Press enter to search

The Black Summer: Inclusion and vulnerability in the bushfire response

The 2019-20  ‘Black Summer’ bushfires affected over 50% of the Australian population, impacting a wide variety of community members.  As the remaining fires are brought under control, the focus now turns to how to support recovery efforts in affected communities. This includes reflecting on the response and how the most vulnerable and marginalised in our communities were included and assisted during the crisis.

CARE and Humanitarian Advisory Group have also been considering some of these issues, drawing on our experience internationally. This blog provides a rapid snapshot of some the inclusion issues in the response, and asks questions such as what do we know about how the Australian bushfires impacted on different groups within affected communities? Who was able to access the support they needed and who could not?  And what does this mean for the recovery process and future responses?

How do we know who is most vulnerable?

Global evidence highlights that disasters affect people differently. Women, girls, boys, people with disabilities, the elderly, sexual and gender minorities and other marginalised groups experience differing impacts. We know that disasters exacerbate existing inequalities and discrimination.

Building on what exists

Much learning on strengthening inclusion in disaster response has been done in recent years. Supporting an inclusive response is reflected in many Australian state and federal response guidelines, frameworks and policies which specifically address inclusion and vulnerability issues in disaster response and recovery.  Agencies like Bushfire & Natural Hazards CRC, the Australian Institute for Disaster Resilience (AIDR)  and Australian and New Zealand National Council for fire, emergency services and land management (AFAC) have invested significantly into research that supports addressing barriers and enablers for inclusive response in Australia, particularly since the 2009 fires. Awareness of the needs of different groups, and ability to implement targeted action has been strengthened.

The scale: many diverse and vulnerable groups affected simultaneously

The scale of the bushfires was unlike anything seen before in Australia. New organisations, mechanisms and processes were deployed to support the response, including from overseas. This brought up new and complex challenges for those responding agencies in addressing the needs of diverse and vulnerable groups such as women and childrenpersons with disabilities and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders. Positive inclusion examples emerged from the response such as strong community engagement in identifying the and responding to the needs of diverse groups. For example child friendly spaces were set up in a number of evacuation centres, and People with Disability Australia have collated bushfire and emergency information, including accessible bushfire preparation information.

Access to resources and support

Whilst there have been multiple anecdotes of a strong community response and targeted support to vulnerable groups, the scale and wide geographic area, and number of people affected meant that access to appropriate resource and support was a key issue.

People were doing the very best they could for us with such limited resources. But that’s what makes me angry – that there were limited resources.”

When a disaster strikes, people with disability can find themselves the most at risk and the least able to access support. Due to social stigma, mobility and health issues, they often do not receive the support and care required. Many face difficulties evacuating in the event of an emergency and evacuation often leaves behind essential equipment such as wheelchairs and ventilators.

During the bushfires, it was reported that some evacuation centres were not equipped with disability-friendly modifications, such as wheelchair accessibility or enough space for mobility scooters. Some communities were also evacuated onto beaches; people who use mobility aids would not have been able to do so easily.

Evacuation processes are not always suitable or inclusive for families with young children and babies. One story noted that a couple was stuck at Mallacoota longer than other evacuees because their 13-month-old daughter was too young to board evacuation ships.

Older people were also at heightened risk during the bushfires. In Mallacoota, helicopters brought in doctors and medical staff to help the elderly, as well as sick people and those who were too young to evacuate by ship. However, many elderly residents were trapped and left behind without medications or specialised medical treatment.

Discrimination against Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people is considered one of the most prevalent forms of discrimination in Australia, and unfortunately this was also observed during the Australian bushfire disaster. In one evacuation centre, a worker allegedly turned away an Aboriginal elder at a bushfire evacuation camp, with a witness claiming the elder was told, “we’ve helped enough of your people today.”

Locals seek refuge from bushfire at Malua Bay, just south of Batemans Bay on the NSW South Coast. Picture: Alex Coppel.


Access to Information

Improved messaging and communication has been widely noted as a positive element of this response compared to 2009. The introduction of a number of communication and engagement strategies, for example the ONE NSW RFS, Communication and Engagement Strategy, combined with the rise of social media, including updates from state and federal leaders such as Chief Health Officers, has resulted in more real time information being available.

