Learning from experience: how the 2020 bushfires response built on Black Saturday

By David Donaldson

Wednesday August 19, 2020

The burnt bushfire uniform of Lex Frew’s at his property Yaminon in Bendalong on the South Coast. Lex and June Frew were badly burnt during the New Years Eve bushfires, rescued by their son-in-law, RFS Volunteer Bill Eger and an RFS crew from Bawley Point. (AAP Image/Dean Lewins)

Applying the lessons of Black Saturday around communication and coordination helped authorities protect communities during last summer’s terrible bushfires.

One of the remarkable things about the 2020-21 bushfires is that, despite burning an area far larger than those of Black Saturday, they also led to a much smaller number of deaths.

Chris Eagle
Chris Eagle

Whereas 173 people died in the Black Saturday fires, that figure was only 34 for the most recent season.

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“The difference this year I think [was] we were really able to capitalise on the learnings from Black Saturday to prevent another number like 173,” says Chris Eagle, deputy chief fire officer at Forest Fire Management Victoria.

He pointed to the example of Mallacoota, which was hemmed in by fire with 4000 people remaining in the town. Hundreds of homes were lost, but the residents and tourists managed to be evacuated by ship and air.

“The fact that we had so many thousands of people that we were able to protect — and yes we had to get them out afterwards — but we were able to protect them and there were no fatalities is a massive improvement,” he told a recent YIPAA masterclass on the bushfires.

Working with citizens is the most complicated part of a bushfire response, says David Nugent, director for fire emergency and enforcement at Parks Victoria.

“From my point of view, fighting the fire is easy,” he argues.

“The really challenging bit is how we work with and support communities during these major incidents like we had last season.”

There are two key lessons from Black Saturday “that have held us in good stead”, Nugent thinks.

The first is that there’s been “so much progress” around informing and warning the community, which was a big focus for the Black Saturday royal commission. Unlike in 2009, we now have things like the VicEmergency app, which provide citizens more information to help them make good decisions.

The second lesson learned is the need to ensure agencies work together effectively. This season’s effort included not only state government agencies but the Australian Defence Force and firefighters from Canada and the United States — and improvements in coordination meant it all went pretty smoothly.

“I’ve been doing this business for a long time, and can reflect on days when we were quite insular in how we went about our business, and [when] fighting fires, it was just our organisation, and we didn’t really deal with others very much.

“Black Saturday, the outcome of that meant some significant changes, and we’ve now got organisations like Emergency Management Victoria, and we all work together really, really well now. That’s helped us enormously.”

Getting the message out

The emergence of social media has created new opportunities to communicate, says Jacqui Thurgood, engagement officer at the Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning.

Jacqui Thurgood
Jacqui Thurgood

“10 years ago it was ABC Radio and ABC TV,” she notes.

With clear signs last winter that it would likely be a bad fire season, communications began far in advance of summer to prevent people becoming complacent about the risks of fire. They focused on providing actionable information.

“Over the years we’ve realised that the most powerful way to communicate is to really narrow the risk information to bite-sized chunks that someone at a household level decision-making can really relate to and feel not paralysed by the threat, but can deal with the threat in the way they do other household-level threats.”

It’s comparable to “things like what level of health insurance do I need to pay for? How many beers have I had and is it safe to drive?” she says.

“So people are needing to understand: what is my level of local risk?”

The VicEmergency app has been designed with this in mind — users can define an area they want to know about, and the app gives them risk information with suggested actions.

“It’s a really transactional way in which we’re communicating. We’re giving you something, which is the information you need about the risk, but we’re also asking something of you, and that is for you to take actions, and these are the ones we suggest.”

There have also been novel efforts to improve contact with remote communities, who can see first-hand what’s happening on the ground.

In some places the government sent out text messages asking local residents to call the authorities because “we can’t get a hold of the community, there’s no phone service, but we think there’s one house that might have a little bit of service and we need to talk to that community,” Eagle explained.

For some remote communities where there might only be a handful of farmhouses, the defence force dropped in satellite phones to local community leaders who could act as a bridge to the authorities.

But some challenges remain. Despite improvements in cross-agency coordination, it’s still challenging to ensure everything works smoothly across state borders.

“If you looked at the VicEmergency map about January 2, there was this line that stopped along the border. Nobody knew where the fire was in NSW. NSW couldn’t pick up our information,” Eagle explained.

But quick thinking enabled a quick fix.

“We got the IT gurus to connect the two states together so communities that were travelling in that area could pick up the information on the VicEmergency app if it was over the border, or the other way around.”

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