Photo: Michelle Stewart @_mishysquishy
Flame trees a far as the eye can see at #Wunghnu #vicfires

10 February 2014 — More than 20 homes are feared lost and hundreds more are still at risk as fires continue to burn out of control across Victoria.

Emergency warnings are still in place for the Mickleham Road fire on Melbourne’s northern fringe, which includes Kilmore, Wallan, Forbes and Bylands.

Cooler weather overnight has provided some relief, however there is still property at risk.

Experts have warned that properties around cities’ urban fringe will continue to be threatened by bushfire into the future, and that resilience needed to be improved further.

“The bushfires in Victoria are a reminder that homes and properties in urban fringe areas will continue to be under threat from fires each summer, particularly when weather conditions are extreme,” Dr Alan March, an associate professor in urban planning at the University of Melbourne, said.

“Significant improvements have been made to the capabilities of response agencies, and planning and design regulations via the building and planning systems since the 2009 Victorian Bushfires.  However, the characteristics of bushfire are such that emergencies will continue to occur, despite ongoing preparations and risk reduction activities. “

He said that a key aspect was that houses, businesses, roads and settlement patterns established many years before new planning and design controls existed were difficult to modify, and these could be inherently risky “due to proximity to vegetation, access, slope, and other site specific characteristics”.

Dr March said that “owners and occupiers can and should seek to improve the resilience of these properties to bushfire, in consultation with emergency agencies”.

He said that while new design and building standards reduced risks “significantly”, people still had to be vigilant and ensure ongoing maintenance of their properties to reduce fire risk.

Dr March also warned against relaxing standards in planning and design for bushfires.

“It will be important in coming years to maintain the standards we have set in planning and design for bushfires, as pressure is likely to mount from those wishing to loosen regulations to facilitate urban growth,” he said. “If we maintain standards, our settlements will increasingly become bushfire resilient in the long term.”

Dr Ian Weir, research architect and head of landscape architecture at Queensland University of Technology, said that it was imperative to find a way forward with tackling living in areas at risk of bushfire.

“We need to develop less fragile ways of living within our volatile Australian landscape,” Dr Weir said. “The timing and scale of natural events such as those experienced recently in WA, SA and Victoria are inherently difficult to predict and manage. Furthermore, our ability to adapt to them is hamstrung because fire and flood are too ‘topical’ in Australia – meaning that unlike the Tornado Belt in the US, we don’t experience this volatility frequently enough.

“When we do, any informed and constructive discussion is suppressed by grief, misinformation, online arguments, and knee-jerk reactions. Through practical solutions in building design, architects can show how bushfire safety and landscape conservation can be reconciled with daily living.”