Why don’t we leave when a bushfire looms?

“An out of control bushfire is burning near… residents are advised to leave immediately… an evacuation centre has been set up…”

Queenslanders heard a lot of messages like that over the last three weeks.

Unfortunately, many Australians will probably hear these messages over the coming hot dry summer months.

During the Queensland fires, authorities were frustrated that people were not evacuating when told to do so. Why don’t people evacuate to safety when warned?

Over the past decade, my teams and I have conducted follow-up research after serious bushfires across the country.

We’ve interviewed threatened residents to find out what they did and why, and reported findings to authorities to help improve community bushfire safety.

Most people who choose to stay do so to protect their assets, fearing that if they leave these will be lost. Maybe looters will strike?

The value people place on assets ranges from the practical (“this farm is my livelihood”), to the sentimental (“this home holds precious memories”), and everything in between, including concern for pets and animals. But assets can be overvalued and dangers are often underestimated.

Staying to defend your property is always a gamble.

Others simply believe there is no need to leave: “I’m not in danger.” Sometimes this amounts to what you might call “bloody-mindedness”.

Some I have interviewed seemed to be saying “I know about bushfires. No uniformed clown in an air-conditioned office is going to tell me what to do!”

Psychologists call it psychological reactance. But most of us can relate to the feeling of “stuff you!” when it seems someone is telling us how to run our life. Irrational, sure – but also a very human response.

And then there are those who just run out of time. Preparing the family to evacuate can be complicated and frustrating. People may become anxious and stressed because of the unfamiliar and threatening situation.

They might “fuss and fidget” and delay until it is simply too late to leave. Then they just have to try to survive.

I’ve done a lot of media interviews about bushfire safety since Black Saturday. The message hasn’t changed: you are dead for a long time. The safest place to be during a bushfire is somewhere else. Go to your fire authority’s website. Plan what you and your family will do if a bushfire threatens.

Professor Jim McLennan is a bushfire safety researcher in the School of Psychology and Public Health at La Trobe University.