards.
  • Enclose underfloor areas.
  • Keep garden mulch away from the house and keep grass short.
  • Remove and store any flammable items away from the house.

Refer to your Bush Fire Survival Plan for more. Despite the known fire‐prone nature of the Blue Mountains, a large majority of properties remain extremely hazardous and unprepared (Pegard 2010). Elderly, infirm, or disabled residents are encouraged to contact the NSW RFS, which maintains an Assist Infirm, Disabled, and Elderly Residents (AIDER) program that can assist with bushfire preparation.

A major conclusion of the Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission was that the success of bushfire warnings depends partly on the standard of the information and education provided to the community prior to its issue. Further highlighting the importance of shared responsibility, therefore, community education and preparedness in the absence of bushfires enhances the receptiveness of warnings and thus the overall response when a bushfire occurs.

Community Response
“Are we prepared to live in the bush and take responsibility for the choices we have made?” (Holmes 2010)

Although residents of Leura and Wentworth Falls may have been unprepared for the fires, eyewitnesses told wonderful stories of heroism and courage that probably saved lives. At the same time, reflecting the lack of preparedness, the stories revealed a frenzied response and a community that lacked necessary tools and training.

Today, bushfire brigades and community fire units are widespread in the Blue Mountains, and receive training and equipment from the NSW RFS or the NSW Fire Brigades. When a deliberately‐lit bushfire threatened homes on Leura’s Olympian Parade in 2011, the improved response capacity of officials, volunteers, and the general public was in full force. The Olympian Parade community fire unit, one of 112 such units in the Blue Mountains, helped see off the fire. Members interviewed as part of newspaper reports say the training provided to these units by the NSW Fire Brigades was very helpful. NSW RFS and Fire & Rescue NSW crews also provided help to contain the blaze, and helicopters water bombed the area. When evacuations were needed, NSW Fire Brigades personnel suggested the procedure went much more quickly than it would have previously because many households now had bushfire survival plans and were prepared (Lewis 2011).

At the same time, the 2009 Black Saturday fires in Victoria drove home the reality that fires can outstrip even our much improved response capacity.

It remains the case that on Severe, Extreme, and Catastrophic fire days, Leaving Early is the safest option for your survival.

On Catastrophic fire days, Leaving Early is your only option.

Community Recovery
Those in Leura and Wentworth Falls at the time of the 2 December 1957 fires described a recovery effort significantly bolstered by community capacity. The Lions Club and the Rotary constructed temporary homes for those left homeless, while others opened their own homes to those in need. Although less predominant, some survivors spoke of institutional arrangements such as the Mayor’s Bushfire Relief Fund. Like when it comes to bushfire preparedness and response, the years since 1957 has seen improvements in institutional arrangements for bushfire recovery at all levels of government. The rise in these “institutional” responses has led to an expectation that these institutions will play the most significant role in post‐disaster recovery. A survey of residents in Molong, NSW, found that while people expected institutions to respond moreso than the broader community, in reality they ended up relying on friends, family, and other local residents for recovery needs more than formal government programs. Institutions such as local government and the State
Emergency Service, on the other hand, were found to be more valuable when it came to providing recovery information. The study concluded that the role of people in the community is generally undervalued when it comes to recovery assistance, and that formal institutions were more valuable when it comes to recover information (Manock et al. 2013).
Despite the rise of formal bushfire management institutions, therefore, like in 1957, community capacity remains an important factor in bushfire recovery and reinforces the need for “shared responsibility.” Maintaining this capacity is vitally important, although may be difficult given consistent demographic changes and if a lack of fire results in complacence. Coles and Buckle (2004) describe how effective recovery can be achieved only where the affected community participates fully in the recovery process and where it has the capacity, skills, and knowledge to make its participation meaningful.

They also found that community engagement in recovery tends to happen spontaneously, although planning can materially increase community resilience. As mentioned earlier when describing the study of Molong, this spontaneous involvement in recovery likely contributed to the discrepancy between residents expectation of community involvement versus the actual contribution that the community made. Buckle (2001) found that the community (meaning people at a local level who are not organised by emergency services but have skills, resources and an organisational capacity or structure that allows them to provide services to people at risk or that have been affected) has played a large role in Australia in post disaster provision of:

  • Personal support,
  • Childcare,
  • Financial assistance for homes and farms,
  • Cleanup programs,
  • Social activities,
  • Memorial activities, and
  • Community development.

