RMIT experts available to comment on Australian bushfires

RMIT experts available to comment on Australian bushfires

Experts from RMIT University are available to comment on a range of topics relating to Australia's bushfires from policy and planning, to community resilience, the mental health of first responders and the psychology of loss.

Policy and planning 

Associate Professor Andrew Butt (andrew.butt@rmit.edu.au or 0408 369 097)

Topics: land use planning and bushfires, rural and peri-urban planning, planning policy and practice for climate change adaptation

“Where we build communities and how we plan them in fire risk areas has long been a concern of planning systems. Increased fire risk, and increasing populations make this connection more significant and urgent.

“This risk is significant for rural communities, but also in rapidly growing urban fringe areas, peri-urban communities and coastal towns. These areas are popular locations but making them fire safe is difficult. 

“The Stretton Royal Commission into the 1939 fires, and the Royal Commission for the 2009 fires in Victoria each recommended increased management of urban and peri-urban growth, and the design of new buildings. However, this has not dramatically reshaped where people choose to live. 

“Managing vegetation is important, as is the design of individual houses, but recognising that many places are not suited for housing and designing communities where multiple safe access options are available is also vital.”

Andrew Butt is an Associate Professor of Sustainability and Urban Planning in RMIT’s Centre for Urban Research and has over 25 years’ experience in research, teaching and practice in rural and peri-urban planning in Victoria.

 

Professor Michael Buxton (michael.buxton@rmit.edu.au or 0417 153 872)

Topics: urban and regional issues, environment, natural resources, bushfires, burn-offs and planning

“Land use policies are the main cause of threats to life and property from bushfire, yet land use planning systems fail universally to prevent escalating risk to life and property.

“State and local governments continue to allow small lot subdivision on the edge of towns and dispersed housing to be built throughout rural landscapes.

“The recent bushfires have reinforced findings from earlier Royal Commissions and studies that scattered housing in rural landscapes and rural-residential housing on the edge of towns are at greatest risk from bushfires.

“The scale of this problem is immense in Australia. Tens of thousands of existing lots in these landscapes are gradually being developed placing thousands more people in harms’ way. This failure is a 'time bomb' of catastrophic proportions given the certainty of increased risk under climate change scenarios.”

Michael Buxton is Emeritus Professor Environment and Planning, RMIT University. He acted as an advisor on land use planning to the 2009 Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission as to the Auditor General in a current review of bushfire policy. He has written extensively on small lot rural subdivision and bushfire risk.

 

Resilience and preparedness 

Dr Briony Towers (briony.towers@rmit.edu.au or 0400 543 336)

Topics: school-based bushfire education, household bushfire planning and preparedness, child participation in bushfire risk management, children’s knowledge and experience of bushfire hazards and disasters

“Children are often excluded from bushfire risk management, but they have a very important role to play.

“Children have the capacity to understand bushfire risk and they often identify problems and issues that others overlook.

“When provided with credible information and supportive guidance, they can take action to reduce the impacts of bushfire on their social and natural environment.

“For example, they can educate their families about local bushfire risks, get involved in household bushfire planning and preparedness, develop emergency plans for their pets, provide input on school bushfire plans and procedures, monitor weather fire conditions and warnings, and implement strategies for protecting native wildlife.

“Supporting children’s participation in bushfire risk management has been found to have a positive impact on their sense of well-being and personal development. There is also evidence that it has a positive impact on household capacity to respond to a bushfire emergency.

“Schools can play an integral role in building children’s capacities. Bushfire is now included in the Australian curriculum and this provides a valuable opportunity to increase bushfire knowledge and preparedness in Australian households and communities.”

Briony Towers is a Research Fellow in the Centre for Urban Research at RMIT University. She is an expert on children’s roles in bushfire risk management and school-based bushfire education. She currently leads the Bushfire and Natural Hazards Cooperative Research Centre’s project on child-centred disaster risk reduction.

 

Associate Professor Yoko Akama (yoko.akama@rmit.edu.au or 0422 643 742)

Topics: user-centred design, communication, bushfires, disaster management and preparedness

“We know some fire-prone communities are more prepared for bushfire than others as research shows ‘who you know’ matters as much as ‘what you know’.

“People rely on trusted relationships during emergencies so being socially connected to your local community can buffer the impact when disaster strikes.

“Community networks provide crucial structures for channelling critical information, facilitating peer-to-peer influence to identify and manage risk and manage the targeting and sharing of resources before, during and after disasters.

