This blog post presents an assessment and revision of our ‘Art of Learning’ bushfire preparedness model published in 2011. It is based on feedback from a workshop with emergency service personnel who applied the model as a tool to understand successful and unsuccessful attempts at communicating about bushfire to at-risk communities. It was evident from the diversity of scenarios unpacked by the workshop participants that the model provides a flexible framework that practitioners can apply in specific situational contexts. However, changes to the model were deemed necessary to better accommodate the needs of both risk communicators and information receivers. Continue reading
The pre-walkshop conversation focuses on one important question – shorts or longs? Heading into the Illawarra Escarpment State Conservation Area we’ll head to Mount Kembla and walk a short way through rain forest. The name – Kembla – is derived from an Aboriginal word meaning ‘plenty of game’ and the local fauna includes swamp wallabies, deer, bandicoots, flying foxes, wombats, possums, water dragons, water skinks, frogs, blue-tongued lizards, as well as snakes and a raft of birds. After a night of rain, however, the main concern is with one species in particular – leeches – and their veracity in searching for a mid-morning snack. A variety of combat strategies emerge ranging from Thomas Birtchnell’s longs and masking tape security fix to Nick Gill’s shorts and open sandals – ‘it lets you see them’ – approach.
Arriving at the summit car park our path through the bush is an easy descent. The atmosphere is humid and warm – slightly cooler under the umbrella of the canopy; the ground underfoot damp from the overnight rain. Every few steps is followed by a scan of shoes looking to spot any wriggling invader before it gains purchase on bare skin and begins to feed. We stop to observe an echidna foraging in the undergrowth; spot a young blackwood tree; admire the spread of a large sandpaper fig.
Emerging from the bush the track hits a fire road and we stop. Our purpose here is less pedagogical, more conversational. And what better place to to have a conversation about our relationship with the Australian bush than in the bush. Professor Nigel Clark, visiting from Lancaster Environment Centre, Lancaster University invites us into a conversation considering bush and fire and coal. This thinking Clark tells us builds on research he has been undertaking with Dr Lauren Rickards (RMIT) that has looked at instances where extractive activity has unintentionally sparked fires – the bushfire-triggered Hazelwood coalmine fire in Victoria (2014), the close encounter between oil sand mining and wildfire at Fort McMurray, Alberta (2016) and the ongoing interface between coal mining and open-field burning in Indonesia. This is an odd feedback loop, as he says: “‘a new species of trouble’ in which the climatic effects of extracting and burning fossil fuels circle back in the form of wildfire (or storms, flooding and other extreme events).” The Illawara region itself has a history of both coal mining and of impact by bush fire.
This line of thinking then asks what might be the implications of human-induced destratification – such as coal-mining – knocks into these increasingly ‘deterritorialised flows’ – bush fires and other human-induced environment impacts. How might we think about this relationship – make sense of it? Who is affected by these kinds of impacts, and what political and ethical questions do they prompt? And indeed can these ideas be used in shaping pathways and strategies that provide vectors through potential stresses? – that is, possibilities for shaping “alternative geosocial or pyropolitical futures” as Professor Clark puts it.
This is an interesting conversation to have – and even more so when had on a fire road in the bush within a long-serving coal mining region. It acts as a spark for thinking, and hopefully one that has the potential to catch and move in different directions.
Throughout the discussion the vigilance for crawling invaders continued. Brave explorers were picked off boots and shirts and returned to the bush. But nature can be more cunning than we give it credit. The following day a well-fed leech was found wandering the corridors of the AUSCCER offices. It was only later that Professor Clark discovered an ankle covered in blood where the attacker had quietly attached itself and fed after it must have hidden itself perhaps in his shoe. Thus unfortunately for Professor Clark, his presence provided more than just food for thought – for some it was nourishment in the simplest sense.
