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28 February 2020

Australia is no stranger to bushfires, however the recent “Black Summer” unfolded as an unprecedented catastrophe; burning 18.6 million hectares, destroying more than 5900 buildings and killing at least 32 people and an estimated one billion animals.

As the deadly fires made headlines around the world, fierce debates raged across traditional and social media about the causes, response efforts and who was to blame. Climate change, land clearing, hazard reduction, building codes, community preparedness, and government resources and support all came under intense scrutiny in public dialogue that was often divisive, politically charged and riddled with misinformation. 

On 31 January 2020, a panel of QUT academics with expertise in a wide range of bushfire-related research gathered for an IFE Grand Challenge Future Forum to examine impacts, bust myths and make sense of the national disaster.

Watch now: IFE's Grand Challenge Future Forum: Clearing the air: making sense of Australia's bushfire crisis

Is it possible to create a truly bushfire-resistant house? What’s the best way to donate? How can you tell fact from fake news? How can we improve communication to save lives and property? These questions and more were tackled by the panel in front of a capacity audience.

We've enlisted the help of our experts one last time to capture their perspective by answering two simple questions:

  1. What crucial lesson should we learn from the bushfire crisis?
  2. What can we do better?

Associate Professor Timothy Graham
Discipline: Communication and media
QUT Creative Industries Faculty

Timothy Graham banner image

What crucial lesson should we learn from the bushfire crisis?
The biggest lesson for me is just how susceptible we are as a nation to mis- and disinformation during the crisis and emergency events, and how critical it is to address this problem before the next big bushfire outbreak. The spread of fake news and misinformation is harmful to individuals and society.

In the case of the bushfires crisis, two of the major issues are:

  1. It severely hinders peoples’ ability to quickly find factual information when they need it most
  2. It further delays urgently needed policy measures to address the problem of climate change as the major factor in the scale and duration of the fires.

The lesson here is that mis- and disinformation is bad for everyone, regardless of political persuasion or personal circumstances. It polarises individuals and communities, prevents people from gaining timely information about the bushfires, and hinders a healthy democracy and political participation.

What can we do better?
When you log onto Twitter or Facebook during crisis events, there’s a good chance you will be bombarded with false or misleading content. So we need to have better public awareness of the reality of fake news and disinformation during these events. This content can be spread unintentionally by people you know or trust (e.g. “Uncle Arthur”), celebrities and opinion leaders (eg. Rhianna) or spread by malicious actors trying to sow discord and mislead the public (eg. paid online trolls).

Before the bushfire season begins, we need to be prepared not only for the spread of fire across the terrain, but also the spread of misinformation across the social media landscape. Individuals need to be aware of this problem and provided with clear advice about warning signs for misinformation – this could be as simple as checking the source of photos and new stories that appear in tweets and on Facebook pages. Further to this, mainstream media also have a responsibility to fact-check information and take extra care with crisis-related topics. In the leadup to the bushfire crisis, it was mainstream newspapers such as The Sydney Morning Herald and The Australian who published articles about arson as the main cause of the bushfires. Misleading statistics spread by mainstream media provide the ‘grain of truth’ that fuels climate deniers and attracts conspiracy theorists and online trolls, and it is very difficult to stop once it gains traction on social media.

Associate Professor Wendy Scaife
Discipline: Philanthropy, fundraising and non-profit marketing and communication
Australian Centre for Pilanthropy Nonprofit Studies
QUT School of Accountancy

Charity fundraising

What crucial lesson should we learn from the bushfire crisis?
Expectations - on the part of charities and donors alike - continue to be an issue. Charities need to consider how fragile their normally high public trust can be, and communicate with crystal clarity how and when funds will be used and what it costs to use donated dollars well. It is so disappointing to see the angst from communication that doesn’t meet donors where they live and think. The perception is that all charities run on a volunteer basis. The reality is that charities that tackle big, fraught and complex issues do so with a small staff core assisting a large volunteer base. The post-bushfires outcome: strong potential lowered trust and giving to ALL charities.

