Why 'set and forget' is no longer an option for bushfire planning

RPS bushfire planner, Duncan Scott-Lawson on bushfire planning in the new era of risk

As we prepare to evaluate one of the worst fire seasons on record in the Bushfire Royal Commission, Australians are asking the question: what we can do better to save properties? 

Some people will argue that more prescribed burning should have been undertaken. Others will say more aerial bombing could have made the difference.

It’s a complicated question. But if we are serious about answering it, I believe that we need to fundamentally rethink our 'set and forget' approach to evaluating bushfire risk at the wildland urban interface.

Duncan Scott-Lawson, Bushfire Planner

As bushfire planning lead for Australia, Duncan Scott-Lawson works with RPS clients to assess bushfire risk and plan for disaster resilience.

Risk vs time

My experience with bushfires is twofold. On the one hand, I’m a certified bushfire planner. My job is all about assessing the vulnerability of new developments and determining measures to reduce fire risk.

I’m also a volunteer firefighter with more than 18 years of work in government fire combat agencies.

I’ve seen what happens to properties that aren’t prepared. I know the devastating consequences of burns that evolve beyond human influence – as was the case so many times throughout the 2019/20 season.

In completing bushfire risk assessments, my focus is always on what is known about a development at the time of construction–the types of materials used, the separation between built structures and bushland, the access provided for emergency services and the type and density of local vegetation.

But there’s a problem. These assessments are a one-off exercise that happen at a single point in time. If we review the vulnerability of a development built today 20 years from now, the results are unlikely to be the same. Post-construction, fire risk becomes an unknown quantity.

Resilience erodes with time

People make changes to their properties that make them more vulnerable to fire. Seemingly innocuous ‘improvements’ such as the addition of gardens or a timber deck can significantly reduce a building’s ability to withstand fire and ember attack.

The surrounding environment is also in a constant state of flux. A few good seasons of rain can build up a thick understory of scrub that spills into the prescribed separation spaces between buildings and bushland – the areas we call Asset Protection Zones (APZs). Before long, the separation is reduced below the minimums we specify for safety.

A significant proportion of the homes lost each year were built long before modern bushfire assessment and planning was common practice. These homes may not have APZs in place at all. They are not built to modern bushfire construction standards. Slope and surrounding vegetation conditions may have never been in their favour.

Most concerningly, we have no baseline upon which to evaluate their risk. They pre-date the evidence-based scrutiny we apply to their more recently constructed counterparts.

Removing the age barrier for risk review

Evidence tells us that well-prepared properties–those with adequate APZ separations, the right types of landscaping and construction etc–are far more likely to survive a bushfire. They also provide fire-fighting agencies with a better baseline from which to defend.

Rather than treating bushfire risk assessment and management as a ‘set and forget’ exercise that happens only when a new building is planned, we need to redefine it as an iterative process of regular review. We need to apply bushfire planning and protection principles not just to the buildings being built now, but to all developments at the wildland urban interface (WUI).

If information is power in times of crisis, data should be of primary concern to us as we seek to improve the way we manage disaster risks and responses.

By identifying which communities are most at risk–either because they have never been subjected to the protection measures we demand of new development, or where resilience has reduced over time–I believe that we can build a safer relationship between our buildings and the bush.


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