It was a hot 35-degree day in Wodonga on 16 Thursday January 2020 as we arrived at the Albury Wodonga Ethnic Communities Council (AWECC) building.
CFA had been asked to deliver a session to the multicultural community about bushfire warnings. A week earlier the Beechworth-Wodonga Road fire near Bandiana (to the west of Wodonga) was out of control and several warning messages, including an Emergency Warning were issued. This caused some confusion for many of the newly-arrived humanitarian refugees from the African countries of Congo and Kenya. It was time to help explain what our bushfire safety warnings mean.
Wodonga is home to more than 500 Congolese people, some of whom arrived in the past few months. There is also a 2000-strong Bhutanese community as well as people from Iran and other countries around the world. Wodonga has a growing multicultural community and is proud to make the effort to ensure everyone feels welcome.
So when bushfire warnings were a cause of confusion for newly arrived refugees and other people from the multicultural community, the AWECC decided to do something about it.
I was amazed to see how many people came along to the session. I counted over 45 people. With three main language groups, three interpreters were needed. This made the session take longer than normal, but people were so interested that the majority stayed until the end. The interpreters were community members themselves, stepping in to help their community.
The group were particularly interested in why there are bushfires in Australia and why they can get so big. We explained that the natural vegetation has evolved with fire and often needs fire to germinate. This elicited comments from the audience such as “plant different trees in the forest”. If only it were that simple. There were many more questions as people grappled with the new information and tried to understand it.
For most of the session CFA focused on the warning system, how to stay informed and what it meant to them. And then the call of freshly-cooked locally made Congolese food heeded a much-needed break.
Following the break, a representative from Wangaratta Digital Hub gave a presentation about the Vic Emergency App. It was very thorough and well received and I even learnt something new.
As the session was coming to an end, I was struck by just how confusing this could be to people who are new to this country – especially without any understanding of bushfires, how they behave and why they are dangerous. Interestingly, language was not always the main barrier to sourcing and interpreting information, as many were proficient in English and could hold a conversation.
Most of the time it was a cultural understanding or misunderstanding about fire in the landscape. Bushfire is something very foreign to people arriving from very different climates and environments.
Some recent local experience had likely made the community quite fearful. A number of the Congolese community were absolutely terrified of bushfire after being forced to flee from a fruit picking farm in south eastern NSW (Tumbarumba) as the fire bore down on them.
Many of the community also had concerns about the smoke and its effect on breathing. They found it hard to understand that the smoke was coming from fires over 100 kilometres away. They were concerned that the smoke could be from a fire much closer. This took some explanation beyond a map-based explanation.
Overall the session really helped to both explain the fire warnings system and alleviate some fear in the community. It was an important reminder that our CFA information needed to use clear and simple English. It is also a reminder of how we need to work alongside cultural hubs such as the AWECC to enable CFA to reach this group of the community.
And at the end of the session I realised why so many people had come along. The AWECC had assisted with transportation, they had pre-arranged some taxis and ensured everyone had a lift home. This was a good lesson learnt: if we want to ensure equal access to our programs at CFA this is something we need to consider as well as accessible information.
Angela Cook works in Community Engagement at CFA HQ.
Photo credit: Gateway Health Wodonga