Research Impact


Bushfire vulnerability through a gendered lens

Building resilience in communities by analysing social dimensions of disaster response

In 2007 Dr Christine Eriksen from UOW’s School of Geography and Sustainable Communities, with the support of the NSW Rural Fire Service, set out to examine social dimensions of bushfire vulnerability and resilience.

Since then the project has evolved into multiple partnerships following women and men’s stories of living and working with bushfires in Australia and North America.

Interviews and surveys with householders and firefighters revealed that gender roles and gendered norms structure levels of risk tolerance. This, in turn, shapes engagement with risk mitigation.

There was clear evidence of how a gender divide in activities at time of death during bushfires historically correlates with the plans of actions of men and women during bushfires today, according to Dr Eriksen.

“This points to hard-won but unlearned lessons about the gendered dimensions of bushfires in which many women deprioritise bushfire preparation in the context of other pressing issues in everyday life.

“At the same time, societal pressure sees men perform protective roles that many have neither the knowledge nor ability to attempt to fulfil safely,” she said.

A further finding has been how a “firefighting masculinity” that trades on ageism, sexism and homophobia, disputes the worth of women and other types of male firefighters on the fireline.

“Examining bushfire awareness and preparedness behaviour as explicitly gendered social experiences is therefore paramount to building communities that are more resilient to disasters,” Dr Eriksen said.

In response to her gendered analysis of their community engagement programs and workplace culture, the NSW RFS developed a campaign in 2011 promoting women making a difference in the service.

Dr Eriksen has also been involved on a number of policy and promotional initiatives, including with the Association for Fire Ecology, which resulted in an invited written testimony to a US Congressional Hearing on gender discrimination and sexual harassment within the wildland fire profession.

In 2011-2012, Dr Eriksen assisted the National Rural Women’s Coalition in developing a kit to support women preparing for disasters and emergencies, which received a highly commended award at the 2013 Resilient Australia Awards.

In 2011, Dr Eriksen initiated and led a collaborative research project at California State University Chico examining examining gendered Indigenous fire knowledge retention through interviews with Aboriginal Australian and Native American land stewards. This has resulted in multiple research exchange visits between CSU Chico and UOW.

Partner organisations

NSW Rural Fire Service
NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service
Victorian Gender and Disaster Taskforce
National Rural Women’s Coalition
Bushfire and Natural Hazards Cooperative Research Centre
Association for Fire Ecology
California State University Chico
California Fire Alliance

UOW participants

Dr Christine Eriksen