Examining bushfire policy in action: Preparedness and behaviour

7 minute read


The past three years have felt remarkable for Canadian and North American observers of wildfire. In Canada, the Fort McMurray fire in 2016 was followed by two frantic years in British Columbia, each establishing records for area burnt. In the US, California has dominated the fire scene with blazes like the Mendocino Complex, Tubbs, and Camp making the flames visible and visceral to the public. This built towards a climax in and around Paradise, California, where over eighty people lost their lives in November 2018.

Traditional and social media, pundits, and the broader public discourse has emphasized the rapid onset and ‘new normal’ of these fires in reference to the past 3-5 years in North America. Yet, this is a terribly short-sighted view: big and destructive fires have always been with us. While these fires have indeed been unique in their own ways and notably catastrophic, an ahistorical view on the history of fire doesn’t help us any in understanding how to live with wildfire. We don’t even need to look far in history to see previous significant fires: take, for instance, 2009 in Victoria, Australia.

Black Saturday and Bushfire in Australia

In 2009, Australia was struck by a catastrophic set of bushfires known as the ‘Black Saturday’ bushfires. Roughly 400 fires burned on or around February 7th, resulting in over 170 direct fatalities and burning over a million acres.

In the wake of these fires, much attention focused on an Australian approach to dealing with fire: encouraging people to choose between ‘evacuating early’ or ‘staying and defending’. In the first option, homeowners are to evacuate well in advance of the bushfire, while in the latter they are to make significant preparations to be able to remain at their home and douse spot fires that might threaten the buildings. This emphasis on making a choice is largely motivated by fear of two options that are far worse: evacuating late (and risking being trapped by the fire on the way out) or sheltering in place without preparation.

But, are these plans appropriate? Are people actually prepared to carry them out? And, what assumptions are made about their abilities? In “Examining bushfire policy in action: Preparedness and behaviour in the 2009 Black Saturday fires,” John Handmer and Saffron O’Neill tackle these questions with the aim of determining what this should mean for bushfire policy going forward.

Measuring Preparedness

One of the really valuable things that Handmer and O’Neill point out is that preparedness measures rarely actually measure preparedness. There’s a major methodological flaw in most studies that investigate preparedness: they rely on self-reporting (e.g., “tell me what steps you have taken”) and questions about future behaviour (e.g., “what would you do if…?”). For a wide variety of reasons (e.g., wanting to appear as responsible, subconsciously wanting to please the researcher, guilt about failing one’s own goals, etc), people overreport what steps they have taken to prepare for an emergency, and they overrate their future decisions. As such, there’s a major disconnect between how people say they’ve prepared and how people have actually prepared.

Instead of falling victim to this trap, Handmer and O’Neill instead use actual evidence from after the fact: what do the 172 fatality reports from Black Saturday reveal about how people actually prepared? While there are still limitations to this approach (e.g., both over-estimations of preparedness, like family members over-reporting the steps taken by their lost relatives, and under-estimations, like a step a victim took without any family, friends, or neighbours knowing), it’s much more reliable than self-report studies.

In their study, Handmer and O’Neill develop a codebook for different key aspects of preparedness (such as being aware of the threat, knowing what actions to take to respond, having made a fire plan, physical capacities, or having a specific trigger to decide when to evacuate). They then reviewed all 172 fatality reports from Black Saturday and investigated how prepared (or not) individuals were. For non-Australians, note that these fatality reports - which were produced as part of Royal Commission that occurred after the fire - provide a really rich source of data that we often don’t have for Canadian or American fires.


Some of the results regarding fire fatalities were somewhat predictable. Those over the age of 70, for instance, were overrepresented among fatalities as compared to the general population in the area - not surprising, given that these folks may have been less physically capable in either actively defending or evacuating. And, almost 60% of fatalities had made no substantive preparations to either evacuate or be ready to defend by the time a major highway was closed by one of the out-of-control blazes.

A more interesting findings, though, was that there was good evidence that almost half (47%) of those who were killed had made a fire plan. In other words, if you chose a fatality at random, it is basically as likely as not that they had made a plan for what to do in the event of a bushfire. This is striking. It indicates something we already know as emergency managers, but often struggle to communicate: simply having a plan is not enough, as there are major differences between realistic and unrealistic plans, adequate and inadequate plans, rehearsed and non-rehearsed plans, flexible and inflexible plans, etc.

In general, Handmer and O’Neill argue that their results support parts of the ‘stay or go’ approach to bushfire. Sheltering passively (i.e., making no preparations, but remaining at home anyways) is a very dangerous course of action, while evacuating early (less than 1% of fatalities had done this) was a near-perfect way to guarantee your safety. But, things are more complicated for those who choose to stay and defend: those individuals need to know their limitations, have a set of realistic contingency plans, have properties that are actually prepared and defendable, and be aware of the risk on days with exceptional fire risk.

What does this Mean for Managers?

For those of us who work in emergency planning, preparedness, and response, perhaps the largest takeaway is to remember that ticking a box isn’t enough. Just making a fire plan, for instance, isn’t enough to ensure safety from bushfires: it needs to be a high quality and realistic plan. More research needs to be done on what the key components of quality are and how to actually get the public to take them seriously. And, we also need to culture humility: not all of those who planned to stay and defend were physically or mentally capable of doing so.

It also raises significant questions in the wake of fires like the Camp Fire. It’s clear that our North American plans based on total evacuation can be overwhelmed by rapid fire onset, close proximity of start, or extreme fire weather. As we think through alternatives, we need to learn from the Australian experience - not forget about it and reinvent the wheel.