He notes that although these activities occurred within a framework of planned arrangements, the timing, shape, range, and commitment to activities was wholly the community’s own. Community support was also found to be vital for assisting elderly, disabled, or otherwise vulnerable residents to meet their needs. Community recovery and healing can require sustained effort long after a bushfire has passed through.

Resources for institutional responses are limited, even for major disasters such as the Canberra fires of 2003 and the Black Saturday fires of 2009. There is a simple, practical need to rely on the knowledge, skills, capacities, and resources of local people to meet initial needs as well as their needs weeks, months, or years after the event when the attention of government has been directed to other priorities (Coles and Buckle 2004).

Works cited and selected additional papers, publications

2009 Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission (2010) Final Report: Summary.
Parliament of Victoria: Melbourne. Reports available from:
http://www.royalcommission.vic.gov.au/Commission‐Reports.

Buckle, P. (2001) Community Based Management: A New Approach to Managing Disasters, paper presented at the 5th European Sociological Association Conference, Helsinki, Finland 28 August – 1 September 2001. Available at: http://www.dscrn.org/cms/uploads/esa2001/buckle%20‐
%20community%20based%20management.pdf

Coles, E. and Buckle, P. (2004) Developing community resilience as a foundation for effective disaster recovery. The Australian Journal of Emergency Management 19(4):6‐15. Available at http://www.em.gov.au/Documents/AJEM_Vol19_Issue4.pdf

Cunningham, C. J. 1998. ‘Fire History of the Blue Mountains’. In Jocelyn Powell (ed) The Improvers’ Legacy: Environmental Studies of the Hawkesbury. Sydney: Deerubbin Press pp 39‐49.

Ellis, S., Kanowski, P, and Whelan, R. (2004) National Inquiry on Bushfire Mitigation and Management. Commonwealth of Australia, Canberra. Available at: http://www.coagbushfireenquiry.gov.au/report/pdfs/report_large_size.pdf

Holmes, A. (2010) A Reflection on the Bushfire Royal Commission – Blame,
Accountability and Responsibility. The Australian Journal of Public Administration 69(4):387‐391.

Lewis, D. (2011) Lessons learnt, and Leura is better prepared to fight. The Sydney Morning Herald: Environment, 21 September 2011. Available at:
http://www.smh.com.au/environment/weather/lessons‐learnt‐and‐leurais‐
better‐prepared‐to‐fight‐20110920‐1kjm2.html

Manock, I. Islam, R., Hicks, J. Sappey, R. B., and Ingham, V. (2013) Perceptions of institutional and social response to frequent flooding in an Australian rural town. The Australian Journal of Emergency Management 28(1):42‐48. Available at:
http://www.em.gov.au/Publications/Australianjournalofemergencymanage
ment/Currentissue/Documents/AJEM28ONE/AJEM_Vol_28No1.pdf

Pegard, B. (2010) Fire Risk and Fire Management in the Context of Global Climate Change: An Analysis of the Provence Region of Southeast France and the Blue Mountains Region of Australia. PhD Thesis from the University of New South Wales. Available at:
http://unsworks.unsw.edu.au/fapi/datastream/unsworks:9138/SOURCE02

Further reading and important resources
Information on Community Fire Units (Fire & Rescue NSW) ‐ http://cfu.fire.nsw.gov.au/

NSW RFS Bush Fire Survival Plan

NSW RFS Bushfire Safety Factsheets ‐ http://www.rfs.nsw.gov.au/dsp_content.cfm?cat_id=1150

Fire Danger Ratings and What You Should Do ‐ http://www.rfs.nsw.gov.au/dsp_content.cfm?cat_id=2728

The NSW RFS Assist Infirm Disabled and Elderly Residents (AIDER) Programme ‐ http://www.rfs.nsw.gov.au/dsp_content.cfm?cat_id=1977