Gender and bushfires

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Meagan Tyler, a researcher in Australia, has raised the question about gender and how it and other social factors play a role in determining how people prepare for, respond to, and recover from bushfires and other disasters. In an article, Ms.Tyler’s opinions are based on research research funded by the Bushfire Co-operative Research Centre conducted at the Centre for Sustainable Organisations and Work.

Here are some excerpts from the article:

…Take the ongoing TV coverage of the most recent fires. Sooner or later, the camera throws to a fire agency representative and, almost invariably, this will be a man in uniform. Which is, after all, only representative of the agencies themselves. These are heavily masculinised institutions, often with militarised histories. This legacy lives on today, with research showing that women make up less than a quarter of all personnel in rural fire services around Australia. Many of these women are in non-operational, support, and administrative roles.

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For instance, Professor John Handmer submitted the following to the Royal Commission [investigating the circumstances surrounding the 2009 Black Saturday bushfires in which 173 people died]:

“There is evidence of disagreements as the fire approached. In virtually all cases this was between women who wanted to leave and take the men with them and men who either wanted to stay and defend or who felt they had to support others in that role … This led to some people changing their plans at the last minute. This appears particularly the case for couples. There are instances where women who fled under these circumstances survived. Conversely, there is also evidence of such disagreements where males refused to leave, but relatives decided to stay, leading to additional fatalities.”

There is no question that in the fire service, both structural and wildland, males outnumber females by a wide margin. This is in spite of the fact that some federal agencies in the United States, especially the U.S. Forest Service, have gone to great lengths (some would say excessive lengths) to hire and promote women. But there may still be organizations that go to the other extreme and have a very small number of women within their ranks.

Besides the proportion of women in the fire service, the other issue raised by Ms. Tyler is the social relationship that women in the general population have with wildfires, specifically preparedness, stay and defend, and evacuation. Is social outreach from the fire agencies gender-specific, or more effective for one gender or the other? Are these issues that need to be fixed?

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Author: Bill Gabbert

After working full time in wildland fire for 33 years, he continues to learn, and strives to be a Student of Fire. Google+