More than 1,200 people shared their experiences of the worst fire season in New South Wales’ history to help improve communications and warnings.
Research after the worst fire season in New South Wales’ history shows there are challenges around community expectations of bushfire warnings, with many people expecting to receive highly detailed and localised information in near real time.
In New South Wales between August 2019 and February 2020, tens of thousands of people were displaced, including residents, tourists and visitors over the Christmas and New Year period. Tragically, 25 people lost their lives, while many more people were affected by smoke in both metropolitan and regional areas. By season’s end, bushfires had burned a record 5.5 million hectares of NSW and destroyed 2,448 homes (NSW RFS 2020). The fires adversely affected many industries, including agriculture, forestry and tourism.
New research has investigated exactly how people across NSW were affected by the 2019/20 bushfires and what actions they took. It was commissioned by the NSW Rural Fire Service and undertaken by the Bushfire and Natural Hazards CRC, the University of Wollongong and Macquarie University. The NSW RFS uses research such as this to evaluate and measure the effectiveness of its work during emergency events, and to enhance warnings and engagement approaches for future bushfires.
Researchers conducted 202 in-depth interviews with people affected by the fires across NSW, to identify key themes and experiences, while a further 1,004 others completed an online survey. Importantly, both the interviews and survey included ACT residents who were in NSW at the time of the fires, to understand their experiences as visitors. Both the interviews and surveys explored risk communication, preparedness (and how this changed due to the length of the fire season) and the experiences of tourists and visitors, especially during the Christmas and New Year period.
What did the research find?
The extent of the 2019/20 fires, and the sheer number of people affected, presents opportunities to reach new audiences with bushfire safety information and promote planning and preparation. The research found that previous experience of bushfire motivated many people to plan and prepare. However, the results also reveal certain challenges around community expectations of warnings, with many people expecting to receive highly detailed and localised information in near real time. New initiatives, including fire-spread prediction maps and Tourist Leave Zone messages, were found to be effective in communicating risk and motivating people to take protective action during the worst of the conditions.
Prolonged and/or repeated exposure to fire
The length of the fire season and the repeated threat of bushfire was a significant factor that influenced people’s planning, preparation and responses. The extended fire season required many people to adapt to fire as an everyday part of their life, juggling work, schooling and family celebrations with ongoing monitoring, preparation and responses to fire.
Many people were exhausted by the ongoing nature of the threat and the continual need to monitor and prepare. Some discussed living with the continual ‘anticipation of threat’ and voiced times where they had wished the fires would arrive so that the experience would be over.
Fires Near Me NSW
The Fires Near Me NSW app was extremely popular, with 94% of primary residents surveyed reporting they had downloaded the app, including 39% reporting that it was the most useful source of information (followed by NSW RFS volunteers as the next most useful source at 13%). Most residents thought Fires Near Me NSW was easy to understand (89%) and useful (88%). More than two-thirds thought the information was sufficiently localised. However, less than half believed the information was up to date (47%).
While a number of people reported that Fires Near Me NSW was not updated frequently enough, there was still a strong preference for it as a source of information, with 78% of survey respondents indicating it was their preferred source of information in the future.
The NSW RFS had identified issues with Fires Near Me NSW, including the timeliness of maps due to the large number of fires and the speed of fires spreading, and these issues were reflected in many community interviews.
Fire-spread prediction maps
Fire-spread prediction maps were introduced by the NSW RFS to communicate elevated risk from fire conditions and the large number of dangerous fires burning across the state.
Most people recalled seeing these maps for their area (86%) and found them easy to understand (93%), sufficiently localised (77%) and useful (85%). Around half of these respondents said that seeing the fire-spread prediction influenced their decision to leave or avoid travelling to a fire-threatened area.
Some tourists and visitors consulted fire-spread prediction maps prior to commencing their travel. A small number of people said the fact that their travel destination was not within a fire spread prediction area gave them a false sense of security in continuing with their travel plans.
Tourist Leave Zones
Tourist Leave Zones were communicated to encourage visitors to leave certain areas due to the fire risk.
Around half (47%) of the tourists, visitors and secondary residents who were surveyed reported that they were in a Tourist Leave Zone during the bushfires. After receiving notification of the Tourist Leave Zone, 54% of people returned home to their primary residence and 14% went to another location outside the zone. Around one-third stayed within the zone. Reasons for staying within the zone included to protect houses and property (mostly occupants of secondary residences; 32%); because police, fire or emergency service advised people to stay (12%); and because attempts to leave were unsuccessful (11%). The majority of interviewees understood the purpose and were supportive of Tourist Leave Zones.
Tourists and visitors
While most tourists, visitors and those who owned secondary homes were aware of bushfire activity in the vicinity of their travel destination, many did not think they would be directly affected. Continuing with annual holiday plans and wanting to escape smokier conditions at their primary place of residence were the main motivations for people to travel during the bushfire threat.
Opportunities for the future
The findings presented in this research present numerous opportunities for the NSW RFS, other government agencies and communities to reduce future bushfire risk. Few opportunities are the responsibility of any one stakeholder alone. The findings highlight the complexities of community preparedness and responses to bushfire and the need for integrated and holistic responses to risk reduction. Bushfire risk reduction is a shared responsibility between governments, fire and emergency services, businesses and communities at risk.
For more information, go to www.bnhcrc.com.au/hazardnotes/95
Summary of key statistics
Engagement with NSW RFS programs and materials:
- 57% had read the NSW RFS Guide to Making a Bushfire Plan
- 44% had participated in a local NSW RFS brigade event
Fire-spread prediction maps:
- 86% recalled seeing a fire-spread prediction for their area
- ν 93% found it easy to understand, 77% sufficiently localised and 85% useful
- 78% received official warnings with sufficient time and 71% with sufficient information to take protective action
- Fires Near Me NSW app:
- 94% had downloaded the Fires Near Me NSW app
- 78% indicated that the app was their preferred source of information in the future
Neighbourhood Safer Places:
- 44% were familiar with the term ‘Neighbourhood Safer Place’
- 72% of those who were familiar with the term were aware of a Neighbourhood Safer Place in their area
Experiences of tourists and visitors:
- 38% considered it likely that a bushfire could occur in the area they were visiting and 33% considered it unlikely. Just 2% had not considered the risk
- 27% indicated that a bushfire was already burning in the area they were going to visit
- 45% of those who travelled to an area where a fire was already burning did so to defend a property or assist family or friends. 26% did not think the fire would affect them and 11% wanted to continue with holiday or business plans
- 52% had not done anything to prepare for the possibility of bushfire on their trip
- 47% reported that they were in a Tourist Leave Zone during a period of bushfire threat
- 34% found out about the Tourist Leave Zone via radio, 13% via television, 13% via social media, 11% from people in the surrounding area and 10% via Fires Near Me NSW.
- 54% returned to their primary residence after receiving notification of the Tourist Leave Zone, 14% went to another location outside the Tourist Leave Zone and 32% remained within the Tourist Leave Zone, mostly to defend property (typically holiday-home owners) or because they were unable to leave.
Statistics are for survey respondents who were threatened or affected by bushfire at their primary place of residence (‘residents’).