Professor Ross Bradstock

21 October 2013 — Data will soon show whether NSW fire standards for housing – the most stringent in the country – have worked to protect property.

According to According to Professor Ross Bradstock from the Centre for Environmental Risk Management of Bushfires at the University of Wollongong, all new properties in NSW have needed to be built to the Australian Standard 3959 after building codes were revised after the 2006 fires in the state.

Other states had various standards of stringency but Victoria was trying hard to catch up the NSW standard after its 2009 catastrophic fires, Professor Bradstock said.

The most dangerous areas he said were mapped by the Rural Fire Services in NSW, and Risk Frontiers at Macquarie University had a database of exposed property nationally.

Professor Bradstock said the NSW fires threatening the Blue Mountains and Wollongong were not totally unprecedented for this time of year, but they were several weeks earlier than the last comparable fires in 1968.

He said details needed to be checked but he believed that most severe fires have come at the end of October and early November.

“Having said that the run of extreme weather in the last couple of week is possibly unprecedented,” he told The Fifth Estate.

“We have to check… but while it’s not unusual to have one extreme day of fire danger, we’ve had a whole string of them.

“That’s a subtle but important distinction.”

Records have been very good for the past 50 years but there are reports of major property loss in NSW that go back to the early 20th century; in 1926 there was a massive fire for instance.

Professor Bradstock said that data would soon start to come through on whether NSW fire protection building codes have worked to protect property.

“Under current laws the RFS has a major say in approvals. Everything changed in 2006 for bush fire protection.

“NSW will be the first comprehensive test of the theories behind that planning regime.”

Much of the development in the Blue Mountains consists of property approved in the ’60s, ’70s and ‘80s “under a less stringent laissez-faire regime”.

Professor Bradstock said his centre was funded by the state government and had not received cutbacks to its funding. However, state government funding has been cut under the O’Farrell Government to fire services and climate change and adaptation research.

For instance, about $64m was cut from the NSW Fire and Rescue budget last year, leading to a reduction in staff numbers.

The organisation was also set a savings target of $11.7 million over the next four years by the O’Farrell government.

In September, the Fire Brigade Employees’ Union blasted the NSW Government for five fire stations being closed in September during fires in Western Sydney and the Blue Mountains.

“Budget cuts and the irresponsible policy of closing fire stations meant that as fire conditions developed into a major emergency today, fire stations across the city were shut,” FBEU secretary Jim Casey said.

Professor Bradstock said the forecast for Wednesday was “not good” and he also said that if weather conditions persisted a fire in the Illawarra would also threaten Wollongong.

Where is safe?

Asked where was a safe are, Professor Bradstock said “the beach, the inner city, the harbour”.

He urged people living in fire prone areas to leave if they did not feel comfortable defending their properties.

“An airconditioned shopping centre is a good place to go. In all seriousness.

“People can stay in their house if the house is well prepared and they have the appropriate equipment and clothing, and most importantly if the weather conditions are not catastrophic.

“What we learnt out of the Victorian situation is that over a certain threshold people should not stay under any conditions.

He urged people to be “more in touch” with their environment and to keep a close eye on events and warnings.

There was no shortage of information and warning messages available to broadcast threats, he said.

“The big factor is that it is human nature to procrastinate and human nature fortunately is that many people are not interpreting what’s going on around them. They are a little bit disconnected form their environment and that wasn’t the case in the past.”