We need to understand how local demographics influence risk preparedness and evacuation. A field tour I recently participated in to see how communities rebuilt following massive bushfires in the Blue Mountains, west of Sydney, Australia, in October 2013, provides great examples for us all on lessons in action.
In early September, I had the opportunity to attend the Australian AFAC 2017 conference and present on the community recognition value of NFPA’s Firewise USA™ Program. As part of the conference, the New South Wales Rural Fire Service (NSWRFS) led attendees on a field tour to learn from the Blue Mountains bushfires, with presentations from their leadership, volunteer firefighters, and community engagement staff.
The tour introduced us to the volunteer firefighters who were on the initial attack for a bushfire ignited by tree limbs touching a power line. Strong winds would quickly spread the fire beyond control and become 627 separate ignition events over a 13 day period. In the end, over 405,000 acres would burn and consume 214 homes before the fires were contained.
We learned about the 2013 event and how stronger understanding about populations at risk is helping to frame their preparedness and outreach for the next fire. Bushfires and a robust fire ecology is not new to the Blue Mountains, but its population is. The terrain and development reminded me of the Front Range in Colorado and mountain towns in Eastern Tennessee.
Its day-time population primarily commutes to Sydney now and by 2025, 60% of its population will be over 65 in age. This is changing resident perception of fire department response and their own ability to mitigate the risk on their own properties. 90% of the homes in the Blue Mountains are within 300 meters of wildland edge and the NSWRFS Community engagement staff shared that they see a 7-year cycle of new residents for renewed education about that risk.
The Blue Mountains are also a popular tourist destination and this poses a challenge if fires occur because, aside from the influx of population, many visitors are not proficient in English.
The 2013 fire illuminated lessons on public communications that influence how the NSWRFS connects with residents now. Their research showed that residents learned of the fires from family members messaging each other and turned to social media after for official updates. In the moment, they wanted to hear what is expected to happen from the fire services and not what already occurred. The NSWRFS explained that their communications to the public share as much as they know, clearly and honestly in plain language, recognizing that they are a apart of the information stream, not the sole deliverer anymore.
By focusing on these variables, fire services and residents alike are better understanding who is at risk during the next fire. Out of the ashes of the 2013 fire also came a yearly 2-day workshop held in the Blue Mountains. It educates the public on rebuilding and fosters the collaboration between residents, builders, and planners around enacted development legislation that is an impressive accomplishment to see from an American wildfire perspective.
Photo Credit: Lucian Deaton, NFPA