We need to get better at learning how to learn from bushfires

By Graham Dwyer

May 4, 2021

We must move away from constructed versions of what happened and towards the actual occurrences before, during and after bushfire events. (Image: Adobe/Charlie)

Bushfires present significant challenges for emergency-management policymakers and practitioners. All too often in recent times we have seen how bushfire has given rise to damages and losses, so significant that governments have established public inquiries to scrutinise what happened and why. Unfortunately, such processes have resulted in emergency-management practitioners and policymakers being blamed in a way that is not always fair.

With the general consensus being that bushfire seasons are starting earlier and lasting longer, coupled with a scepticism that public inquiries generally and royal commissions specifically have accrued recommendations that have not been implemented, it is important to ask the question: is there a way that we can learn to learn better from bushfires? This is important particularly when experts such as Associate Professor Kevin Tolhurst have cautioned that: ‘The propensity for inquiries has had the perverse effect of making bushfire management less effective and efficient than it should be’.

While royal commissions are the most authoritative form of public inquiry, which can be appointed by federal or state governments to review, examine and/or investigate matters, it remains unclear why they are chosen as a mechanism for reviewing significant bushfires. Research by renowned Professor of Sociology Barry Turner in 1976 found that significant public inquiries such as royal commissions ‘create a discrepancy between the way the world is thought to operate and the way it really does’ after a crisis or disaster has occurred. Subsequent studies have repeatedly found that public inquiry findings will be more plausible than they are accurate and that their recommendations into bushfire events create significant equivocality for emergency management organisations. Studies have even found that royal commissions hindered the lessons learned process by blaming emergency-management practitioners for events that were often beyond their control.

We need to remember that emergency-management practitioners carry significant post-traumatic stress from decades of responding to a range of different bushfire events. With this in mind, it is timely to begin the process of examining the normative judgements and the authorial strategies of omission by commissioners, which they use to re-construct what happened and why to arrive at their reports of findings and recommendations. This is all the more important when counsel assisting the 2009 Bushfires Royal Commission admitted to ABC journalist Jane Cowan that the final report omitted important evidence from the inquiry and could have been more significant and thorough.

With the growing body of research and evidence that questions the value of conducting exhausting and expensive royal commissions after significant bushfires it is important to now ask the question: in what way should we learn in the future? It is as if bushfire royal commissions have created a learning vacuum insofar as the same recommendations seem to repeat themselves and are not necessarily always implemented. This has given rise to considerable inertia, whereby public inquiries after significant bushfires are offering little by way of new insights into practice, while placing considerable demands and unnecessary scrutiny on emergency-management practitioners, whose energies would be better focussed on planning for future bushfires in a way that leverages their collective insight from having lived through the event in the first place.

Accordingly, a more agile public review process is required that moves away from constructed versions of what happened and towards the actual occurrences before, during and after bushfire events, which offer pathways towards transformative learning beyond blame.

There is then considerable scope for developing a shared approach to learning from the past, in present moments, with a focus on the future. The good news is that there is beginning to be some recognition of this, at least by the Victorian government. For example, Premier Daniel Andrews has recently commented: ‘I think we’ve learnt many things along the last 10 years, and one of the them is to have a standing review mechanism so that you’re constantly learning and improving every time one of these terrible incidents happen’.

Bushfire events (like the recent crises surrounding COVID-19) serve to remind us that we all need to be responsible for learning as we continue to live with risk in the present and the future. Blaming emergency-management practitioners through public inquiry processes emotionally affects them in a negative way while also keeping us fixated on the past and blinded to learning opportunities for the future for which we all must accept responsibility.

Time inevitably dims our memory in relation to bushfire events. Therefore it is important that we learn to learn from bushfire. The words of Mrs Vicki Ruhr at the 2009 Bushfires Royal Commission who lost so much on Black Saturday remind us why learning is so important:

‘I hear my friend, Suzanne Hyde, who perished in the fires. I hear her voice and I hear her screams—often. I worry about my husband and my children. I miss my community, my home, my garden and my farm animals.’


CSIRO working on national bushfire-prediction tool

About the author
1 Comment
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
1 year ago

Thank you Graham for raising this important issue and The Mandarin for publishing it.

As the peak body for the 20,000+ women and men who make up WA’s Volunteer Bush Fire Service, our submission to the 2020 Royal Commission into Natural Disaster Arrangements advocated for a recommendation to create a Federal Government Agency to conduct post incident reviews of every large bushfire in Australia.

We argued that changes to Australia’s legal framework to enable this would likely result in many enhancements in natural disaster risk management, preparedness, resilience and recovery within and between every State and Territory including:

  • A consistent methodology in terms of the process of review and reporting standards. This will deliver many valuable benefits including the capacity for comparative research and longitudinal evaluation of improvement across and between States.
  • Unprecedented opportunity for learnings from a major incident in one State or Territory to be quickly and easily shared with, and utilised by, all others.
  • Significant cost-savings to State and Territory governments. Whether real or merely perceived, there exists a problematic view that the available budget is a factor in the decision to undertake a review of any given incident and if so, the level of independence and thoroughness with which is occurs.
  • Eliminate the opportunity for conflicts of interest that arise when a State Government Department undertakes a review of itself.
  • A much higher likelihood of transparency and subsequent stakeholder confidence in the published report.
  • Increased awareness of contemporary issues in emergency management by the Commonwealth will increase the opportunity for States to advocate for Federal Government funding and regulatory support when issues common to all States are identified.

Our suggestion hasn’t yet been taken up but your advocacy for a re-think of the status quo is a welcome support.

Darren Brown
Executive Officer
Bushfire Volunteers Association

Last edited 1 year ago by 52ccd3a44fa6ca99d8f2f0478d4afe91
The Mandarin Premium

Insights & analysis that matter to you

Subscribe for only $5 a week


Get Premium Today