Research finds expectation challenges with bushfire warnings

Research after the worst fire season in NSW 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.

The research, commissioned by the New South Wales Rural Fire Service and led for the Bushfire and Natural Hazards CRC by Dr Josh Whittaker (University of Wollongong), investigated how people across NSW were affected by the 2019/20 Black Summer bushfires in NSW and what actions they took. A Hazard Note summarising the key findings can be found here, while the full report, Black Summer – how the NSW community responded to the 2019-20 bushfire season, can be downloaded here.

A total of 202 in-depth interviews were conducted with people affected by the fires across NSW, and a further 1,004 others completed an online survey.

The expectations placed on warnings are a key finding, explained Dr Whittaker.

“Community expectations of warnings and information appear to be growing. Many people expect to receive highly detailed and localised information in near real-time. When we analysed the interviews, we found that people want this information in order to make more ‘responsive’ or ‘timely’ decisions about protective actions,” Dr Whittaker said.

With some of the worst bushfires coming during the Christmas and New Year period, a key focus of the research was to find out about the experiences of visitors and tourists who were affected, as well as holiday home owners.

New communication methods were tried during the worst conditions, and the research found that these initiatives, including fire spread prediction maps and Tourist Leave Zone messages, were effective in communicating risk and motivating people to take protective action during the worst of the conditions.

However, few travellers had prepared for the possibility of encountering bushfire while travelling or at their destination.

Other findings include:

  • 78% of people received official warnings with sufficient time
  • 86% of respondents recalled seeing a fire spread prediction map for their area
  • 27% of tourists and visitors indicated that a bushfire was already burning in the area they were going to visit
  • 57% of those surveyed had read the NSW RFS Guide to Making a Bush Fire Plan
  • 78% of respondents indicated that Fires Near Me NSW was their preferred source of information in the future

The community responded during the fire season like never before, said Anthony Clark, Director Communications and Engagement at the NSW Rural Fire Service.

“Large events like this always present an opportunity to consider what works and what needs to be refined, in conjunction with inquiries like the NSW Bushfire Inquiry and its recommendations, this research helps map out how we can continue to improve. Importantly, the research sets out that while fire services like the NSW Rural Fire Service are critical in mitigating the risk, it isn’t for government or emergency services alone. While the quality and amount of preparedness information and warnings improves, the community can’t afford to become overly reliant. The community must do its part to prepare and respond.”

Hazard Note summarising the key findings from the research can be downloaded here.

The full report, Black Summer – how the NSW community responded to the 2019-20 bushfire season, is available here.

donation from Jefferies Financial Group to the Bushfire and Natural Hazards CRC to support this research is gratefully acknowledged.