FIRE EMERGENCY: There are way too many similarities between California and Australia when it comes to fire risk. In the US, more than 12.7 million homes were built in the high-risk wild lands-urban interface in the 20 years to 2010. In 2011, Australia had 3.3 million people in similar outer metropolitan fringe areas – by 2021, that will rise to about 4.5 million people
In 1918 a fire in California killed 85 people and destroyed nearly 19,000 houses.
As alerts went out on Monday telling everyone that the Greater Sydney, the Illawarra and Hunter regions were facing a catastrophic fire danger rating, a meeting of the Greater Sydney Commission was under way. It was peppered with interjections as people shared recent news of closures of schools, universities and other facilities.
National policy manager for the Planning Institute of Australia, John Brockhoff, who was in attendance, said it was the first time he had seen a meeting constantly interrupted with live updates.
While fire wasn’t on the formal agenda, set months prior, the topic was making itself felt.
In a conversation with The Fifth Estate Brockhoff drew parallels between the set agenda – how to achieve better outcomes for people and places in planning the Paramatta Olympic Park precinct – and planning for bushfire risk.
The same approach needs to be applied for settlement in at-risk zones.
The understanding of vulnerability needs to encompass more than just proximity to bushland, Brockhoff says.
“It is about how the whole community can cope.”
What’s the most important protection?
Among the most important answers are: how connected people are to each other, how connected they are to health and wellbeing facilities, and how accessible are safe places such as libraries and shopping centres.
These places are more than public buildings – they have a genuine function in emergencies, he says.
Planning has been very good at focusing on protecting property from risk, but the bar has to be raised a great deal higher in planning to protect human life, he says
“We need to take a good, hard look at planning, so we are not just protecting property, but protecting human life.”
When push comes to shove, he says, “We are not asking are humans safe in this landscape.”
Planning does not consider what happens if a whole street, or an entire community of a couple of thousand people need to evacuate.
What if the whole road network needs to be evacuated in an area?
We are not set up for that – but on Tuesday with a catastrophic threat level, it was a very real possibility.
RMIT emeritus professor Michael Buxton has compared the Australian and Californian profiles for fire danger and says there are many similarities, especially with large numbers of people living in dangerous areas.
In the US, more than 12.7 million homes were built in the high-risk wild lands-urban interface in the 20 years to 2010 – around 43 per cent of all new US housing in that period.
And these are increasingly risky places to live, he says.
In 1918 a fire in California killed 85 people and destroyed nearly 19,000 houses.
In 2011, Australia had 3.3 million people in similar outer metropolitan fringe areas – by 2021, that number is expected to rise to around 4.5 million people. Around 25 per cent of the growth in metropolitan populations is occurring in just 24 fast-growing municipalities on the edges of our major cities.
“What we’re doing is putting huge numbers of people in increasingly dangerous areas,” Buxton says.
It comes down to a poor planning regime.
“It is fundamentally a land-use issue,” he says.
But is it climate change?
Professor Ross Bradstock from the Centre for Environmental Management of Bushfires at the University of Wollongong says the fires in NSW are “unprecedented” and indicate climate change may have arrived earlier than predicted. “
He told The Fifth Estate that reports the Greens are somehow to blame was “politicised” and “payback” for conservationists curtailing some forest logging.
That’s not a position that has any scientific validity, he said.
As to whether we should discuss climate change in the middle of an emergency, he says, “if not now, when?”
Statements to the contrary from politician including NSW premier Gladys Berejiklian and deputy prime minister Michael McCormack are “unhelpful”, he says.
“We need to come together as a community and talk about climate change, it should not divide us.”
It affects all parts of society, he says.
As to whether discussions of climate change are political, John Brockhoff says it’s “only political if you don’t respond”.
“If we are asking the community to respond and adapt, they are entitled to ask how the government is responding to [climate] risk.”
Planning for climate change
The Planning Institute of Australia’s Planning in a Changing Climate is strong on fire risk.
NSW Division president Juliet Grant says irreversible change is already locked in, and the planning profession must address the reality of this.
