Local knowledge in rural communities
Many rural communities have a wealth of knowledge, tradition and experience of their district. This understanding of country, fire and weather history is being harnessed by Bushfire CRC research for use within future fire management.
As bushfires are predicted to increase in frequency, intensity and size, this area of research is particularly crucial as it considers the capacity of communities to cope with and respond to disasters, such as fire, rather than simply assessing the damage and needs of those communities. In this way it is encouraging genuine community involvement, enabling fire agencies and managers to engage with local communities and work together toward sustainable hazard mitigation.
Researchers are looking specifically at communities in Australia’s high country as a component of the broader HighFire Project, which is studying many aspects of fire and fuels management in alpine Australia.
Researcher Jenny Indian, from RMIT University, has spent time with communities in north-east Victoria, southern New South Wales and the Australian Capital Territory for this project.
“It’s important to point out that this is not purely an academic exercise but one which is designed to help all of us within rural communities to be ready for the next fire – not just physically prepared but emotionally ready,” she said.
“This work will in turn help both fire managers and agencies in their work within these communities. And that’s what is crucial about the social research currently being undertaken - that it must be useful to rural communities and able to be applied by fire agencies and managers.”
The potential pitfalls and dangers of aspects of this knowledge are also being explored – its potential subjectivity, altruism and questions of application beyond a narrow geographic area. The researchers have learnt to be good listeners as well as good social scientists.
“Giving people the time and space to tell their stories is at the heart of this type of work - you leave your ego, bias and opinions at the door, ask questions and listen,” said Jenny.
“Resilience and dealing with bushfires is something that needs to be understood better by all of us. It is too easy to polarise and politicise debate – the city versus country and so on – it doesn’t help and only serves to further divide and disenfranchise communities.
“This is not a problem we are facing here but a challenge – new approaches and new beginnings are possible but we do need to involve and engage our rural communities to ensure better understanding of bushfire and just what to expect.”
Research is ongoing and to date extensive interviews have been conducted with individuals, local government officers and both government and non government agencies, and professional groups such as rural health providers. Focus groups have been conducted, bringing together a range of both locals and newcomers within these communities and, with that, a diversity of thought and opinion. Both current and more established literature has been reviewed extensively and this continues as does dialogue with others involved in this field of research overseas.
Findings from the research will be released later next year but early observations from the researchers acknowledge that strong family and social networks combined with a steady flow of up to date information about their situation help people to cope with bushfires.
“I believe that this type of work is crucial to future fire management in Australia. We must continue to involve and engage communities, encouraging them to take responsibility for their own lives and properties – to channel potential fear into practical application and strength.
“We must help them to understand what is involved with bushfires and provide information and support before, during and after a fire event. This will also increase their confidence and understanding of the fire managers and agencies.
“However, what is truly commendable is the marked improvement in the way the 2007 fires were handled in comparison to 2003. While circumstances with these fires were obviously different, local communities were kept well informed, information flow was good and well received and the cooperation between Department of Sustainability and Environment and County Fire Authority in Victoria and the Rural Fire Service and Parks New South Wales was remarkable.
“This hasn’t happened overnight and has taken an enormous amount of time and energy from fire managers and agencies. This work should continue and must be underpinned by sound social research to ensure that rural communities throughout Australia are better able to get ready for, cope with and recover from a major bushfire.”
The Project Leader for this research is Professor John Handmer, RMIT University, and the research staff are Jenny Indian and Amalie Tibbits.
(This article first appeared in the Spring 2007 issue of Fire Australia magazine)