On February 17, 2017, the area I live, Carwoola NSW, Australia, was impacted by a major bushfire. People I knew lost their homes; other people I knew had everything burnt but their homes. Fortunately, most people I knew were not burnt out. My own house and family were safe. We live four kilometres north of the ignition point. With the wind blowing so strongly in a westerly direction that day, I knew that we were never under threat. While I was worried for other people on the day of the fire, I was never afraid that I might lose everything.
My location in relation to the fire defined the impact that it had on me. Over time, I realised that this was true for everyone living in the area.
I also began to realise that the footprint of the fire on the landscape had started to define the Carwoola community. Superficially, we had ‘come together’ as a community. Right after the fire, local community members had worked hard to provide support to people who had lost homes and infrastructure; pets and livestock to the fire. Membership of community groups had increased. Community events had record numbers of attendees.
These observations became my research project, evaluating how effective a government post-fire program was in facilitating the post-bushfire recovery of my community. The Hotspots Fire Project (Hotspots) was one of the possible means of recovery available to community, and by mapping the participants in the program, I started to really understand that I was looking a social landscape that also had been divided by the fire.
Some people had been burnt out; most people had not. Most people had been afraid that they would lose their homes; some had not. My mapping revealed community divides – inclusion and exclusion; blame and forgiveness; participation and withdrawal. Our recovery needs divided us. Some people needed retribution; others needed to feel they were helping; while others needed only to feel safe. All were looking for the means to do so.
The lines between who fitted into which of these categories were never clear cut. Yet, as I interviewed people about the fire and their processes of recovery, I was aware that there was anger at those differences in need. These issues were, and will continue to be, much larger and more complex than my research.
The Hotspots Fire Project
Hotspots, a NSW government program, has run for over ten years and is delivered jointly by the NSW Rural Fire Service and the Nature Conservation Council NSW.
Hotspots provides landholders and land managers with the skills and knowledge to actively participate in fire management of the landscape. Adapting its program to meet the needs of individual communities and landscapes, it teaches how fire can be used as a land management technique to promote biodiversity, as well as to protect assets. Carwoola was the first time the program had been run to assist a disaster-affected community.
The opportunity arose as, immediately after the fire, the Carwoola volunteer fire brigade was inundated with requests to help local residents improve their bushfire preparedness. These requests were not coming from local residents who had been physically impacted by the fire – rather, they had been emotionally impacted. Residents were looking to the NSW RFS for advice on how to mitigate risk against future fires. This mitigation seemed to be an important part of their recovery process.
Hotspots activities and messaging were adapted to address fears of fire. Local land-holders were encouraged to see fire as an integral part of the Australian landscape, and possibly as a useful land management tool. The overall aim was to make Carwoola’s residents and landscape more resilient to future bushfires. My research indicated that it was successful in doing so – making its participants feel more confident about fire, and also more connected to their community, and to the landscape. Interestingly, though, Hotspots had helped a slightly different group in the the community to the one first imagined.
Finding an ‘imagined community’
I was deeply touched by people’s generosity in talking to me about their experiences and thoughts about recovery from the fire. However, in these interviews I kept feeling that I was encountering the ‘imagined community’.
US wildfire social scientist Sarah McCaffrey warns against fire management officials creating messages for the ‘imagined public’. She argues that people have a better understanding of fire risk than assumed by these professionals – and that changes in people’s fire preparedness and fire resilience won’t be achieved by the time-honoured tradition of just dumping them with more and more scientific information.1
To some NSW Rural Fire Service members I spoke to, the ‘imagined community’ who were asking for help post-fire hadn’t had bushfire survival plans. They needed to be told what to do. They hadn’t accepted they had responsibility to mitigate their own fire risk.
It was interesting, then, to contrast this view with the actual community members I interviewed. They had all taken bushfire risk mitigation steps; they did have bushfire survival plans – but for one reason or another had not been able to put them into place exactly as planned when the bushfire did occur. Their themes were frustration at not being able to act during the emergency; of the fear that their inaction would result in the death of neighbours, pets or livestock.
The Hotspots program had its own post-disaster ‘imagined community’ based on visits to the fire ground, talks with the local fire brigade and the community’s quite tense post-fire social media conversations. Its imagined community had been burnt out by fire, and were looking to regenerate the fragile burnt landscape. Community members themselves were quite fragile. Social capital, and therefore disaster resilience, could be built up with a monthly cafe.
The reality was that most people who attended Hotspots had not been burnt out but were interested in the workshop’s environmental messages because they lived on very degraded land; that public interest in the monthly cafe was lacklustre; and that while some people were leaping forward to participate, the worst affected by fire were withdrawing from community contact. Hotspots did turn out to be correct in that some workshop participants were emotionally quite fragile – but only a few.
Literature – especially government policy documents about post-disaster community-led recovery – has its own ‘imagined community’. It seems to overlook the complexities of identity and community; the reality that individuals have different responses to disaster; different needs to recover; that disasters fracture communities. In fact ‘community-led’ in national government policy still means government-led – at local council level – which meant that all process advice is aimed for that audience.
The reality in Carwoola was that some of the most effective recovery programs and measures were led by local residents who saw a particular pattern of need emerge. These local leaders and measures they used changed over time – most often they already had a local leadership role in community groups, but not always. These people were all unpaid volunteers, and were all discovering the recovery process as they went. All of them found their role to be exhausting, but took it on because they saw what they could offer the community was of value.
The ‘imagined community’ are therefore immensely important when thinking about recovery from disaster. Imagined community meant imagined motivations. These can be pitfalls when designing and implementing a program with real people who have real needs and real motivations.
My own imagining of ‘community’
I found that I had also imagined a community – one where I was merely an observer.
I have lived in this area for over twenty years. However, I don’t think that I have ever identified myself as being part of the Carwoola community. My professional and social life has largely been in Canberra. The fire itself did little to challenge this: the lack of impact it had on me personally meant that I only ever observed the impact it had on others.
In researching the Hotspots program, I thought that I was continuing my role as observer. That has turned out not to be true.
I used social networks to identify key people and set up interviews with them. I engaged with their ideas of how to improve things. I gave a conference presentation and wrote a report about them; made comment on things they were passionate about. And now they’re coming back to call on the favour. I seem to have become an active member of the local Landcare group; along with my daughter I have joined the local RFS brigade; and I’m talking to Hotspots staff about their future workshops.
And the project has also pointed me in other directions. I’m taking part in local coolfire burns that a local environmental group is doing in conjunction with Ngunnawal elders, and I’m actively learning more about care of native grasslands.
My observations and analysis of a community recovering from a disaster seems to have redefined my own role in that community, and in the landscape that I am currently custodian of.
- MacCaffrey, S. 2016, Effectively Engaging the Public in Proactive Fire Management: How to Persuade Public Behavior, retrieved 1 June 2018, http://www.northeastwildfire.org/Effectively%20Engaging%20the%20Public%20in%20Proactive%20Fire%20Management_Sarah%20McCaffrey.pdf