Aussies need to switch on to safety this bushfire season

THE message being given to people in imminent danger during a raging bushfire is not leading to Australians switching to survival mode, experts from the Bushfire Cooperative Research Council said on Thursday.

Much has been done to improve preparation and response to bushfires since the devastating Black Saturday fires in Victoria.

But the Bushfire CRC's Dr Jim McLennan was involved in a massive project interviewing more than 500 people affected by Black Saturday and he believed more needed to be done.

Dr McLennan said the research he was involved in could be helpful in planning for this summer's potential for bushfires in the eastern states.

The paper showed the big differences among those who planned and were prepared to leave, those who could not decide what to do, and those people planning to stay.

Of those who took action on the day, 28% left safely before the impact of a fire; 16% left under hazardous conditions; 36% stayed and defended their home successfully and 9% stayed and did not save their home; and a minority left earlier, were not at home by chance or stayed and waited passively.

Dr McLennan said a crucial issue was that while people were informed they may be in clear danger from a bushfire, official and unofficial warnings via SMS, radio or other media did not translate into action.

"I think people are getting informed, intellectually they know there's a risk," he said.

"But that's not transmuting into their bones and legs and they are not acting on that information quickly enough."

Dr McLennan said another lesson from Black Saturday was that a lot of people simply underestimated the extent or ferocity of the fire, or thought the danger warnings applied to "someone else".

He said this was a big mistake, and while humans tended to be optimistic, in the case of a major bushfire, people needed to act early and be prepared.

"I think it's as similar problem to health warnings, like smoking or drinking - the problem is people understand these things pose a risk, but they underestimate the risk or think it won't happen to them," Dr McLennan said.

He also said the major study of Black Saturday survivors also revealed a need to improve the engagement of people in management plans, with those people who did decide to stay motivated by protecting their homes and possessions, rather than those people motivated by simply staying alive.

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