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Understanding Communities program: Tambourine Mountain Case Study

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Dr Alison Cottrell, from the Centre for Disaster Studies at James Cook University, discusses the findings from bushfire research at Tambourine Mountain in SE Queensland.    
As a human geographer, Dr Cottrell looks at issues to do with people and the environment and in the Tambourine Mountain investigation she delved into how the fire services and the community viewed the fire risks in the area. In particular she wanted to document similarities and differences as a way of painting a true picture of service and community perceptions about fire risk.

There were some members of both groups who thought that people’s previous experiences with bushfire increased their awareness of bushfire risk.
However, research findings from around the country show that this generally is not the case. It depends on a range of factors. For example: what was the context of the fire? How long ago did it happen? How great was the loss? How awful was the fire and the person's experience of it? In some cases, people may have the wrong impression if in previous fires they took risks and got away with it and as a result may be prepared to take those kinds of risks in the future.

Both groups also shared the view that media coverage was not related to the local context, preventing information being understood.     
Tambourine Mountain has not had a large bushfire for 30 years and there has been much urbanisation since then. What is presented by the media differs from the local context, a situation that needs to change. Dr Cottrell says that media coverage should also include the local level and that any education materials produced need to take local contexts into account.
Fire meters promote community awareness of local fire risk.

The differences in both groups were very revealing in terms of perspectives.
While the fire services believed that most people would rely on them in response to a bushfire, Dr Cottrell's surveys found that only half of the community thought that they would, in fact, rely on the fire services. In both cases however, this still involves a very large number of people and reflects the harsh reality of disasters from bushfires to storms and floods. There are never enough people to provide all the services that are needed and it must be remembered that the fire services are run by volunteers.

The research also found that the fire services thought that people expected household bushfire control measures to be done by them but the householders saw themselves as responsible for personal and home safety.
Here the discrepancy lay in just what measures were taken. Householders would do basic measures such as clearing gutters but extra efforts would not eventuate without being pushed.
The fire services also believed that the community did not like controlled burning,whereas the community was supportive of reducing fuel loads if it was done properly with notification.
The fire services thought many people were unaware of the fire risks but this did not match reality. People in the community were aware of the risks but they had different priorities, like their families and jobs, so the risks were not a high priority.

Below: Community meetings promote greater understanding of risks and hazard manaagement and encourage greater participation. Photo from Noel Loos.    
The volunteer nature of fire services delivers its own false expectations.
Communities that exist in increasingly urbanised environments like Tambourine Mountain do expect the fire services to be there in an emergency, just as they expect other volunteer services like the SES to attend emergencies. There is little acknowledgement that these services are staffed by volunteers. People have been purchasing services for so long that they think all services act that way.

This expectation is reinforced in urbanised areas that look like suburbia. People think that tarred roads with kerb and guttering mean that there are services nearby. They don’t realise that the nearest police station is not around the corner or that the ambulance service is 20 minutes away that there may not be a fire service and that if there is a fire service that it is volunteer. That is, the ever increasing urbanisation of our population means that in new communities people may be unaware of what risks and services exist in that urban periphery, a situation that Dr Cottrell says needs to be addressed.

Metropolitan fire services initially grew out of a provision by local government – such as the town councils in the individual small towns before they became major urban communities. By contrast, rural fire services grew out of the need for rural landholders to protect their properties against bush fires. The community members banded together to develop these services. Gradually, over time, as the state governments became more involved, they began providing the groups with subsidues to purchase equipment and provide training.

The research highlights several important issues for Alison Cottrell.
One is that people have false expectations about what services can be delivered to them.
Another problem is that if people think that there is somebody or group in the community to do the job then they are not going to do it themselves.
In reality however, even if there was a fully paid service, any kind of hazard situation that gets out of hand, be it bushfire, storms, hailstorms, floods, there can never be enough people to provide the services that will be needed and so people must be prepared to do some things to help themselves.

How do we encourage people to be more independent – especially when in our normal urban lives we have become so interdependent on other people to deliver services. What we need to do as a society, is to encourage people to be more independent and much more self reflective about their needs in a crisis situation.

Text: V.B. February 2009  Fire meter image from Alison Cottrell

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