The present volume of the Australasian Journal of Disaster and Trauma Studies is dedicated to bushfires and social aspects of their management.
The ever growing number of fires and the size of the areas burnt are a consequence of a series of changes affecting livelihoods, environment and society in the rural world and in the urban-forest interface. Rapid development at the urban-forest interface and changes in lifestyle are increasing the number of people who live in fire risk-prone areas. At the same time the abandonment of rural areas, changes in livelihood, and accumulation of fuel in the forests increase the risk of catastrophic wildfires.
Although more financial and human resources have been directed to the goal of decreasing the incidence and the impacts of fires all over the world, increasing expenditure on fire management policy per se (i.e., fuel management measures, fire suppression means) has not been enough to deal with the problem successfully. No significant improvements have been achieved with regard to changing the trend of a problem that destroys lives, and has significant economic, social and environmental impacts. New approaches that integrate sustainable solutions which fit in both ecological and social dimension of fires are required.
The five papers that comprise this volume reflect contribution from the three most fire risk prone areas: Australia, USA and Southern Europe. With different approaches and objectives these papers converge in the importance attributed to the integration of the human dimension in fire management policy.
All over the world a substantial proportion of bushfires result from human actions, whether deliberate or accidental. In different geographical contexts, papers discussing the role of human actions in the causality of fire are presented by Lourenço and Boustras et al., as a fundamental element to support the definition of a fire policy which reinforce the need for prevention strategies instead of focusing only on suppression measures. After describing the current situation of forest fires and fire combat organization structure in Cyprus, Boutras et al. suggest as a priority the improvement of planning and increased vigilance, but also mention an intense need for sensitization campaign targeted to special groups as well as the strengthening of the fire fighting forces.
Lourenço, through an analysis of 2003 and 2005 fire seasons in Portugal, conclude that the causes of fires can not be reduced to criminal acts. A more detailed identification of other causes can clearly highlight some of the fields where intervention is not only possible, but desirable and even urgently needed. The resolution of the fire problem essentially requires the adoption of preventive strategies which include promoting not only the creation of defensible space around the houses but also, and fundamentally, a better land use planning and adequate management of forest areas. But Lourenço also defends the necessity of changing peoples risk behaviours through information campaigns aimed at specific target groups (i.e. farmers, shepherds, bee-keepers) and more specialised fire-fighters training (e.g. a more efficient use of combination of direct and indirect attack techniques and a more careful actuation in order to avoid the re-ignition of fires). The remaining three papers focus different aspects of preparedness.
Gow, Pritchard and Chant present the results of a study conducted in rural areas of South East Queensland a year after the residents had witnessed or suffered damages from one of the worst bushfire seasons in Australia. This study shows that people with previous experience of being in a bushfire area and witnessing fires, are more motivated to implement preparedness measures. But the level of preparedness increased incrementally the closer the fire had moved towards the person and/or their property.
Ryan and Wamsley in their paper on research conducted at the wildland-urban interface of the Central Pine Barrens of Long Island, New York (USA) looked at the relationships between previous personal experience with fire, level of knowledge about fuel reduction actions and attitudes toward implementing these strategies. This study also shows the importance of both previous experience and level of knowledge as key variables that influence local residents perceptions of wildland fire risk and attitudes toward management strategies to reduce fire danger. Although, some of participants in the survey felt that once a devastating fire had occurred, it would not strike again, which can influence negatively their preparedness level. They report how the more local resident know about fuel management strategies and their visual impacts and effectiveness in reduce fire hazard, the more supportive they are to implement them. However, trust in agency competence also affected peoples attitudes toward acceptance of fuel management actions conducted by agencies to reduce fire hazard. The study concluded about the need to engage local residents in wildfire planning and to increase a multiple wildland fire risk and management options. Even the local residents feel that the communities should be involved in fire hazard reduction plans.
Prior and Patons paper emphasizes the role of the engagement of communities in fire management and shows how situational community characteristics influence preparedness, agency trust, and sense of community. The traditional techniques of risk communication, using standardized information, are unable to accommodate the situational or contextual characteristics of the communities and a failure to tailor information can adversely influence an individuals receptiveness, interpretation and understanding of risk information, and ultimately whether or not they decide to adopt protective behaviours. People living in fire risk areas may be receiving information provided to them, but the way they interpret and act on this information could be inconsistent with the messengers intent. People could even misinterpret the message and put themselves in a higher risk situation as Prior and Paton show in a research done after a severe bushfire on the east coast of Tasmania, Australia. The findings of this research suggest it is necessary to couple mass communication techniques with community engagement to accommodate the influence of situational characteristics, thereby encouraging preparedness, ensuring the correct interpretation of risk communication messages, and engendering confidence and trust in those organizations that communicate bushfire risk information.
The authors proposed more interactive risk communication techniques that provide information contextually relevant for each community to increase preparedness for bushfire and to accommodate the complex patterns of interaction that exist between people and fire agencies and the perceptions and beliefs that influence how both parties act. In fact, risk management strategies must be tailored to the characteristics, needs, expectations and capabilities of each community. Interactive risk communication will empower communities and will help them to take responsibility for their preparedness.
Massey University, New Zealand
December 15, 2008