Year

2010

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy

Department

School of Earth and Environmental Sciences - Faculty of Science

Abstract

The severity of the January 2003 Canberra bushfires initiated a national enquiry on bushfire mitigation and management by the Council of Australian Governments. One of the core messages conveyed by the enquiry was a concern about community complacency, particularly in the rural-urban interface, that previous and subsequent enquiries and research have also expressed. The enquiry also highlighted the importance of retaining local environmental knowledge on bushfire considering the demographic changes associated with amenity migration. These issues form the core of this thesis.

This thesis examines how experiences of place, culture, events and context mediate how diverse types of landholders in changing rural landscapes in southeast Australia relate to bushfire risk. It builds on a growing international concern about the increasing number of people living in rural-urban interface areas in light of the increased frequency of tragic bushfires, and the predicted increase iii high fire danger weather with climate change. It focuses on the dynamics of local environmental knowledge and bushfire management in changing rural landscapes by investigating: i) how amenity migration is influencing awareness, preparedness and attitudes to bushfire; and ii) how amenity migration is influencing and challenging the interpretation and uptake of bushfire risk communication.

A mixed-methods research approach, involving postal surveys and in-depth interactive interviews, was used to explore the significant factors that influence if, how and to what extent landholders' prepare for bushfires. The qualitative data particularly provided insights into how landholders gain knowledge on bushfire issues, and the actual characteristics of local environmental knowledge present within changing rural landscapes.

The thesis develops a nuanced, complex and critical understanding of landholders' engagement with bushfire risk in changing rural landscapes. It demonstrates how attitudes, awareness, and actions towards bushfire management are tied to a range of emotions and experiences that are deeply embedded in traditions as well as dilemmas in everyday life. While acknowledging the importance of the scientific discourses that underpin official bushfire management policy and practice, the thesis reveals that official rationality often does not translate well into landholders' everyday life. Instead local knowledge, lifestyles, gender roles, learning styles, and conflicting priorities, all mediate how landholders' relate to living with fire on the land. It is these complex frames of reference in everyday life that determine if, how, and to what extent landholders prepare for bushfire, rather than landholders' risk awareness.

The thesis concludes with one core recommendation: the need to include meaningful engagement in future bushfire risk communication, education, and management programmes in the form of local, context specific, and interactive initiatives. This recommendation is all the more pertinent given the findings of the 2009 Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission into the "Black Saturday" bushfires. It is a tragic irony that Australia is licking its' burn wounds once again as this PhD project comes to a close.

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