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Connecting and Building Community Capital: Linking Bushfire Recovery and Prevention Programs in Regional South Australia

John Gawen and Fiona Dunstan

SA Country Fire Service, Level 7 60 Waymouth Street, Adelaide SA 5000 Email
SA Country Fire Service, Level 7 60 Waymouth Street, Adelaide SA 5000 Email


In 1998 the South Australian Country Fire Service (CFS) developed a bushfire education program – Community Fire Safe – for residents and their communities in the Mount Lofty Ranges. These areas were identified as being of Extreme Fire Danger risk. The success of the program resulted in a gradual expansion of the program to other parts of the state with varying levels of community participation. However (?) in January 2005 South Australia experienced its worst bushfire since Ash Wednesday (1982). In reviewing the response to this severe bushfire event it emerged that a more targeted and flexible strategy is required to engage regional South Australia communities and emphasize the importance of bushfire preparation and prevention.

This paper outlines the vision, plan and design of a more targeted and flexible strategy for improved bushfire preparation and prevention to be piloted in two communities in South Australia in October / November 2005. Two communities have been identified, one devastated by bushfire the other untouched. Using the Emergency Management Australia (EMA) Cycle of Preparation, Prevention, Response and Recovery (reference??) we hope to begin to help both communities in preparation for future events. The challenge for us is the different positions of each community, one devastated community moving from recovery into preparation and the other community, in some level of denial/disengagement but with a high level of risk. Understanding the social impact on the bushfire devastated community and its preparation levels for the up and coming Fire Danger Season, drawing on the knowledge the community gained and using the opportunity to “Share Stories” are seen as vital components of the pilot project that can help in both healing and preparation for improving bushfire preparation and prevention in these and other communities.

The aim of this work is to increase ownership of bushfire preparation within each community and to learn about how best to support communities with different bushfire event experience. We outline the elements of our intervention that we will track in order to assess the effectiveness of this approach.

Three key learnings: (1) Importance of community ownership of what?? (2) Impact of relevant stories, in changing behaviour - how are you assessing how this woks to support behaviour change? (3) Regardless of fire impact communities have the same approach towards prevention – what can you learn from the difference between the communities???

Media Summary

By sharing experiences, tailor bushfire education programs to regional communities either devastated or untouched by bushfire, the result is to assist in developing community capital.

Key Words

Bushfire, Education, Community, Safety, Strategy, Preparation


(This needs to be bulked up into a good introduction to the entire paper: ie the limits of bushfire education in the past, the need that has been revealed, why you decided on this approach, why the need to look at both touched and untouched communities in your pilot, - and highlight the need for good information on how best to support communities in the recovery to preparation and preparation phases – thereby showing the need for you writing up the results of your pilot study for others to learn from). Share and use relevant, current real life stories and experiences in bushfire education strategies for communities either devastated or untouched by bushfire. The results of which are to increase the understanding of preparation tasks for both the individual and the community and in doing so build and improve community resilience.

This should be in the intro:In 1998 the South Australian Country Fire Service (CFS) developed and launched a bushfire education program called “Community Fire Safe”. The program was adapted from a similar program run in Victoria by the Country Fire Authority (CFA) called Community Fireguard. It was designed as part of an effort to reduce the loss of lives and homes in bushfires.

In South Australia the Mount Lofty Ranges were identified as being of Extreme Fire Danger risk. Facilitators were employed, and were central to the delivery of the program using adult and community education principles. Residents and communities within these localities were targeted and encouraged to participate in learning and understanding more about bushfires, fire behaviour, how and why houses burn and what preventative, preparation and response measures they can perform in order to protect their properties (assets), and most importantly themselves and their families.

The Community Fire Safe program encourages residents living in high fire risk areas to take responsibility for their own bushfire safety. Through the program residents are made aware of the level of risk they may face in a bushfire and are encouraged to develop and adopt appropriate strategies based on their individual circumstances.

The program is seen as a long-term method of changing individual behaviours and approaches to bushfires and is supported by the dissemination of information through other channels such as radio, television, Internet and brochures.

Figure 1. CFS approach to Community Education (adopted from CFA) (reference?)

Program Goals and Success

“Safety outcomes depend on community involvement in dealing with risk of bushfire” Alan Rhodes, CFA

The success of the Community Fire Safe program is measured by the:

  • Number of groups or residents informed each season,
  • Number of residents who have prepared a “Family Bushfire Action Plan”.

The use of the “Stay” and actively defend or “Go” early message, endorsed by the Australasian Fire Authorities Council (AFAC) encourages residents to make informed and early decisions, the Community Fire Safe program delivers education on bushfires to small groups in a positive and safe environment, and it is here that the beginnings of community networking occurs.

