Preparing for bushfire season: ‘keeping safe’ also includes your mental health

This topic was discussed as part of our online bonfire on October 20 at 7:30pm, “Mentally Preparing for Fire Season” with Cathy Sosoli (Country Fire Authority) and Alexandra Howard (Phoenix Australia).

Getting “bushfire ready” is something Eliza takes very seriously. She only started dairy farming with her parents two years ago in Waroona, in south-west WA, but preparing for bushfire season is firmly earmarked in the calendar.

Eliza remembers the bushfires of January, 2016. She was just a teenager then, but saw how the farming industry was rocked by the fires that damaged more than 30 000 hectares of agricultural land, across Waroona, Harvey and Yarloop.

Her parent’s farm wasn’t damaged in the blaze. But her family did have to dump milk, because they were blocked off from their property for three days. At the time, this caused significant stress and concern over the health and safety of their cows.

“We were so worried about mastitis and whether the cows had enough water and food,” Eliza said.

“And we didn’t know how long it was going to take for the fire authority to let us back in, either,” she said.

Many other farmers also had difficulty in getting back to feed livestock, access vehicles or urgently find ways to contain their animals after fencing had been destroyed.

“Fortunately, no one was hurt, and the cows were fine, but I really don’t think Mum and Dad predicted how stressful the aftermath would be for the business,” Eliza said.

Now, every October Eliza and her family sit down to work out a bushfire plan.

“We have an evacuation plan for us, but also for the animals. It’s all written out, everyone knows what the plan is and who will do what,” Eliza said.

Eliza has been able to build bushfire preparedness into the overall safety culture at her dairy. And while she can’t control whether there’s a bushfire or not, she uses a risk-management approach to work-related stress, as set out by Worksafe.

Bushfire season can add to mental health risk factors, especially if the fire service is far away from a farming property. People who have experienced bushfires can also experience feelings of fear and anxiety when reminded of a traumatic experience.

Eliza says the whole family and their three staff members are involved in the process of getting bushfire ready.

“It’s not something you want to be deciding on the fly, when there’s a fire in the region,” she said.

“You also need to think about the cows early, because there can come a point when it’s not safe anymore to move the animals.”

“So as a team, we have decided that we would rather act early and move the cows to safety, when there is a risk of a fire, rather than waiting.”

Eliza used the WA government’s bushfire resources (other states have similar websites) to devise their bushfire plan. It has a checklist specifically for livestock, horses and pets to help people determine at what point they’ll leave, the evacuation routes available and locations for agistment. It also looks at how to protect your animals if they can’t be moved (such as moving them into a paddock with no vegetation) and how ensure there’s enough food and water after the fire has passed. View the checklist here.

“It’s an added pressure to have to get organised every year, but I find we’re all a lot less stressed at work overall, just knowing we have a bushfire plan in place for the season,” Eliza said.

“It’s really about the cows for us, we don’t ever want to be in a situation again where we can’t look after them.”

When it comes to running the family farm, investing in mental health initiatives is not only good for your family and staff, but it’s good for business too. The NCFH is supporting farmers just like you to manage and respond to work-related risks that impact on workplace mental health – these are factors in your work that can affect an employee’s mental health and include high job demands, low job control, low role clarity and more. Managing these factors, means decreasing the risk of work-related stress, which can prevent physical injury, mental injury or even both at the same time. Find out more about being mentally safe on the farm at

This blog is part of the Primary Producer Knowledge Network led by the National Centre for Farmer Health to promote mentally healthy workplaces. Campfire, part of The Primary Producer Knowledge Network, is funded by the Victorian State Governments WorkSafe WorkWell Mental Health Improvement Fund.

You can review the online bonfire session, “Mentally preparing for the fire season” from October 20 at 7:30pm to hear more from Cathy Sosoli and Alexandra Howard about how to prepare mentally for the upcoming bushfire season.

*Primary producers featuring in this blog are fictional, but based on research interviews with farmers, and developed with the assistance of the National Centre for Farmer Health