While Rural Fire Service guidelines have been adopted by the NSW Department of Planning, and we are in a “good place” in terms of bushfire risk being incorporated into planning frameworks, there are queries around how rigorously requirements are enforced.
She notes that the type of proactive evacuation strategy recommended in a time of Catastrophic risk rating is “not something we are used to dealing with.”
Grant says we may also be need to look at how community infrastructure is funded and delivered in new peri-urban estates. If community buildings and facilities such as parks and public transport are delivered well after residents move in, it means there’s a lack of facilities residents can use as safe havens.
“We don’t have it right in so many places,” Grant says.
Factors in fire risk
There are three factors when it comes to bushfire risk: ignition, drying vegetation, and landscapes and weather.
RMIT’s Michael Buxton says all three indicators apply to the increased risk on our urban fringes and are magnified by the reality of longer fire seasons leading to more frequent and intense fires.
The fire season is starting earlier, and we are seeing more extreme weather events and greater intensity of fires.
In California, fire season now extends into autumn and even winter, while in Australia, spring marks the earlier fire season start.
“NSW has been burning since September,” Buxton says.
“There are now a million hectares burned and it’s not summer yet.”
He says one of the big issues with Australian land-use is the “proliferation” of small lot subdivisions on the peri-urban fringe.
Past planning decisions have allowed large lots to be fragmented in an “unplanned way” and the outcome is high risk properties that fire services find almost impossible to defend due to lack of resources.
What we learned from Black Saturday
What inquiries such as the Black Saturday Royal Commission in Victoria have found is that concentrating people in townships is safer, more defensible and more likely to protect human lives.
“It is unsafe for us to be continuing with small lot rural subdivisions,” Buxton says.
Not only do we have one of the globe’s most fire-prone landscapes, we also have some of the highest death tolls from bushfire, Buxton noted.
We urgently need to re-think the mitigation toolkit.
What are the policy tools?
Buxton says we have relied on fuel reduction burning, and the majority of fire services funding is deployed towards it.
However, there are dubious benefits.
The other policy lever has been to focus on making individual properties safer through measures such as Bushfire Attack Level ratings and corresponding building code and planning code requirements.
“But what governments don’t do well is preventing construction in areas of high risk,” Buxton says.
There also needs to be more focus on how to improve the safety of existing housing stock, and better defend existing townships.
“All the efforts have gone into new houses in high risk areas.”
He points out at-risk peri-urban areas are also where a high percentage of our most vulnerable people live.
“How do we make those people safer?” is a question Buxton says governments need to answer.
“It is a failure of policy not to anticipate risk. We are moving into a new state of affairs.”
By not addressing fire risks properly and more broadly addressing the climate emergency, “governments are failing their responsibility to large numbers of people.”
Can we be sure everyone can heed emergency evacuation plans?
The Planning Institute’s John Brockhoff is also concerned about a certain “ableism” in the fire emergency messaging that needs to be considered.
It assumes people are able-bodied enough to prepare their property for fire. It assumes they are able-bodied enough and have access to transport to evacuate if their property cannot be made safe.
The majority of disaster planning prioritises private vehicles as the primary means of escape, but even if people have a vehicle – and many low-income households may not – Brockhoff questions whether the road systems are fit for purpose when there’s a mass evacuation in event of fire or flood.
It’s worth noting that the NSW government suspended many regional rail and bus services on Tuesday because of the fire risk, so public transport may not be available to some households.
With schools closed, buses servicing school-related routes were also unlikely to be operating.
This increases vulnerability.
“It makes a mockery of the advice that’s typically given [to get out],” Brockhoff says.
The situation cuts to the heart of what planners and others need to consider as “great neighbourhoods”.
What some bosses did
There’s an economic impact too. This week revealed the social and economic impacts of the climate emergency. Employment consultants Employsure sent out a media release on Monday noting employers could dock workers a day’s pay if they closed their business due to the fire risk.
It said they could act with compassion and pay workers in any case, or take the day off annual leave entitlements, but the key message was that “stand down” provisions in many workplaces mean they may be under no legal obligation to compensate workers for not being able to come to work.
For those employed casually by school bus lines, in childcare centres, at schools, TAFEs and universities that are closed today – this could be another major and unexpected blow.