Research has shown that a householder might have a well-prepared property and a fire plan but could still potentially be at risk if disconnected from local social networks.

“Community resilience requires a shift in focus from individual householders to the collective capacity of communities.”

Yoko Akama is an award-winning design researcher in RMIT’s School of Design and co-leads Designing Social Innovation in Asia-Pacific in the Digital Ethnography Research Centre. Her research focusses on design practice that deeply engages with communities.

 

Dr Nader Naderpajouh (nader.naderpajouh@rmit.edu.au or 0484 241 228)

Topics: organising for resilience, disaster risk reduction, infrastructure management, innovation sciences, collective action.

“Disaster resilience comes from communities, not infrastructure. Resilient communities know how to use their systems and infrastructure in response to disruptions."

“Despite it being seen as a resource intensive and lengthy process, collaborative decision making creates a sense of community and embeds solutions within the community, trumping the challenges.

“To be resilient we need to be proactive, so we should start thinking about resilience in infrastructure planning more than anything. At the moment resilience is not adequately represented in the federal and state infrastructure plans.

“Societies are increasingly reliant on infrastructure systems to provide essential services, to protect them from harm, and to connect them, to each other and to their places of work.

“The regulatory system is just one piece of the puzzle. There is a need for complementary measures to shift the resilience culture at the community, government and corporate level."

Naderpajouh a Senior Lecturer at RMIT and the 2019 RMIT Europe Fellow. He studies resilience of communities in view of their common resources such as infrastructure systems, as well as the role of collaboration in building resilience within and between communities and with government or corporates.

 

Trauma and recovery

Dr Mirella Di Benedetto (mirella.dibenedetto@rmit.edu.au or +61 417 506 963 currently overseas so email to arrange phone interview)

Topics: PTSD in first responders, trauma recovery for firefighters

"It is well known that firefighters and other first responders are at heightened risk of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). PTSD would be more likely to occur in the coming months once the fire season is over.

"Many Australians are at increased risk of PTSD and other mental health issues due to this horrific fire season. They are also need to be informed, aware and seek help if needed."

“It’s crucial that firefighters are able to recognize PTSD and other mental health issues and to get treatment if needed as soon as possible.

“However, many people avoid seeking help due the stigma that still surrounds mental health. Anonymous online or phone services are available to help those in need.

"People can reduce the risk of mental health issues and increase their resilience and coping mechanisms by engaging in self-care behaviours. These can include reducing exposure to images of the fires, maintaining physical wellbeing and talking with friends or family about distressing issues.

"People may also feel a sense of helplessness or hopelessness even if not directly impacted. Donating time, money or resources to the organisations helping those affected can be a great way to help.”

Mirella Di Benedetto has been a lecturer in psychology, a researcher and a (clinical health) psychologist for almost 20 years. Her research expertise broadly includes mental health issues and chronic illness, self-care, and mindfulness. She has worked with clients with depression, anxiety, stress, grief and trauma.

 

Dr James Collett (0412 872 884 or james.collett@rmit.edu.au)

Topics: clinical psychology, materialism, ownership, nostalgia attachment to possessions, reactions to loss of possessions

“While preventing the deaths of people and animals will always be the most important consideration in managing fire risk, this does not mean that individuals who have lost their home and physical possessions do not find the experience highly traumatic.

“Survivors of fire commonly experience anger, sadness, misplaced guilt, loss of energy, disorientation, and a lack of purpose. Understandably, the closer their ties to their home and possessions, the worse they are likely to feel.

“Psychologically, sentimental value is far more important to our wellbeing than monetary value.

“Possessions are tightly bound to our identity and personal meaning. Possessions hold sentimental connections to our loved ones, our memories, our comfort and security, to where we see ourselves in the world, and are often basic survival necessities.

“One of the most difficult things for fire survivors to cope with is that they must depend on others for access to basic possessions and utilities.

“After the Black Saturday bushfires, many survivors reported feeling that there was a stigma against grieving for the loss of one’s home and possessions when no loss of life had occurred. We need to support bushfire survivors by not placing conditions on their grief.”

James Collett is a lecturer in psychology at RMIT’s School of Health and Biomedical Sciences. He has explored hoarding behaviour as a clinician, researcher, and educator for more than ten years. 

***

For general media enquiries, please contact RMIT: 0439 704 077 or news@rmit.edu.au

14 January 2020

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