Bushfire safety: What’s gender got to do with it?

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The tenth anniversary of the Black Saturday bushfires is fast approaching. This is a useful time for further analysis of what happened during one of the worst peacetime disasters in Australia’s history, and to reflect on what has changed since, particularly in terms of policy and safety approaches. We have written before on the importance of using a gendered lens in formulating bushfire strategies. Here, Dr Meagan Tyler (@DrMeaganTylerand Dr Ben Reynolds argue in the Australian Journal of Public Administration that thinking about how gendered expectations and assumptions have affected both policy and practice in this space can be a useful way forward.

Prepare, Stay and Defend, or Leave Early

At the time of the Black Saturday fires, the ‘Prepare, Stay and Defend or Leave Early’ (PSDLE) approach was central to bushfire safety in Australia. In an international context, it was unique. While most other wildfire-prone[1] localities promote state-facilitated, or even mandated evacuation, Australia notably took a different path by encouraging residents to ‘stay and defend’ their properties against the threat of bushfire.

There is a long history of rural fire brigades and organisations urging residents to ‘defend’ their houses, especially in the state of Victoria. But the PSDLE approach was only officially adopted by the Australasian Fire Authorities Council (AFAC) in a position paper on ‘bushfires and community safety’ in 2005.

Image credit Pixabay, CC0 Creative Commons

Image credit Pixabay, CC0 Creative Commons

At its heart, the PSDLE paper outlines an active role for residents in bushfire safety, and further develops a case against mandatory mass evacuations. It emphasises that last-minute evacuation is dangerous (though the word ‘dangerous’ does not appear in the explanation of ‘stay and defend’) and that residents should be educated with the ‘skills, knowledge and confidence’ needed to ‘protect their homes when a bushfire threatens’.

The PSDLE terminology (and its colloquial shortening to the somewhat oversimplified ‘Stay or Go’) suggests an equal weighting to the options presented. However, even cursory analysis shows that the paper encouraged residents to ‘stay and defend’ their properties, with early evacuation considered a reserve option, only if staying is unsuitable. This is further reinforced by the characterisation of why people might opt for early evacuation:

Due to physical, mental or emotional incapacity to cope with the circumstances, some people would be safer well away rather than attempting to remain with their homes if threatened by fire.

It becomes clear that the default position, for someone of sound mind and body, is supposed to be staying to defend their house in the face of a bushfire. But the dangers of staying to defend are underplayed, given that all people ‘would be safer well away rather than attempting to remain with their homes if threatened by fire’. This is something recognised in the more recent ‘Leave and Live’ advertising campaigns run by the Victorian Government and the Country Fire Authority (CFA).

Re-reading the Data and Using a Gendered Lens

Support for the PSDLE approach relied heavily on analyses of deaths from earlier bushfire events in Australia which, it has often been claimed, show that late evacuation is the most risky option when facing a bushfire threat. Indeed, prior to Black Saturday, the PSDLE approach was widely touted as an example of good, evidence-based policy. So much so, that researchers began pushing for it to be taken up in overseas locations. But, as we show, there are multiple ways of reading and categorising the available data about bushfire deaths, some of which seriously diminish the case for staying to defend over late evacuation. 

That such a simple re-reading could undermine the evidence base for the PSDLE approach raises significant questions about why there was a lack of critical analysis of the policy, and the data supporting it, within the relevant bushfire agencies, fire services, and among Australian researchers. One aspect of this that needs to be considered is the highly gendered nature of rural fire services and household level bushfire response, as well as the way in which this created a policy environment where a stereotypically masculine response became valorised.

The emergency services have been, and largely remain, a male-dominated and culturally masculinised sector in Australia, and fire-fighting is no exception to this. Women make up less than a fifth of frontline volunteers for the CFA, for example, and less than 3 per cent of all CFA career firefighters. Ongoing issues of sexual harassment and assault within the CFA have also made headlines over the last few years.

But the association between dominant norms of masculinity and bushfire extend further afield than the rural fire services themselves. Heterosexual households, too, tend to be split along gendered lines in terms of bushfire preparation and response. Women are much more likely to favour early evacuation, and men more likely to favour ‘stay and defend’. But recent research shows that the cultural weight attached to men’s decision-making around bushfire safety often means women’s preferences go unheeded, even when they are safer or more informed.

Part of this results from ‘stay to defend’ being seen as ‘manly’ and reifying certain aspects of Australian, rural hegemonic masculinity. Evacuation, on the other hand, has become culturally characterised as feminine and ‘weak’. The fact that men are much more likely than women to want to ‘stay and defend’ but that men are also more likely than women to die in bushfire events in Australia, is still yet to be connected in much of the available literature.

None of this is to suggest such differences between the behaviour of men and women are immutable. Rather, the point is that these norms are socially constructed and reinforced through systems of gendered norms and inequalities, at all levels: from the state, all the way through to intimate relationships.

The PSDLE policy is an important example of evidence being read in one particular way that supports pre-existing assumptions and norms. But the bias in the formulation and promotion of PSDLE would be difficult to distinguish without a gendered analysis. This highlights the importance of considering the social construction of gender in a wide variety of policy settings – even those where the connection might not, at first, seem an obvious one. We hope that, 10 years on from Black Saturday, the need for gendered analyses of bushfire preparation, response, and recovery will continue to gain wider recognition.

[1] Bushfire and wildfire are sometimes used interchangeably in the Australian context (although bushfire is more common). Wildfire is the more widely recognised term in an international context.

Dr Meagan Tyler is a Senior Lecturer in the School of Management and the research theme leader for ‘gender, equality and diversity’ in the Centre for People, Organisation and Work at RMIT University, Melbourne.

Dr Ben Reynolds completed his PhD on the history of the ‘Prepare, Stay and Defend, or Leave Early’ approach to bushfire safety, at RMIT University, Melbourne.

This post is part of the Women's Policy Action Tank initiative to analyse government policy using a gendered lens. View our other policy analysis pieces here.