Rural fire scientists study fire behaviour and fire risk and use their findings to develop tools that fire managers use to warn people about fire risk.

One of the principal tools is the fire danger rating system that describes the risk of fires starting, spreading and doing damage. Warnings about fire risk are communicated to the public through the fire danger sign and by educating people.

Education includes a national fire prevention campaign, notification about fire restrictions, local campaigns, pamphlets, and radio and newspaper advertisements.

The fire danger sign

The fire danger sign is the semicircular sign we often see on the side of the road. It tells us about the fire danger for that area on that day. It could be low risk through to extreme risk. Fire managers have to decide where to put the arrow.

How do fire managers decide what the fire danger rating is? Scientific research into fire behaviour and fire risk is behind the simple warning on the roadside sign. Weather stations across the country give information on how hot and dry the air is, rainfall levels, wind direction and wind speed. Together with scientific information on the terrain and type and quantity of fuel, these weather factors lead to a decision on the fire rating. For example, hot, dry, summer weather in a hilly countryside that has an accumulation of dead and dry vegetation could lead to an extreme fire rating.

Bernie

Bernie is a cartoon character used in a national fire prevention publicity campaign to educate people about fire risk. He has been on TV fire prevention advertisements and appears in some pamphlets. He gives a message to watch the fire danger and be cautious about activities that might cause fires when the fire risk is elevated. He also says to dial 111 if you see a wildfire.

How effective are the fire danger sign and Bernie?

Lisa Langer, a social scientist working with Scion, is investigating the impact of the fire danger sign and of the Bernie advertising to see how well they are working.

Lisa’s research involves finding out what fire managers intend and what ordinary people understand by the sign. Some fire managers seem to be confused about what behaviour they expect from the public. Some managers interpret ratings of ‘low’ and ‘moderate’ fire danger to mean an open fire season, and ratings of ‘high’ to ‘extreme’ were associated with restricted or prohibited fire seasons. Inconsistent approaches are adopted in different parts of the country.

The research also suggests that people are confused about what the sign means. There is no clear information on fire danger warning signs to tell people what to do at different ratings. For example, what should people do when the arrow points to extreme fire danger?

Lisa agrees the scientists and fire managers are good at providing the information for the sign, but the research appears to show that the public are not aware of the science behind the ratings or of the behaviour expected of them at different levels. Scion’s research is continuing and should result in improvements to the fire danger warning system.

The research showed that Bernie was well recognised by the public, popular and considered to be effective in communicating general awareness of fire danger at a national level. People thought using Bernie to give the message to dial 111 if you see a wildfire was appropriate.

The campaign may be improved by redesigning the graphics of the Bernie character and by making his messages specific for the different groups of people he is targeting. Developing the meaning in the messages for the different target audiences may result in a change in the public’s behaviour.

The research suggests messages about fire danger need to be more preventative and proactive. These messages need to reach people such as farmers, lifestyle block owners and urban and international visitors to rural areas.

Nature of science

Sometimes there is a gap between the scientists’ science and what the general public understands. Helping the public understand the science behind certain warnings or regulations is a problem that needs to be addressed.

    Published 17 November 2009