Empowering communities to take on their bushfire risk

How many times have we told the community that CFA can't guarantee that a fire truck will protect their property during a major emergency? How do we encourage behaviour change and genuine shared responsibility for emergency preparedness?

Empowering communities to take on their bushfire risk

One way is to take a community development approach to reducing bushfire risk. The critical focus of this approach is the development of strong community connections, involvement of all stakeholders and respectful, roundtable discussions.

Community Based Bushfire Management (CBBM) is a one such community development approach to bushfire risk reduction. CBBM aims to support communities to build resilience, through the development of community, agency and local government connections. While for the past five years CBBM has focused on reducing bushfire risk, the project has also proven its ability to build community resilience in the face of other challenges due largely to its ability to help grow healthy, well-connected communities.

What sets this approach apart is the simple step to building connections, providing all stakeholders with an opportunity to listen to and understand one another, and a genuine desire to work together in a mutually beneficial way. The development of connections and networks leads to information sharing, lessons learned and planning across the community. These connections ensure that hazards and risks such as bushfire, flood or economic disaster, are identified, and the community has the opportunity to develop and plan.

Learning from and about one another is at the very heart of this approach to community engagement. It allows the opportunity for a truly community-centred, strengths-based approach to bushfire risk reduction. By learning more about local skills, knowledge and resources (both community and agency), and providing opportunity for facilitated, roundtable discussion, a community development approach results in a wide variety of approaches to bushfire risk reduction, many of which break away from traditional approaches. Furthermore, the concept of shared responsibility becomes central to the discussions undertaken.

Community members working in collaboration with agency and local government champions has resulted in a range of tremendous community outcomes including:

  • the installation of a water pump by the Daylesford/Hepburn community
  • house numbering projects by the Clonbinane and Tolmie communities
  • community green waste clean-up days by the Clonbinane and Timboon communities
  • a fire safety video competition by the Briagolong community
  • community bushfire exercises by Mallacoota, Wye River and Buchan communities
  • planning with schools by Lorne, Airey's Inlet, St Andrews and Timboon communities
  • vegetation management plans by Balmoral, Healesville, Strathbogie and Moe South communities
  • presentations by expert speakers by Healesville, Fryerstown, Mallacoota and Lorne communities.

Community development approaches work with, and value, local knowledge, skills and experiences. The lived experiences of the local land and its people are the mainstay of this placebased approach - an approach now strongly favoured by the Victorian Government. Better and shared decisions can be made by combining local knowledge of community assets (such as schools, community halls, bush nursing centres or CFA stations) with agency and local government knowledge of risk, fire behaviour, resources and planning.

During 2020, there have been plenty of opportunities to test the mettle of CBBM networks facilitated by the team of CBBM project officers around Victoria. From Digby to St Andrews to Mallacoota, the positive impacts of working with a facilitator to bring community members together with agency and local government are startling. Many community members from the 21 CBBM communities around the state have reported that the connectedness created by this approach has increased resilience on multiple levels.

Any CBBM facilitator will tell you that their role is incredibly rewarding. For some, the highlight is making lasting friendships with members of the communities they work with. For others, it's being part of the journey that each and every community is on. Witnessing the development of skills and knowledge which serve in the face of disaster is an honour for them all. While a community naturally has a level of resilience, facilitators view their role as something of an opportunity to help community members do what they already know how to do themselves. In times of adversity, community leaders naturally step up, community groups naturally form (consider the history of bush fire brigades pre-1942).

The 2019-20 fire season was perhaps the first time since 2009 that communities impacted by fire benefited so much from the strong social connectedness brought about by a community project. From Buchan to Mallacoota, Cann River to Club Terrace, one after another small communities felt the full force of the Black Summer fires. Now, these communities are facing recovery in an almost unprecedented time of a pandemic.

By having a community development-focused facilitator working with these communities, some contribution to a community-led recovery process has been provided. Cann River, Tamboon, Bruthen and Club Terrace have all been assisted in this way by the CBBM approach. However, without the opportunity for face-to-face debriefs with agency personnel or even each other, people in these communities have led their own recovery for many months. Although agencies, local government and others (such as Bushfire Recovery Victoria) are there to help, when it comes down to it locals are helping one another - as it always has been. With community comes resilience.

Some local community-led recovery examples include:

  • Cann River, where the local community is leading its own relief effort, including the restoration of the local hall which is an important local asset
  • Tamboon, where the community formed its own association to manage donated funds and to secure, among other things, a much-needed shed in which to store firefighting equipment
  • Buchan, where the local community group has taken hold of recovery and is ensuring a truly diverse community voice is heard
  • Club Terrace, where residents are devising plans for the rebuilding or restoration of their local hall and sheds
  • The Koori community in Cann Valley, which is considering how it can be better prepared for future fires - including finding a safer way for their elders to evacuate and become more involved in cultural burning and vegetation management on their country. In addition, this community is working with Landcare Australia to devise plans to spend available funds to restore the land and prepare for another fire season.

Local networks were in the communities before the fires. They are still there now and will be there when the next emergency strikes. Communities drive recovery and communities should drive future planning. Emergency management is best done with community not for community, because it should be formed around the knowledge, skills and strengths of locals, particularly those with lived experiences. We need to make the space and time to listen - a community development approach such as CBBM creates that space and time.

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