Lessons from Black Summer: how people experienced the 2019/20 NSW fire season | Natural Hazards Research Australia

Lessons from Black Summer: how people experienced the 2019/20 NSW fire season

Research theme

Learning from disasters

Release date

8 September 2021

This article was first published in Fire Australia, Issue Three 2021. 

Research after the worst fire season in New South Wales 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.

In New South Wales between August 2019 and February 2020, tens of thousands of people were displaced, including residents, tourists and visitors over the Christmas and New Year period. Tragically, 26 people lost their lives, while many more people were affected by smoke in both metropolitan and regional areas. By season’s end, bushfires had burned a record 5.5 million hectares of NSW and destroyed 2,476 homes (NSW RFS 2020). The fires adversely affected many industries, including agriculture, forestry and tourism.

New research has investigated exactly how people across NSW were affected by the 2019/20 bushfires and what actions they took. It was commissioned by the NSW Rural Fire Service and undertaken by the Bushfire and Natural Hazards CRC, the University of Wollongong and Macquarie University. The research can be used to evaluate the effectiveness of community warnings and engagement approaches.

Researchers conducted 202 in-depth interviews with people affected by the fires across NSW, to identify key themes and experiences, while a further 1,004 others completed an online survey. Importantly, both the interviews and survey included ACT residents who were in NSW at the time of the fires, to understand their experiences as visitors. Both the interviews and surveys explored risk communication, preparedness (and how this changed due to the length of the fire season) and the experiences of tourists and visitors, especially during the Christmas and New Year period.

What did the research find?

The research found that previous experience of bushfire motivated many people to plan and prepare. The extent of the 2019/20 fires and the sheer number of people affected presents opportunities to reach new audiences with bushfire safety information and promote planning and preparation. However, the research shows the challenges around community expectations of warnings, with many people expecting to receive highly detailed and localised information in near real-time. New initiatives, including fire spread prediction maps and Tourist Leave Zone messages, were found to be effective in communicating risk and motivating people to take protective action during the worst of the conditions.

Prolonged and/or repeated exposure to fire The length of the fire season and the repeated threat of bushfire was a significant factor that influenced people’s planning, preparation and responses. The extended fire season required many people to adapt to fire as an everyday part of their life, juggling work, schooling and family celebrations with ongoing monitoring, preparation and responses to fire.

Many people were exhausted by the ongoing nature of the threat and the continual need to monitor and prepare. Some discussed living with the continual ‘anticipation of threat’ and voiced times where they had wished the fires would arrive so that the experience would be over.

The length of the fire season allowed many people to engage in considerable planning and preparation. Residents who had not previously considered the risk of bushfire talked about how they made fire plans for the first time, while others had time to hone their preparations.

The long duration of the fire season influenced some people to change their bushfire plans. Notably, some realised that they no longer accepted the risks involved with staying to defend due to an increased understanding of the likely severity of the fire and witnessing fire impacts in other areas.

Fires Near Me NSW The Fires Near Me NSW app was extremely popular, with 94% of primary residents surveyed reporting they had downloaded the app, including 39% reporting that it was the most useful source of information (followed by NSW RFS volunteers as the next most useful source at 13%). Most residents thought Fires Near Me NSW was easy to understand (89%) and useful (88%). More than two thirds thought the information was sufficiently localised. However, less than half (47%) believed the information was up to date.

While a number of people reported that Fires Near Me NSW was not updated frequently enough, there was still a strong preference for it as a source of information, with 78% of survey respondents indicating it was their preferred source of information in the future.

The NSW RFS had identified issues with Fires Near Me NSW, including the timeliness of maps due to the large number of fires and the speed of fires spreading, and these issues were reflected in many community interviews.

Fire Spread Prediction Maps Fire spread prediction maps were introduced by the NSW RFS to communicate elevated risk from fire conditions and the large number of dangerous fires burning across the state.

Most people (86%) recalled seeing these maps for their area and found them easy to understand (93%), sufficiently localised (77%) and useful (85%). Around half of these respondents said that seeing the fire spread prediction influenced their decision to leave or avoid travelling to a fire threatened area.

Some tourists and visitors consulted fire spread prediction maps prior to commencing their travel. A small number of people said the fact that their travel destination was not within a fire spread prediction area gave them a false sense of security in continuing with their travel plans.

Tourist Leave Zones Tourist Leave Zones were communicated to encourage visitors to leave certain areas due to the fire risk.

Around half (47%) of the tourists, visitors and secondary residents who were surveyed reported that they were in a Tourist Leave Zone during the bushfires. After receiving notification of the Tourist Leave Zone, 54% of people returned home to their primary residence and 14% went to another location outside the zone. Around one-third stayed within the zone. Reasons for staying within the zone included to protect houses and property (mostly occupants of secondary residences – 32%); because police, fire or emergency service advised people to stay (12%); and because attempts to leave were unsuccessful (11%). The majority of interviewees understood the purpose and were supportive of Tourist Leave Zones.

Tourists and visitors While most tourists, visitors and those who owned secondary homes were aware of bushfire activity in the vicinity of their travel destination, many did not think they would be directly affected. Continuing with annual holiday plans and wanting to escape smokier conditions at their primary place of residence were the main motivations for people to travel during the bushfire threat.

Opportunities for the future

The findings presented in this research present numerous opportunities for the NSW RFS, other government agencies and communities to reduce future bushfire risk. Few opportunities are the responsibility of any one stakeholder alone. The findings highlight the complexities of community preparedness and responses to bushfire and the need for integrated and holistic responses to risk reduction. Bushfire risk reduction is a shared responsibility between governments, fire and emergency services, businesses and communities at risk.

Community expectations of warnings and information appear to be growing. In particular, many people expect to receive highly detailed and localised information in near real-time. Analysis of interviews suggests that people want this information in order to make more ‘responsive’ or ‘timely’ decisions about protective actions. Messaging is needed about the potential for disruptions to communications during bushfires, underscoring the need for well-planned and decisive action to avoid last-minute evacuation or being unable to leave a fire affected area.

For most people, the Fires Near Me NSW app remains the preferred source of warnings and information during bushfires. People identified ways it could be improved, including by providing more information about where the fire is spreading and, particularly for tourists and visitors, information about roads and transport. While there are benefits of providing more localised and detailed information about the likely spread and impact of bushfires, there is a risk that this would encourage people to delay their protective action. Those who plan to leave during bushfires should do so long before they are directly threatened.

Fire spread prediction maps and Tourist Leave Zone messages were effective in communicating risk and motivating people to take protective action. Consideration should be given to reserving their use so they continue to be taken seriously by the community. Community members must understand that such communications are based on predictions that, while based on the best available science, are inherently uncertain.

Few travellers had prepared for the possibility of encountering bushfire while travelling or at their destination. Tourists and visitors should be encouraged to plan and prepare for bushfire when travelling to and visiting bushfire risk areas.

For the full research findings, see Black Summer – how the NSW community responded to the 2019-20 bushfire season at www.bnhcrc.com.au/publications/black-summer-nsw-community

A table of key statistics from this research.
Summary of key statistics from the 'Community attitudes and experiences of the 2019/20 NSW bushfire season' project. Source: Fire Australia, Issue Three 2021.