Bushfire safety for overseas visitors and workers

Australia may be one of the safest countries in the world in which to travel, but when nature threatens – knowledge is not only power, it is safety.  If you employ or host backpackers, here is some information to keep them safe.

If the ‘drop-bears’ don’t get you…

Australians often find amusing our reputation overseas for being a dangerous place.  We hear stories from people contemplating travelling to our country worried about sharks, venomous snakes and spiders, becoming lost in the desert, and even falling victim to vicious ‘drop-bears’!  But when you are a visitor to a land you know little about, it may be difficult to work out when to be genuinely concerned and when to laugh off a joke about mythical cute-but-dangerous marsupials.

As every Australian knows, the summer of 2019-2020 saw many parts of our country in the grip of serious bushfires.  The timing of these fires, their location, ferocity and range shocked even locals familiar with such events.  And the fact that large, dangerous fires were actively burning in multiple locations across the country at the same time meant that heavy media coverage was guaranteed. 

Fire, fire everywhere – but where do I go?

For a visitor unfamiliar with their surroundings, seeing images of destroyed houses and infrastructure, references to evacuation, closures to highways and cancellation of events, this must have been genuinely concerning.  Travellers may have wondered if it was safe to stay where they were, even if they were nowhere near danger, or whether they should be taking some action.  And if action was required, what do they do and where do they go?

Independent travellers like backpackers are often travelling in small groups, couples, or even on their own.  They may have little knowledge of Australian geography outside of the major cities, let alone the names of highways, mountain ranges or beaches.  The names of government or community agencies and services that are available to help may also be totally unfamiliar to them.  And our propensity to use colloquialisms and slang may confuse even the good English speakers.

Don’t assume they know what to do

So if you are employing backpackers on your orchard, or have guests in your hostel who are worried about what they see on TV, internet and social media, they may look to you for reassurance or advice what to do.  Take their concerns seriously, provide them with good advice and they will be very grateful to you.  But what advice do you give to them, and how?

Obviously you will need to be careful that the information you provide is accurate and you don’t accidently repeat advice that is not based on correct and current facts.  You are likely to know your own district well, so whether or not you are being directly impacted by events your local knowledge will be of high value.  However for events further afield, or if an emergency comes close, you are better to refer your workers or guests to the websites or apps of one of the main authorities.  These now provide highly valuable information that is constantly updated and are expressly designed for this purpose.

Where you may be able to help is to ensure the visitors understand the information the authority is providing and maybe interpret it for them, particularly if their comprehension of English is limited.  Be careful about delivering advice contrary to that which is clearly advised by the authorities, but you may be able to help convert that information into when, how and where that advice can be actioned.  Beware of assuming the travellers know what you know.  There may be things known to you that they had not considered, so don’t be shy of telling them the ‘bleeding obvious’.  They are more likely to thank you for too much information than not enough!

Direct information is best

Below is a list of websites that may be of value.  They will have only limited value in printed form but a list in a lunchroom for workers to take a phone photo is better than nothing. 

A better option is to have a list of these already prepared on the computer at your office or your phone, so you can quickly copy and paste into a Facebook or Instagram post.  If you have an employee list with easy access to contact details as a group, a bulk email or text may be highly valuable.

This is the list of websites for fire authorities in each state. 

Help for growers

Growers impacted and people wanting to support have been urged to head to farmhub.org.au, which details all the latest information from the bushfires as well as support information.