When secondary school teacher David Williams took on the challenge to write some bushfire classroom lessons he relished the opportunity.
Having grown up in Hurstbridge and returning to teach at the school where he was a student, David lost his Kinglake house in the Black Saturday fires that ravaged the area in 2009.
David has spent the past year developing a range of teaching and learning resources for CFA, to be used by secondary school teachers in their classrooms. They started rolling out in April.
“Schools have to make the conscious choice to teach bushfires so we’re providing lesson materials to encourage them,” he says.
David has developed a unit of work on bushfire history and one on shared responsibility – the roles and responsibility of government, agencies and individuals – as well as a unit on bushfires in English, which has stories from bushfire survivors, and one on bushfire science. The resources include a textbook produced by the Geography Teachers’ Association of Victoria that was released in May.
CFA will soon go into secondary schools around the State talking about the resources and lesson plans available for teachers.
“We’ve partnered with the Victorian Curriculum and Assessment Authority, which has developed a website about bushfire education (www.bushfireeducation.vic.edu.au), and we’ll be visiting schools to run a one-hour professional development session for teachers to encourage secondary schools to put bushfires on their curriculum,” he says.
“Bushfires are optional for the State and national curriculum so schools have to decide whether they want to do something on bushfires. We’re providing them with the resources, advice and encouragement because, hopefully, they’ll see it as something important and want to teach it.
“There are some schools in high-risk bushfire areas that see a need and are interested and have been doing things for a while, but there are also schools that were affected by the Black Saturday fires that have the opposite approach – they’re not doing anything on bushfires because they had kids who were fire-affected and it’s still too sensitive. Over time that will change but, in the meantime, we’ll be going to other high-risk bushfire areas around the State that haven’t been recently impacted by fires.
“There are a number of schools around the State that are in particular high-risk bushfire areas like Daylesford and Monbulk … schools where the student population live in high-risk areas. They tend to recognise the need to treat it seriously and do something about it.”
Another program CFA delivers about bushfire education for secondary schools is the Fire Safe Youth Program, where brigade members visit schools and teach students about home and bushfire safety.
“Fire Safe Kids is for primary schools but with this program we’re involving our brigades with students in secondary schools,” David says.
“Fire Safe Youth won’t just be classroom-based but will also be in youth groups and school camps so it gives us an opportunity to talk to students from metropolitan schools who might be on a school camp in the country.”
A recent pilot of Fire Safe Youth to 15 Year 9 students at Bacchus Marsh Grammar gave them a chance to test their bushfire safety lesson.
“We had them for four hours and we had to trial our teaching aids and resources and our lesson plans,” he says. “We also filmed it so that we can train new presenters. We hand over the presenter kit and the training resources to the regions soon so they can do their own regional pilot for a couple of weeks before the presenters’ kit is finalised and they conduct widespread training in the regions.
“The pilot was great. It was just so heartening to see what we suspected would be the case. Students in secondary schools are able to understand our messages and logically work through a scenario to come to the same conclusions we make. For example, one of the presenters was showing them a poster and talking about radiant heat and how dangerous it is and said: ‘So where do you think the safest place to be is if there’s a fire?’ And they said, ‘Really far away – as far away as possible’.
“Their ‘as far way as possible’ is CFA’s ‘leave early’ message. Once students are given the opportunity to engage in bushfire safety discussions and bushfire behaviour they do understand it.
“It gives us a lot of hope for the future that engaging with students about bushfires will really make a difference in the long run. They’re able to come to really sound decisions based on discussion and new information. It’s really positive and it absolutely gives us hope.
“I guess it’s a formative time in their development when they are open to new ideas so it is really positive and very heartening to see students accept and understand why we say certain things. By the end of the lesson they understood the importance of having a bushfire survival plan – they really got it.”
“Targeting the next generation is our greatest hope. Changing attitudes across generations,” he says.
“It was Judge Stretton in the 1939 Bushfires Royal Commission who said, ‘It’s with the children of today the future of fire safety lies.’ He was lamenting the fact that 71 people died in the 1939 bushfires because that generation didn’t understand the danger.
“His point was that we haven’t lived long enough for Victorians to experience the patterns in the climate and the dangers of bushfires and we haven’t matured enough to learn to live with the environment. I use that quote at the end of the DVD that we show the Year 9 students.
“When we said to the students, ‘What’s interesting about the fact that was said in 1939?’ they get it straight away. We’ve had so many tragedies and fires since and each generation seems to have to learn the hard way. The students really understand that they are the hope for a safer future. They can come to the same conclusion that we seem to repeat past mistakes over and over and that it’s time we all learned to live safely in our hazardous environment.
“It’s only really with a generational change and a deeper understanding of the risks that we’re ever going to make any major inroads.”
By Yvonne Pecujac
Photos by Neil Grant and Kevin Manning