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Building community resilience to bushfires with behavioural science

Building community resilience to bushfires with behavioural science

How can we use behavioural science research to improve bushfire management?

On the 14th anniversary of the 2009 Black Saturday fires, behavioural science educators from BehaviourWorks Australia were invited to join a dedicated group of land and fire management experts - who are passionate about protecting people from the effects of bushfire.

Our aim? To incorporate behavioural science principles to increase the efficacy of Fire Safety Planning community engagement programs.

In February 2023 we ran a 1-day training with around 25 staff from the Victorian Country Fire Authority. The intention was to collaborate with the team and help them to design the new program with behavioural science perspectives.

We were able to build on the team’s existing knowledge and skills, which we developed through workshops in 2022.

We were also able to review key principles around:

  • Avoiding assumptions around what drives decision-making and behaviour; 
  • What we mean by ‘behaviour’;
  • Common biases and heuristics, that might impact on community and individual bushfire preparedness 

Bushfire archetypes and protective behaviour

At the training, John Gilbert from the Country Fire Authority presented his work on bushfire self-evacuation archetypes. Recognising a diversity of perspectives in the community, via these archetypes, has implications for supporting bushfire preparedness and designing the new decision-making module for the Fire Safety Planning workshops.

John’s work at the Australian Institute of Disaster Resilience, alongside Ken Strahan, has found that members of the community have: 

  1. different perspectives to fire and fire risk; and 
  2. different drivers and barriers for protective behaviours. 

Grouping community members with similar characteristics and attitudes, including the bushfire archetypes, can help develop interventions or programs that are well-tailored to meet the needs of these groups (Strahan & Gilbert 2021a).

Free Photo Of Burning Forest Stock Photo
Photo by Deep Rajwar on Pexels

His systematic review of the literature found that community members tend to ‘wait and see’ how a bushfire threat plays out. This often goes against the recommendations of the Country Fire Authority and other emergency services (Strahan & Gilbert, 2021b). 

We utilised this understanding in the design and content of new community engagement programs aimed at increasing the likelihood of protective behaviours. 

What biases affect bushfire preparedness?

Biases are mental shortcuts. These can be extremely helpful, but can also hold us back in estimating bushfire risks. We therefore need to be aware of how biases affect community behaviour and address them when planning education programs.

Here are just two of the biases we watched out for during the session:

Planning Fallacy is the tendency to underestimate the time, cost, and risk of future actions.

The Country Fire Authority is trying to address this bias with the design of their new decision-making program, which encourages community members to plan. It does this by highlighting that leaving decisions around evacuation to the last minute can be very dangerous and stressful. 

The Curse of Knowledge refers to our bias to believe that others share our level of knowledge. 

Many of the dedicated and passionate Country Fire Authority team have decades of experience working with fire behaviour and risk. This gives them a level of expertise that can make it difficult to communicate about these topics in a way that the broader community understands. To mitigate the curse of knowledge bias they are extensively testing their materials with users.

How did the workshop go?

As is the BehaviourWorks Australia-way, the workshop was practical and hands-on, and we learned as much from the participants as they did from us! The team used the content to design key outcomes, messages, and supporting activities for their module.

The participants generated a lot of ideas that will now be used to shape up their decision-making module!

Want to know more?

Contact us to partner on a research project or participate in our training.


Strahan, K., & Gilbert, J. (2021a). An archetypal perspective on delaying evacuation. The Australian Journal of Emergency Management, 36(4), 25-28.

Strahan, K., & Gilbert, J. (2021b). The wait and see literature: a rapid systematic review. Fire, 4(1), 4.


Sarah Kneebone, Kavya Raj and Bernice Plant

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