What underpins the success of the program is the connections and community links that the program establishes. When meeting with groups for the first time, it is very common for residents to comment, “This is the first time we have met our neighbours!”

The focus is first on individual personal preparation and requirements and then, starting to look at what other members of the group are doing. By encouraging individuals to take ownership of their personal bushfire knowledge and safety we them aim to inform and support them in their journey and then gently step away, and provide support and information on an “as needed” basis. The reliance on external advice then shifts to the group themselves, with some groups still meeting independently and annually 6 years on.

Challenges to success fo bushfire preparedness education

In January 2005 South Australia experienced its worst bushfire since Ash Wednesday (1982). The fire burnt areas traditionally not deemed as extreme fire risk, claimed 9 lives (2 fire fighters), and destroyed or severely damaged more than 90 homes, 370 sheds or commercial buildings, 35 vehicles, 139 farm machines, 6,300 kilometres of fencing, and more than 46,000 head of livestock.

As a result it became clear that a more targeted and flexible strategy was required to engage regional SouthAustralian communities and emphasise the importance of bushfire preparation and prevention. Need more here about: did this mean previous efforts were now judged as not successful? – or what where the new challenges this posed? How did it emerge that it was ill-targeted and/or non-flexible approaches that were fundamental to the poor outcomes from the 2005 fires???

Need to lead into the demand for your work with two different communities: why is this important, what sits behind the approach and what are you hoping on gathering/learning as you support these communities in the process?:


Two regions have been identified as requiring bushfire prevention and education strategies. One community (Region A) has been devastated by bushfire the other has been relatively untouched (Region B).

Region A

Local CFS representatives and Regional Council Fire Prevention Officers have identified areas of greatest concern. By working closely with community representatives and the Bushfire Recovery Centre our goal is to deliver a modified bushfire eduction and prevention program to local residents, businesses and schools.

Remarkably there is a level of fire prevention complacency, mixed with residents who have lost family, friends and property, who are angry at their loss, yet want to be armed with information so that it won’t happen again.

The program must take a careful yet proactive approach, as a coronial inquest is currently underway and the loss experienced by the community is still very raw and prevalent.

Region B

The Council Fire Prevention Officer has identified the areas of greatest concern. The difference in this community is the high number of tourists, vacant houses and transient population; therefore the strategy must include static methods of bushfire prevention education as well as the use of the Community Fire Safe Program. By closely working with existing community groups and local CFS brigades, the most appropriate strategy or combination of options for each area can be identified. Facilitating the change is important, but the decision-making process, drive and ownership, must come from the community.


Using the EMA Cycle of Prevention, Preparation, Response and Recovery we hope to begin to help the devastated community move from Recovery into Preparation. The knowledge the community gained used together with the opportunity to “Share Stories” can be used as a mechanism for both healing and preparation for themselves and other communities.

Figure 2. Emergency Management Australia (EMA), Cycle of Preparation

The strategy also involves capturing stories of survival from Region A to be appropriately shared with the residents of Region B, to draw similarities and point out areas of concern within their own community.

By increasing the understanding of what level of preparation is required we can aim to prevent fire ignition sources and the spread of fires. We can also help residents to be more prepared in the event of a fire, with a greater ability to respond appropriately if a fire occurs, and finally have the ability to cope and recover from a fire.

Using the Community Fire Safe program approach residents can participate in the learning process.

Figure 3. Education as a change process (reference)

This process also encourages communities to connect with each other, by knowing their neighbours Bushfire Action Plan, nominating a “safe house” for elderly or ill-prepared residents, by developing telephone trees as an early warning system, or by putting mechanisms in place to look out for one another.

The challenge for us

Our challenge is to engage and educate both communities with different needs. We need to ensure that we gently examine the social impact of the bushfire devastated community and its preparation levels for the up and coming Fire Danger Season, and in parallel engage a community untouched by Bushfire, and in some level of denial, but at a high level of risk.

We plan to formally capture our experience of facilitating bushfire prevention education in these two different communities in a way that can help others in helps others


By assisting residents to increase and improve their levels of preparation and to take ownership within their community, we can help to build on either existing networks or in the development of new ones.

Prepared, involved and informed communities contribute significantly to the reduction and the impact of disasters. The goals and learnings we wish to achieve are an increased ownership of preparation and sustainability within each community.


These need re-doing:

Emergency Management Australia ()

Country Fire Service. 2000. Community Fire Safe Facilitator Manual, South Australia (Is this right?)

Rhodes, A. 2003. Bushfire Education and Information, Country Fire Authority, Victoria.

Bethke, L., Good, J., and Thompson, P. 1997. Building Capacities for Risk Reduction, Intern Works (Publisher? Country?)

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