Bushfire commemoration: learning from the past to prepare for the future

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Leanne Cutcher, University of Sydney and Graham Dwyer, Swinburne University of Technology write about their recent research, which was part funded by CFA and involved interviews with several CFA firefighters about their experiences.


In an Australian context, responding to natural hazard events is challenging not least for firefighters, incident controllers and public information officers who in recent times have had to try to understand and ameliorate the effects of the most significant bushfire events since post-European settlement.

Since 2019, CFA has partnered with the Centre for Social Impact at Swinburne University of Technology and the University of Sydney to fund a research project which interviewed a range firefighting personnel who had responded to the Black Saturday bushfires. Interviewees were firefighters from CFA and other Victorian emergency management partners.

The first part of the study explored how the memories of fighting bushfire events live on in the memory of those responders. We focus on whether commemorating and memorialising catastrophic events helps emergency management practitioners make sense of and learn from their experiences.

Our findings to date have shown that individual memory and organisational commemoration is deeply complex insofar as it can be traumatic for firefighters when they are prompted to re-live difficult experiences but sometimes cathartic if they can share what they are feeling with trusted peers.

Some participants in our study felt that it was important to remember events such as Black Saturday while others were clear that they preferred to not be reminded of what had happened on the day. While most of those interviewed as part of our study felt that the official state ceremony to commemorate the 10th anniversary of Black Saturday was divorced from their experiences on the day, they did find it was an important event insofar as they were able to reconnect with colleagues beforehand or afterwards and remember together.

It is collective remembering and informal forms of commemoration that help firefighters, incident controllers and public information officers mediate difficult experiences that are evoked on the anniversaries of events such as Black Saturday. This was an important finding from our study and one which participants feel can help them not only make sense of the experience but also ensure that we all learn for the future.

For more information contact:

Graham Dwyer, Centre for Social Impact, Swinburne University of Technology

Email: grahamdwyer@swin.edu.au  Telephone: + 61 3 9214 3475

Leanne Cutcher, University of Sydney

Email: leanne.cutcher@sydney.edu.au  Telephone: +61 2 9036 5472

CFA members can view a presentation held by Dr Dwyer and Professor Cutcher here.


Submitted by CFA Media