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Looking at a building destroyed during the Black Saturday bushfires.

Learning lessons from research insights: Black Saturday

The 2009 Black Saturday bushfires made history as one of Australia’s deadliest and costliest peacetime tragedies. A new industry guideline helps us learn from this tragic event.

Human endurance and the capabilities of emergency service providers were tested by the catastrophic Black Saturday fires in Victoria. The bushfires claimed 173 lives, left 400 injured and resulted in millions of dollars of estimated damages and losses. Years on, the survivors and their communities continue with the emotional, social, financial, structural and physical recovery.

So what can be learned from Black Saturday that will help others in bushfire prone communities prepare for the brutal reality of catastrophic fire? In addition to implementing the wide-ranging recommendations of the Victorian Bushfire Royal Commission, Australia’s fire and land management agencies have addressed these questions by drawing on lessons identified from research into the accounts of Black Saturday’s survivors and the experiences of its deceased.

Using AFAC’s national collaboration process, the agencies have captured their conclusions into an industry guideline: Community safety messaging for catastrophic bushfires: lessons learnt from Black Saturday bushfires, Victoria 2009. The guideline is designed for use by community safety and engagement practitioners in AFAC member agencies.

The main street of Marysville after the fire.

The main street of Marysville after the fire.

The guideline was developed by a project team from AFAC’s Community and Engagement Technical Group (CETG). AFAC’s Director, Information and Community Safety, Amanda Leck, said the process involved extensive rounds of review, consultation and drafting, with the team negotiating consensus on factors such as the guideline’s role, scope, content and format.

“CETG members distilled conclusions from the research insights into major learnings to guide key messaging for communities in the lead up to, during and after catastrophic bushfire,” she explained.

The document expands on the major learnings of the Bushfire CRC 2014 report, Lessons learnt from the Black Saturday bushfires: information for fire agency managers of community safety. The finished guideline was approved by the AFAC National Council as doctrine for use by member agencies in late 2016.

Today, practitioners across all jurisdictions use this pivotal document to guide development and implementation of bushfire education programs as well as in-house training. It provides practical, consolidated information to help local fire authorities communicate the report’s findings to communities and improve fire safety. Each set of key messages is accompanied by the related major learning from the research report, along with more detailed information about the context of each issue, including a real-life example from the accounts and experiences of Black Saturday.

A team of researchers conducted an investigation following the 2009 Black Saturday bushfires in Victoria.

A team of researchers conducted an investigation following the 2009 Black Saturday bushfires in Victoria.

The core learnings cover the harsh reality of bushfire as recreated from the last minutes of the deceased and recalled by survivors. The physical and emotional aspects of confronting catastrophic bushfire are covered, including anticipating and being prepared for worst-case scenarios, such as planning last-resort exit routes and places of refuge.

The latest AFAC research utilisation case study describes how lessons based on the research findings from a 126-page report were translated into a practical, 12-page guidance resource for community engagement practitioners nationally. The case study identifies the factors critical to the project’s success, foremost of which was the collaboration through AFAC, a shared sense of commitment to learn from the research, and trusting relationships built between the researchers, end users and relevant authorities to carefully use lessons identified from the Black Saturday research.

“It’s important that [the guideline] has been jointly developed by those practising in the field,” said Sandra Barber, the project leader.

“Being based on research evidence, assessed by the CETG and having the backing of AFAC behind it, gives it strength, weight and relevance,” added Peter Middleton, of Tasmania Fire Service.

The case study can be downloaded at www.afac.com.au/initiative/research. For more information on this case study, contact AFAC Director of Research and Utilisation Dr Noreen Krusel via email at: noreen.krusel@afac.com.au.

For more information, go to www.afac.com.au/initiative/research

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Brenda is Communications Officer at AFAC Research Utilisation. She held a similar role at the Bushfire CRC and moved when the Bushfire CRC’s research utilisation function transferred to AFAC in 2014. You can contact Brenda at Brenda.leahy@afac.com.au

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