This region, which was hit hard by the Black Saturday bushfires in 2009, covers some of the highest-risk areas in the State.
Tammy Garrett, a service delivery coordinator with the region, says, “We’re trying to get bushfire messages through to people we don’t normally reach. Our region has one of the highest rates of low socio-economic families in the State.
“We want to get fire safety messages to those people that are specific to their needs that can make them better prepared for fire.”
Tammy thinks the term ‘vulnerable’ has changed quite a bit at CFA over the years.
“There has always been quite a focus on vulnerable people but ‘vulnerable’ is a pretty broad term now – our definition has definitely expanded.
“In the past we thought about vulnerable groups such as the elderly and the disabled. Now we’re opening up, to see what other areas of the community we don’t normally engage with that we might be able to get messages out to. So our definition of vulnerable has broadened quite a bit.
“It can be the single-car family because dad takes the car out during the day and mum is stuck at home with the kids if a fire breaks out. It can also be backpackers – we have a large number of international travellers in the Monbulk area who do fruit picking – so you might have language issues.
“We’re still doing the typical programs such as Early Fire Safe for young families and Home Fire Safe for elderly residents, but this year our focus was on three new programs for young people and vulnerable families.”
The Youth at Risk program is aimed at 16 to 19-year-olds who live in the Upper Yarra area, particularly in Warburton, Yarra Junction and Healesville. Warburton, in particular, has one of the lowest socio-economic profiles in the State and is rated an extreme risk area for bushfires.
“We worked with Upper Yarra Community House, which is a welfare and educational group,” Tammy says. “Young people were considered at risk if they were homeless, experienced family violence, drug and alcohol issues, educational or social barriers.”
The six sessions with 20 young people began in late February. “The sessions covered the local history of fire, what CFA does for the community, what happens in a fire … It was a lot more hands-on and visual because you have kids who are tech savvy and won’t sit for too long,” Tammy says.
“They met some of the local brigade volunteers in the area and had a tour of the station. We were trying to help them make that connection with the local brigade so they’re not going to be scared to approach them if becoming a volunteer was something they could aim towards.
“The feedback so far is fantastic. They did the tour of an incident control centre – where all the emergency services gather if there’s a major incident – just the other day and they were in awe of the technology that’s being used there.”
The program tries to convey the reality of a fire to the teenagers. “It’s having the real stories and the people who deal with it first-hand talk to them,” Tammy says. “Sometimes it’s hard hitting having someone standing in front of you who’s actually been though it and seen it.
“Some of these kids would also have gone through the Black Saturday fires but it all depends on their age as to how much they’ve remembered or whether they just took it in their stride at the time. That’s why it was important that we consider what images were shown to them.”
At the end of the sessions the teenagers come up with their own project or campaign to promote fire awareness in their community.
“We wanted it to come from the kids’ own point of view on bushfire risk with their own campaign or project to show what they’ve learned,” Tammy says. “We’re going to help them launch it in a big public event.
“There are not many limitations on the scope of what this project can be because they’re the ones getting the message out there. It could be visual – a poster or street art – or in any form … however they feel they can get the message across to their community.
“It’s certainly the first program of its kind that we’ve run in our region and in the State.”
Tammy says another group they are targeting is vulnerable families, although the definition has broadened to include everyone from single mothers to the elderly and even families with one car.
“We were very open to who we were offering it to – it was really open to any family that might consider themselves vulnerable,” she says. “We didn’t want to narrow down the definition of ‘vulnerable’ so we invited people to identify themselves rather than us doing it.
“We wanted people who wouldn’t normally come to our sessions. We had a childcare service so that families with young children could come along.”
The five-session program for vulnerable families was launched in November last year and has run twice since then.
“The sessions started with an aerial map of the local area and people pointing out where they think there might be risks, what they might know about fire and any personal experiences,” Tammy says.
“Then they looked at the basics of fire: what the risks are to yourself and your property, what the physical and emotional impact of fire can be and basic fire knowledge such as topography and the weather.
“There was a session plan structure but at the same time we put it out to the group as to what they wanted to know because if this was the only session they were going to attend we didn’t want to go off on a tangent that was not going to be of any interest to them.
“We see these sessions as a success. The value of reaching vulnerable families is helping highlight the fire risk to them. Imagine what those people are telling their friends afterwards.
“For instance, they might not be aware that there’s no public transport on Code Red days so how do you get out of town? Or that no council services will be operating in town on a Code Red day.
“Of course it’s about raising fire awareness but it’s also about creating connections and links in the community with CFA. It’s showing people that we can help and it’s also about creating connections between people so now they have some new contacts within their community.”
The third group they tried to reach this summer was through a program called Creating Connections. This was aimed at people who’ve come though the Department of Corrections and received community service work as part of their sentence.
Launched in late February, six sessions are being held with different people attending each session.
“We had to think about who our presenters were going to be – some of the people attending the sessions may not want to be there because they’re just doing it as part of their sentence,” Tammy says. “Other people may have been through Black Saturday so we had to be sensitive.
“We had to have presenters who could really make a connection with them. I mean OK, they’re human, they’ve made a mistake but how about we look forward?
“The sessions cover fire risk and preparing for bushfires. We’re also giving them the thought that they have a chance to be part of the community again.”
Tammy says the Department of Corrections is hoping that some of the people who attend the session may go on to help do property clean-ups on council reserves.
“These are all pilots programs for our region and they all have a lot of potential,” she says. “We’re reaching out to a certain part of the community that don’t normally hear about fire risk and bushfire threat and probably haven’t even given it a second thought.”
By Yvonne Pecujac
Photos by Maxine Bourke