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

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

Research theme

Learning from disasters

Resource type

Hazard Note edition

Release date

5 May 2021

The 2019/20 bushfire season was unprecedented in NSW, with destructive bushfires occurring across the state between August 2019 and February 2020. Tens of thousands of people were displaced by the fires, including residents, tourists and visitors to affected areas, with many fires occurring during the Christmas and New Year holiday period. Tragically, 26 people lost their lives in the fires. 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 2,448 homes.

After the fires, the NSW Rural Fire Service commissioned the Bushfire and Natural Hazards Cooperative Research Centre to undertake research into community attitudes and experiences of the 2019-20 bushfire season.

The research investigated how people across NSW were affected by the bushfires and what actions they took. A total of 202 in-depth interviews were conducted with people affected by the fires, and a further 1,004 others completed an online survey to provide quantitative insights. Themes covered in this research include 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.

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.

The NSW Rural Fire Service uses research such as this to evaluate and measure the effectiveness of its work during emergency events, and to enhance warnings and engagement approaches for future events.

In addition to the Hazard Note, the full report, Black Summer – how the NSW community responded to the 2019-20 bushfire season, is available at https://www.bnhcrc.com.au/publications/black-summer-nsw-community

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

Further reading

  • New South Wales Rural Fire Service (2020) Unprecedented season breaks all records. Bushfire Bulletin 42 (1), pp. 2–3, accessible at https://issuu.com/nswrfs/docs/rfs1121_bushfire_bulletin_vol_42_no1.

  • Whittaker J, Haynes K, Tofa M, Wilkinson C, Dilworth T, Collins J, Tait L & Samson S (2021) Black Summer – how the NSW community responded to the 2019-20 bushfire season, Bushfire and Natural Hazards CRC, accessible at www.bnhcrc.com.au/publications/black-summer-nsw-community

  • Whittaker J, Haynes K, Tofa M, Wilkinson C & Taylor M (2020) Understanding bushfire risk, warnings and responses: a study of the 2018 Reedy Swamp fire, report, Bushfire and Natural Hazards CRC, accessible at www.bnhcrc.com.au/publications/reedyswampfire

  • Whittaker J, Haynes K, Tofa M, Wilkinson C & Taylor M (2020) Understanding bushfire risk, warnings and response – lessons from the 2108 Reedy Swamp fire, Hazard Note 69, Bushfire and Natural Hazards CRC, accessible at www.bnhcrc.com.au/hazardnotes/69

  • Whittaker J (2019) Ten years after the Black Saturday fires, what have we learnt from post-fire research?, 34(2), Australian Journal of Emergency Management, pp.32–37, accessible at https://www.bnhcrc.com.au/publications/biblio/bnh-5565.

  • Whittaker J & Taylor M (2018) Community preparedness and responses to the 2017 NSW bushfires, Hazard Note 45, Bushfire and Natural Hazards CRC, accessible at www.bnhcrc.com.au/hazardnotes/45


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