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The Understanding Communities bushfire specific program

Play  Alison Cottrell introduces the Understanding Communities Project
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Dr Alison Cottrell is the Project Leader for Understanding Communities, a bushfire specific program at James Cook University that looks at the social aspects of such a disaster. The project is part of the Bushfire Cooperative Research Centre program - Community Self-sufficiency for Fire Safety. (The Bushfire CRC was established on a national basis under the Commonwealth Government's CRC Program).     
The aim of the Understanding Communities Project is to increase community resilience to bushfires. It is being conducted through the Centre for Disaster Studies at JCU which looks particularly at how people and communities cope with, and respond to, natural disasters such as fires, floods, cyclones and hailstorms.

Dr Cottrell points out that natural disasters are not really on our radars. Partly this is because the majority of people have never experienced such disasters and partly because of their unpredictable nature, occurrence and location. Not surprisingly, people's daily concerns about jobs, income, expenses and safety feature far more prominently compared to the sporadic nature of natural hazards, even though some natural disasters have repeated patterns of destruction.

Further, it is difficult to raise community concern for (say) bushfires when they more commonly experience other disasters.

In the Townsville area for instance, there is more community concern about flooding whereas a grassfire could be equally threatening. Around Tambourine Mountain, concern for the regular storms in the district is far greater than any bushfire vulnerability.     
Efforts to provide communities with current knowledge about natural disasters need to take these and other factors into consideration.
Right: Tambourine  mountain dwellings on the urban fringe are at risk from bushfires. Photo from Like Balcombe.
Below: Allowing a build up of backyard rubbish in these areas makes dwellings more vulnerable. Photo from Sally Bushnell.

One of the projects outcomes has been to provide fire services with guidelines for understanding who lives in a community and what their needs might be in relation to the threat of fire. That is, a method for finding out who might be at risk and what are their capacities. Census data should be supported by local knowledge.     
Dr Cottrell says that organisations cannot make assumptions about what constitutes a community, or assumptions about the people in that community. For example, knowing a particular census area has a high proportion of aged people does not tell the whole story. Are they mainly in aged care facilities and so are quite vulnerable or are they mainly early retirees who might be well connected to voluntary community organisations, they might be well informed, well trained and quite capable? This makes all the difference to any message about bushfire hazards for example, as well as to whom to deliver the message – individuals or care providers?


While it is generally easier to deliver messages in smaller communities, organisations need to accept that community education is an imperfect system, with many people doing what they see as necessary or as the most simple. It is important, therefore, for links to be made with the communities through established organisations. Schools, Dr Cottrell says, are very important, as are churches, sports clubs and agencies like Meals On Wheels, Lifeline and the Salvation Army.

The Understanding Communities project is nearing completion and a number of research reports can be found at

Text: V.B. January 2009

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Ignorance isn't bliss Understanding Communities program: Tambourine Mountain Case Study

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