It was also disappointing to see some charities claiming they will not be spending anything on distributing the donations. Will funds go into a cannon and be shot out magically to the people/animals/environments that most need it? No matter how many volunteers a charity may have, it costs money to manage effective grants. International experience suggests 7 per cent is a typical outlay in disaster giving. It’s true - if a lot of money is given that is a lot of money going out, but disaster grantmaking is not writing out a thousand cheques in an office. It is hands-on, individual circumstances and due diligence to avoid the active fraudsters and ensure enough funds for the long-term need where these donations will do most good. The government shoulders the emergency short-term and charities come to the fore a few months in as reality bites, as thinking by those people and communities in shock settles down and as the sad but prevalent grief and often long-term post-traumatic stress begins. Ash Wednesday and the Black Saturday Bushfire evidence confirm this as do disasters beyond bushfires.

What can we do better?
More Aussies should give to disaster prevention before disasters hit. This will help build cyclone shelters, fire and flood-proof structures and set up resilience and recovery funds that can help people as soon as possible. The Foundation for Rural and Regional Renewal is a great example.

We should also take the time to better understand what charities are funding before donating. This information is available through the Charity Commission. Giving in the most helpful and efficient ways are also worth considering. Cash gifts are most useful, goods can help if curated via sites like www.givit.org.au or www.good360.org.au and online giving creates streamlined administration. For all of us, the chance is also there to make a gift in our will. This might be a set percentage of our estate, an item, a property, some shares – whatever individuals might like to leave once their family are taken care of.

Dr Ian Weir
Discipline: architecture
QUT Creative Industries Faculty

Fire threatening suburban street

What crucial lesson should we learn from the bushfire crisis?
For our species to adapt to fires in our landscape, we must first question the current cultural paradigms that frame our modes of inhabitation (because they are clearly flawed). The very first step is to stop blaming the bush and instead blame our homes for their combustibility. The second is to acknowledge the fact that 90 per cent of houses aren’t actually ignited by fire, but by ember attack (our current building standards do not acknowledge this).

What can we do better?
Fire Danger Index:
We need a better lexicon/taxonomy of terms and better means of broadcasting their meaning and potential impact. Bushfire needs to be renamed ‘wildfire’ (to be consistent with the US term) and categorised into a taxonomy of terms that relate to the specific impact types that occur during wildfires: 1. ember/firebrand attack, 2. radiant heat and, 3. flame contact. We need to broaden community understanding of the Fire Danger Index and better broadcast high-range FDIs and encourage residents to respond to FDIs and not the fire event itself.

Self-defendable homes:
The National Construction Code and associated standards (eg. AS3959) support the status quo (which is clearly not working). The principle embodied in the NCC is that people will be protected if they take refuge in a home during a fire event and the house will have greater chance of survival with their occupation. This is a flawed logic – the legislative framework should better support the construction of homes that do not need defending so the inhabitant can evacuate early without the anxiety associated with potential asset loss.

Associate Professor Dominque A Greer
Discipline: Marketing
QUT School of Advertising, Marketing and Public Relations

Fire danger rating

What crucial lesson should we learn from the bushfire crisis?
Although the emergency services will do everything they can to help community members respond to natural hazards, community members are typically under- or ill-prepared when disasters strike. Being exposed to a natural hazard is incredibly stressful and cognitively taxing, so we don’t always make great decisions about how to respond to an emergency in the heat of the moment. This means that emergency warning messages have to work extra hard to meet the needs of community members who are not operating optimally.

What can we do better?
As community members, we have a shared responsibility to protect ourselves and our property during natural hazards. We can start by discussing our hazard survival plans with friends and family, putting together a basic emergency kit, planning for how our pets will be cared for during an emergency, and thinking about what we would take with us if we needed to evacuate. It’s also a good idea to work out your best local source of reliable, up-to-date information for different emergencies, and explore how you might access that information during an event.

Associate Professor Amisha Meta
Discipline: Business and Management, Communication and Media Studies, Marketing
QUT School of Advertising, Marketing and Public Relations

Fireman in bushfire

What crucial lesson should we learn from the bushfire crisis?
Bushfires start and move in unexpected ways. Even if you’re alert to warnings and the environment, when it comes to that tipping point, you may only have a short window to leave or shelter in your current location.

What can we do better?
This season we have seen, heard and felt risk through stories of people who have survived, died or been injured when bushfires swept through their homes. Remember these feelings and assess your personal risk to bushfires and other hazards and work out what is most important to you ahead of any events.

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