Home at Mogo destroyed by fire, photo: Don Albert

OXYGEN FILES: The ash is settling and millions of dollars have been raised for rebuilding bushfire ravaged communities. Two big questions now are: can we ensure communities are built back better, and do we have to accept some places are just too risky?

Some post-fires commentary has suggested communities in very high-risk areas should, perhaps, not be rebuilt.

Chief executive and founder of the Bushfire Building Council of Australia, Kate Cotter, rejects the proposition that this is a natural course of events.

Kate Cotter, Bushfire Building Council of Australia

According to Risk Frontiers research, the highest bushfire risk areas generate 10 per cent of our GDP and contain about one million properties and 2.5 million people.

“It would cost nearly a trillion dollars to buy-back the highest risk properties. It is simply not feasible,” Cotter says.

“We cannot relocate our beloved communities or regional economies, nor should we.”

Places that were hotspots this summer – like the Dandenong Ranges, Blue Mountains, Adelaide Hills, the Great Ocean Road, outer suburbs of our capital cities, the whole east coast from Hobart to Noosa – are the places where we grow our food, make our wine, generate tourism, and where city people escape to, Cotter says.

“[They] are valuable and integral to the wellbeing of this country”

“If we decide that communities shouldn’t be re-built we have effectively given up on managing bushfire risk.”

There are many examples where risk did not equate to giving up on things – air travel, cars, or swimming in the ocean, for example.

“Instead, we innovate to reduce risk. Early airplane crashes stimulated increased investment in safety systems to the point where it is far safer to fly than drive. The risk of car accidents was reduced through seat belts, improvements to road infrastructure, airbags, traffic lights and laws against drink driving.

“We didn’t stop flying, driving or swimming. Instead we manage the risk through the most effective tools available; education, innovation, safety systems, warning systems, engineering, regulation.”

Focusing on the community level, rather than a house-by-house rebuild approach is part of the solution. Cotter says this “reduces disparity”, and like vaccination, community-level mitigation provides “herd protection.”

The BBCA’s Community Bushfire Resilience Star Ratings recognises the social dimension is just as vital as the built environment, infrastructure and landscape.

“Re-building communities which were recently impacted by bushfire can be done in such a way that future bushfire impacts are drastically reduced, to benefit all members of the community,” Cotter says.

“This requires a new approach. Rather than applying minimum safety regulations on a house by house basis, the Community Bushfire Resilience Star Ratings provide a best-practice master plan to ‘build back better’, improving life safety and building loss outcomes for everyone.”

For example, a township with one road in and out, a high proportion of mobility-limited and elderly residents and a single power supply delivered by wires on timber poles, could implement key measures such as upgrading the fire station to a Community Fire Refuge.

Nursing homes, older houses, the school and shops could be retrofitted to meet bushfire building standards. Township battery storage powered by existing rooftop PV could give the community off-peak power during and after a bushfire.

Local children could educate visiting children during tourist season on what to do and where to go in event of a bushfire. Recycled water could be stored for firefighting.

A community disaster buddy program could be established that matches vulnerable people with families that will care for them before, during and after disasters.

There are also ways to improve the local economy as part of upgrading preparedness and resilience.

“Innovative bushfire building materials could be manufactured locally and provide incremental revenue to local farmers and industries – this is already happening with fire rated compressed straw panels in regional Victoria, providing farmers with income from waste product,” Cotter says.

Because the ratings are measurable, there are potentially quantifiable benefits for industry such reduced insurance premiums, lower mortgage finance rates, reduced government charges and levies.

Resilient communities can also attract capital investment.

“Re-building communities back ‘better’ can’t just be a slogan. It must be measurable, evidence based and apply best-practice, innovative solutions that benefit all.”

The opportunity to build back better

There is precedent for using post-disaster recovery as an opportunity for community betterment.

Greensburg in Kansas, USA, for example, was levelled by tornado in 2007, with 95 per cent of buildings destroyed and the remainder severely damaged.

According to Beyond Zero Emissions principal researcher and regenerative design expert Dr Dominique Hes, the town’s council decided to build back as a 100 per cent renewably-powered community, with all large buildings rated to LEED Platinum.

New businesses sprang up as a result, including a wind power company founded by the town’s John Deere dealership.

Closer to home, following the Hazelwood fire, state and local government resources have focused on transitioning the Latrobe Valley community towards low-carbon resilience.

Following this summer’s fires in Gippsland, there is discussion around creating emergency systems that include a place with essential services that can remain active if power, water, and communications are cut off.

It’s in early stages, but the plan is to identify a group of buildings that can run off a microgrid backed up by batteries and PV, potentially also with generators, with a satellite phone, medical supplies, refrigeration, water and so on.

These are valuable communities in more ways than one

In March 2018, Bega Valley councillor Jo Dodds watched her neighbours’ homes burn down in the Tathra bushfires, along with 69 others. This summer another 400 homes were lost across her local government area along with businesses, community buildings and infrastructure.

She has no doubts climate change was a major contributing factor to both disasters.

As president of Bushfire Survivors for Climate Action (BSCA), Dodds, along with Mallacoota fire survivor Jann Gilbert and Kinglake Black Saturday survivor Daryl Gilbert, met with Victorian minister for Energy, Environment and Climate Change Lily D’Ambrosio this week to emphasise the need for action on climate change.

According to Dodds, they pointed out that if these are the impacts at 1.1 degree Celcius temperature rise, then urgent action is needed now before we face worse impacts at 1.5 degrees.

“This [summer] changes everything. We need to acknowledge how much closer we are to thousands of deaths.”

The group told D’Ambrosio that when the government is weighing up the cost of action on climate change, it also needs to weigh up the other side of the equation – including homes and wildlife lost, and local economies razed. It takes decades for local economies such as Mallacoota’s to recover, Dodds says.

A big wakeup call

The 2018 fires galvanised many in her community who had accepted climate change science but still thought of it as something off in the distant future. It also convinced many sitting on the fence to start pushing for change.

Another group she is involved with, Clean Energy For Eternity, has succeeded in getting solar panels installed on every community building in Tathra – including the Rural Fire Service shed – as well as surf clubs all along the coast. A solar PV installation at the Tathra sewerage treatment plants spells out “imagine” when viewed from the air.

Dodds says the latest fires will help the push for more renewable energy including wind farms and solar farms, because so many towns lost power during the fires.

Bega Valley Council is now looking at how portable power systems can be supplied for use during emergencies, and Energy Australia is having conversations with BSCA about green energy.

In the recovery from the 2018 fires, Dodds says initiatives beyond the physical rebuilding of homes really benefitted the community. These included grants for workshops on revegetation and climate grief, grants for arts projects, and funding for social welfare and psychological support services.

She says this season’s “second wave” of bushfires was easier as everyone “knows the drill”.

Being in the climate change action space was also a “protective factor”.

However, she thought the post-2018 recovery effort was very “top down” – led by outside agencies.

“It is important for the community to have control of that process…. The rebuild has to be community-driven.”

While bushfire disaster is a “terrible time”, it is also “an opportunity to regenerate.”

Dodds says building back better is not only about the buildings.

“It’s about how we value each other and connect,” she says.

Rebuilding needs to ensure we “leave no-one behind”, including those already struggling before a disaster hits such as the homeless.

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  1. Well said. We need just (leave no one behind), resilient (so we can cope and withstand future hazards) and sustainable (long-term) solution, which can be attained only via collaborative approaches.