The state of play in Australian bushfire education

State of play Australian bushfire education
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Sep 16, 2021
As a country, we lead the world in many things, residential solar installation, social healthcare and standard of living. But when it comes to bushfire education, we have lots of room for improvement.
But to look at this challenge with a glass half full perspective, this means we have an opportunity to grow and learn, and possibly even leapfrog other countries by being a leader in innovation.
This blog post will explore the state of things, how we can make improvements, and the future we can collectively shape to ensure preparedness and resilience across the country.

So what’s the current state of play?

There’s no sugar coated way to put this. We’ve got an assortment of challenges at hand here. With any government policy, there are a number of factors and stakeholders at play. Think of these challenges below existing within an ‘ecosystem’ rather than a vacuum.


As a whole, both policy and education do not effectively reflect community diversity and their unique range of circumstances. There are a number of minority groups that have had little focus in regards to bushfire preparedness, management and mitigation. These include women, children and indigenous people (Eriksen 2010). Additionally, Eriksen (2010) has acknowledged that some programs do not feature diverse family examples. Children are seldom incorporated as active agents in risk management and reduction programs despite their capability for impact (Delicado et al. 2017).


Transmissive education delivery approaches. Currently, supporting materials are delivered in written format, do not recognise pre existing knowledge and require time investment from residents that have competing life priorities (Eriksen 2010).

‘Us’ and ‘them’

Power imbalances between state based agencies and communities.


This has ultimately led to disengagement with relevant education programs and the messages that they portray (Strahan, Whittaker & Handmer 2018).

Ill informed behaviours

Strahan, Whittaker and Handmer (2018, p.308) contend that “many householders respond to bushfire in ways that are inconsistent with the advice and warnings, firefighting strategies, and fire ground management of the emergency services”.

How did that happen?

Quite a number of things.

Black Saturday

The 2009 Victorian Bushfire Royal Commission (much like its former commissions) brought about recommendations to all states regarding bushfire safety (Teague, McLeod & Pascoe 2010).
These reports identified three main inconsistencies: first, in behaviour in that the population did not react as expected by the decision-makers; secondly in information content since the population did not always consider the information they received to be relevant to them; and lastly in communication means, which was felt to be inefficient, especially in the case of information broadcast. (Adam, Bailly & Dugdale 2018, p.80)
The ‘Prepare stay and defend or leave early’ (PSDLE) policy was subsequently changed to ‘Prepare. Act. Survive’ (PAS) (Strahan, Whittaker & Handmer 2018).
Whilst the PSDLE policy offered rights and flexibility for householders to choose between remaining and defending or evacuating based on their personal circumstances; the current PAS policy does not recognise the complexity of householder contexts and decision making processes during a bushfire (Strahan, Whittaker & Handmer 2018).

Urban expansion

Population growth and urban expansion is seeing significant migration from urban to (bushfire prone) peri-urban and rural areas (Teague, McLeod & Pascoe 2010)(Prior & Eriksen 2013). Crompton et al. (2010, p.190) confirm that “while fatalities in rural locations have halved during the most recent half century, those occurring in suburban [and semi-rural] locations have doubled”

Climate change

Climate change is strengthening bushfire frequency, duration and impact (Bureau of Meteorology 2020).

What can we do?

Community codesign

Community members enjoy learning in a physical, interactive setting that incorporates social dialogue (Akama et al. 2012; Eriksen 2010) to “‘make-sense’ of the complex issues and challenges related to bushfire preparedness in their own words, view and contexts” (Akama et al. 2012, p.411). Allowing community members to share their knowledge as a starting point to scaffold new learning experiences ensures quality outcomes (Eriksen 2010; Towers, Perillo & Ronan 2018).

Equity and inclusiveness

Whilst both children and adults relate well to relevant, evidence based case studies (Towers, Perillo & Ronan 2018; Eriksen 2010); a number of minority groups have had little focus in bushfire education - including women, children, indigenous populations and diverse families (Eriksen 2010). Taking the time to recognise residents from varied genders, ages, and cultures is vital to program success (Eriksen 2014).

Learner centred

Children as active agents

Children (and teachers) are an abundance of knowledge in their local communities for a number of reasons. They hold a unique understanding of the land and the ability to influence positive household behavioural change in their household (Towers, Perillo & Ronan 2018). Designing programs that empower children to change behaviour can have lasting impact in the community (Towers, Perillo & Ronan 2018).


Living through a bushfire can be a stressful experience with long term mental and physical consequences (Yelland et al. 2010). Thinking can become irrational during times of crisis, yet existing bushfire programs do not simulate these confronting environments (Adam & Gaudou 2017). Nor does it provide communities with emergency service perspectives. Akama et al. (2012, p.419) indicates that “scenarios are an effective method used in design to stimulate the imagination and visualise the future”. Illustrating the brain’s perception and cognition throughout a natural disaster event may lead to better outcomes throughout the bushfire season.

What's next?

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