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close this bookCities At Risk - Making Cities Safer ... Before Disaster Strikes (IDNDR-DIRDN, 1996)
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Australia: Community Education Reduces Wildfire Losses

"If you were in Victoria on 16 February, 1983, you would remember what you were doing that day. In South Australia we were all shocked by the fierceness and tragedy of the bushfires which ravaged the Clare Valley, the Lower Southeast and the Adelaide Hills," said Barry Grear, an urban planner from the Department of Housing and Urban Development in South Australia. "Lessons learned from Ash Wednesday and applied around Australia are (partly) why fires around Sydney in 1994 were not as tragic as they could have been," he added.

Southeastern Australia continues to be one of the most fire-prone areas in the world. The 1983 Ash Wednesday fire claimed 47 lives, over 2,000 homes, and cost about $200 million. Hundreds of fires occur yearly in the region of Victoria, where many people in urban areas live near forests and are at risk.

Local emergency management authorities believe that the most important lesson they have learned from these fires is that in-depth community education programmes make a difference in saving lives and property. Local authorities had already been sending safety messages through mass media channels, but they found that these messages alone didn't make enough of an impact. In addition, these measures were counterbalanced by journalists who reported fire disasters in a way that left the impression that survival was simply a matter of luck.

Consequently, the Country Fire Authority of Victoria developed a community education programme, Community Fireguard, to assist people to develop their own bushfire survival strategies. Community Fireguard used research showing that if people were well prepared, they could protect themselves and their homes. To relay the message, they avoided the "top-down" approach that they had been using, of an agency telling people what to do. Instead, the programme focused on identifying the most vulnerable areas in fire-prone communities. Next, they identified local contacts who could generate interest among residents and encourage them to meet.

Using trained facilitators and videos, community residents met in someone's home (rather than a public hall). Through this personalized approach, residents came to realize that they are responsible for their own safety, and needed to develop their own fire survival strategies. Only then did the Community Fireguard facilitators work with the groups to enable them to choose the most appropriate strategies, and develop them for their own use.

In some areas groups focus on developing local warning systems. Others work with land management agencies to ensure that buffer zones are maintained. Some groups have conducted street cleanups, equipment training sessions, or prepared emergency plans.

In forests near urban areas, community members clear away brush and hazardous materials.
(Photo credit: John Tindall/country Fire Authority of Victoria)

Since the Community Fireguard programme has been underway, several groups have experienced major wildfires. Local strategies have proved effective in preventing losses and mobilizing people to protect themselves and their property. Melbourne University is currently evaluating the programme to assess its effectiveness in changing attitudes and behaviour among residents in high wildfire risk areas.

Adapted from: Alan Rhodes, "Community Education to Reduce Losses from Wildfire," June 1996, programme summary for the IDNDR Secretariat, courtesy of the IDNDR Australian Coordination Committee.

Additional sources:

Barry Grear, "Bushfire reduction through planning policy," in Hazard-Wise Saves Lives, ed. D.I. Smith, Australian National University, Centre for Resource and Environmental Studies, 1996.

Pamphlets about Community Safeguard, Country Fire Authority of Victoria.

For more information, contact: Jon Boura, Country Fire Authority, PO Box 701, Mt. Waverely, Victoria, 3149, Australia. h: 61 3 92628394. E-mail: