Following Australia’s Black Summer of 2019–20, research is being done to improve community warnings and information. Importantly, this will inform and support the ongoing development and refinement of community engagement and communications before, during and after bushfires.

Spring and summer of 2019–20 resulted in the most devastating bushfire season in NSW history. Over the course of the season, fires spread south from the Queensland border to the Victorian border. By season’s end, fires had burnt a record 5.5 million hectares, destroyed 2448 homes and impacted on community and commercial infrastructure and assets across NSW. Tens of thousands of people were displaced by the fires and many were affected by smoke. Tragically, 25 people lost their lives, including 4 NSW Rural Fire Service (NSW RFS) volunteers and 3 US aerial firefighters. The season was truly unprecedented, with the largest area burnt, the most houses destroyed and the greatest number of deaths due to bushfire in a single season.

But NSW has experienced other destructive bushfires in recent years. In 2017, the Sir Ivan Fire razed farms and homes in the NSW central west around Leadville and Uarbry. In 2018, the Reedy Swamp fire devastated the small coastal communities of Reedy Swamp and Tathra. These and other bushfires have presented opportunities to examine issues of community awareness, preparedness and response. A particular focus of this work has been to understand how people obtain, interpret and respond to information and warnings provided by the NSW RFS and other emergency services organisations.

In recent years, NSW RFS commissioned the Bushfire and Natural Hazards Cooperative Research Centre to conduct research with communities affected by bushfires. These included studies with people threatened and affected by the bushfires of 2017, the 2018 Reedy Swamp Fire and the fires in 2019–20. The research involved interviews and surveys with thousands of people affected by the fires.

Insights into community responses to warnings and information

Just as every fire is different, every community is also different. Each study has therefore yielded unique insights into how people understand bushfire risk and how they obtain, interpret and use warnings and information. For example, our research showed how people understand and respond to warnings about fire danger conditions rated as ‘catastrophic’. On Sunday 12 February 2017, a ‘catastrophic’ fire danger rating was issued for the NSW Central Ranges, North Western and Greater Hunter fire areas. This research found that while most people understood the warnings they received and considered them timely and useful, many did not respond in the ways intended by emergency services agencies. Despite advice that leaving early is the only safe option on ‘catastrophic’ days and that houses are not defendable under these conditions, over 30 per cent of survey respondents indicated that they only began preparing to defend property after receiving the warning. In-depth interviews highlighted that many people believed it was impractical to leave on ‘catastrophic’ fire danger days before there was a fire. This research also highlighted people’s tendency to seek confirmation of emergency warnings, often by travelling to observe fires for themselves before taking protection action.

Research into the 2018 Reedy Swamp Fire provided insights into how people respond to bushfire threats when communication is impeded. For example, many people in Tathra had not considered themselves to be at risk from bushfire so they did not initially think that fire warnings applied to them. Others did not receive warnings, or received warnings late, due to the mobile phone reception blackspots in the area or power and telecommunications outages that occurred during the fire. As the fire threatened Tathra, respondents indicated there was uncertainty and confusion about whether, when and where to evacuate to. Fortunately, those who were able to leave Tathra did so in a calm and orderly manner, while those who were unable to leave (or decided not to) were mostly able to identify safer places within their community where they could shelter, such as beaches and other cleared, open spaces.

Figure 1: NSW RFS declared a ‘Tourist Leave Zone’ for coastal areas between Batemans Bay and Nadgee in January 2020. Source:

Figure 1: NSW RFS declared a ‘Tourist Leave Zone’ for coastal areas between Batemans Bay and Nadgee in January 2020.

In the most recent research into the 2019–20 bushfires, we have gained new insights into how tourists and visitors responded to fire threats and associated warnings and information. Key findings were that many respondents were aware of fire activity in the vicinity of their travel destination but many chose to continue with their travel. Reasons for travelling, despite this awareness, included to continue holiday plans, to escape the smoke that was affecting other areas and to assist relatives and friends within the fire-threatened area.

With the large number of tourists and visitors to the NSW South Coast over the Christmas and New Year period, the NSW RFS took an unprecedented step of declaring a ‘Tourist Leave Zone’ for coastal areas between Batemans Bay and Nadgee (see Figure 1). A survey of tourists and visitors to these areas found that more than 60 per cent followed advice to leave the Tourist Leave Zone. The remainder stayed within the Tourist Leave Zone, most often because they were unable to leave. Interviews revealed that most tourists, visitors and holiday home owners in fire-affected areas understood the purpose and were supportive of the Tourist Leave Zones. This supports the use of such a measure in the future.

Research into hazards warnings conducted in recent years has helped inform community engagement programs across NSW, including for farming, and has identified at-risk groups. It has also allowed for continuous improvements to the NSW Fires Near Me1 website and smartphone app as well as the display, structure and wording of public information and warnings scripts for communities.