Guest post by Owen Price (Senior Research Fellow, Centre for Environmental Risk Management of Bushfires, UOW)
Fire management agencies in southern Australia have increased the amount of prescribed burning in southern Australia in recent years as a strategy to reduce the risk from bushfire. One of the potential downsides of this strategy is an increase in smoke exposure to communities on the urban interface because a larger area is treated than would burn from bushfire. Planners of prescribed fires try to avoid smoke impact by modelling the likely dispersion of smoke and avoiding days when smoke will affect local communities. We know very little about the actual smoke impact from prescribed fires, especially near the fire, and the accuracy of smoke dispersal models.
The Australian Centre for Cultural Environmental Research (AUSCCER) is a teaching and research group focusing on cultural and social aspects of environmental issues. AUSCCER’s expertise and research is wide-ranging. Over the next few months we’ll introduce some of our academics and PhD candidates to give greater insight into AUSCCER’s work.
Carrie Wilkinson began her PhD with AUSCCER at the start of 2015. Here she answers questions about her research.
You’re in the early stages of your PhD candidature. How would you describe the focus of your research?
My current doctoral research focuses on the agency, assemblages and materiality of water and water tanks in everyday life. Specifically, I am interested in learning from the everyday water experiences and practices of households which subsist on non-mains water sources – such as bore water, rainwater, river water and/or dam water – in peri-urban bushfire prone landscapes.
Tank water households are largely self-sufficient in terms of gathering, storing, conserving, recycling and disposing of water for household consumption and I am interested in what emerges through residents’ narratives of life with water tanks and tank water, and life without mains water supplies. By taking seriously the vitality of water and water tanks I want to better understand the vulnerabilities and adaptive capacities of tank-water households in a changing climate, where events such as drought and bushfire are expected to increase pressure on water supplies in future.
“When I decided to make this profession my career I cried because at that point in time [early 1980s] every woman who got pregnant or got married left the profession. Then I had to deal personally with accepting that I also was gay. That was a whole other crying moment because it’s like, okay, I chose a profession over what society says you’ve got to have—family.” Continue reading
At first thought, many men (and some women) express a belief that gender inequality is an issue of the past that has been overcome by a generational shift within the emergency services. Upon greater reflection this notion usually turns out to be more complex than initially proclaimed. Continue reading
“Pop-psychology”—this is the term used to define the obsession in public discourse and media with labelling of gender differences as if these differences are biologically set-in-stone. Western society’s captivation by such dichotomy-based definitions has problematic outcomes when, for example, in leadership debates men and women are portrayed as being incapable of getting along because their ways of communicating are too different.
I was witness to this very scenario at a Community Engagement and Fire Awareness Conference hosted by the NSW Rural Fire Service for 400-odd staff and volunteers in 2011. Continue reading
Gender is a matter of social relations—i.e. social structures with enduring or widespread patterns, rather than an expression of dichotomous biology. Social characteristics, such as gender, cannot be understood in isolation of other social characteristics, such as class, education, disability, age, race and sexuality. As argued by Connell (2010, 6):
‘People construct themselves as masculine or feminine. We claim a place in the gender order – or respond to the place we have been given – by the way we conduct ourselves in everyday life.’
Why is this important in the context of emergency management? It matters for three key reasons. Continue reading
The following is a discussion of how environmental history recently has broadened my understanding of wildfire vulnerability. It is based on my reflections from the American Society for Environmental History (ASEH) conference in San Francisco, which together with the Association of American Geographers (AAG) conference in Tampa bracketed my recent trip to USA. The purpose of attending both conferences was to share key lessons on gendered dimensions of wildfire vulnerability and resilience as presented in my new book. Yet, the format of my input to each conference was distinctively different. Continue reading
Writing my first book was an incredible experience. Empowering when words flowed. Exhilarating when thoughts came together coherently on paper. Frustrating when nothing seemed to make sense – in my head or on paper. Terrifying when writer’s block set in. Mind numbing when faced with the fourth, let alone the four-hundredth round of edits and proofs. Gratifying, exhausting, emotional – sometimes all at once depending on the moment. An experience beyond words really. It was therefore both exciting and terrifying to invite four academic colleagues to provide a public critique of my newly published book Gender and Wildfire: Landscapes of Uncertainty at the Association of American Geographers (AAG) Meeting – held this year in Tampa, Florida. The following is a summary of my author-meets-critics session.