Whilst this was effective, access to information for diverse groups remains challenging. As is the case in many disasters internationally, disaster and other critical information was often not in a format that all people could access, understand or use.

“Not all the television media has had Auslan interpreters, and in some cases, where they have had interpreters, the media has cropped these people in the desire to get a closer shot of whoever might be talking,” said People With Disability Australia CEO Jeff Smith to SBS News.

There are initiatives like Deaf Emergency Information that are reaching out to those with particular needs, and are seen as a critical aspect of making sure information gets to all the people who need it.

Recent migrants to Australia may not be aware of the dangers of living near wooded areas, particular in urban areas, and information is not always available in a language they can access.

Additionally, messaging and communications around bushfires are not always applicable to the real lives of the people affected. “In smoke affected areas … the advice is to stay indoors, and put your air-conditioner on if possible,” noted one GP to the ABC. “For many people, where they don’t have good housing — and that’s often Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people — that advice is meaningless.”

Decision-making, roles & responsibilities

Generally, men and women differ in their decision-making around bushfires.  Women are more likely to want to evacuate, while men are more likely to want to stay and defend their homes and are therefore three times more likely to die in bushfires than women. Recent research notes men’s decision-making around bushfire safety often means women’s preferences go unheeded, even when these preferences are safer or more informed.

The fires, however, did highlight some positive stories, particularly that of the all-female Indigenous fire crew working to protect their community in eastern Victoria. Recognising that the nearest fire crew was a potentially 45-minute drive away, this group of women asked the CFA to train them to protect their culturally significant land and defend their community against bushfires. Rather than be left behind, they took the situation into their own hands. “There was a sense of helplessness before we came along but we feel empowered that we can look after ourselves and our people whatever the situation. The community is proud of us and they value us.”

Gender-based violence

Global evidence indicates that in the aftermath of a disaster, the rate of domestic violence increases. The financial ramifications of loss of property and halted economic activity can also lead to increased gender-based violence. Women in abusive relationships may experience greater severity of abuse post-disaster, because they may be separated from support systems such as family and friends and may have increased reliance on the perpetrator for survival, or access to services.

In Australia, the rates of violence against women are high, with rates higher in regional and rural areas.  In Australia, research conducted after the Black Saturday fires of 2009 showed that there had been a reported increase in domestic abuse in bushfire-affected communities, with some women disclosing the crisis had triggered violence including in male partners who had never before been abusive.  A Melbourne University study published last month shows women who were living in regions more severely affected by the 2009 fires experienced higher levels of violence than those in less severely affected areas.

There is recognition that these same patterns may be playing out again. Safe Steps, Victoria’s 24-hour family violence support service, says it has been fielding calls from women reporting abuse in bushfire-affected regions, while legal services are preparing ahead of an anticipated spike in violence in the wake of this summer’s devastating fire season.

Leverage learning from the international sector

Although agencies like UNICEF offered assistance in the wake of ‘Black Summer’, and international support flowed in from our neighbours, the response was very much led and managed by domestic agencies. But what can these agencies take from the wealth of expertise and experience from those who address large-scale disasters around the world? Learning from these experiences has informed how international humanitarian agencies support inclusive practices, seek out the most vulnerable and design interventions that seek to address disadvantage.

Initiatives like the Inclusion Charter outlines five steps to “deliver impartial and accountable humanitarian assistance that responds to vulnerability in all its forms, and reaches the most marginalised people (including children, youth, older people, people with disabilities, ethnic groups and others marginalised due to their social status).” These include: participation, data, funding, capacity, and coordination. Learning from other disasters in high income countries such as Japan, New Zealand and the US is critical as recovery programs are designed and implemented.

Although every disaster is different and approaches should be tailored to each context, there are elements common across crisis situations: increased vulnerability of marginalised groups, exacerbated rates of family violence, weakening of social safety nets and further entrenching of disadvantage.

The recovery process has the opportunity to draw on both positive practices, and address some of the challenges in including everyone in the response. We can draw on learning from the international sector, and elevate preparedness for responding inclusively in the future.

Cover image credit: Photo by Saeed Khan/AFP