Two University of Wollongong researchers have warned Australia needs to rethink its bushfire risk strategies to avert loss of life and property.
Professor Ross Bradstock and Dr Owen Price from the UOW Centre for Environmental Risk Management of Bushfires studied a sample of the 3500 houses affected by Victoria's Black Saturday bushfires of 2009 to discover the impact of forest fires on homes.
The study, published yesterday in peer-reviewed journal PLOS ONE, found homes with forest within one kilometre of the building were at risk from crown fires - fires that travel from one tree top to the next - even if the trees were not near the house.
Flames were not necessarily the main threat, with embers blown from the main fires to the houses causing much of the damage.
Dr Price said this finding particularly surprised him because most people only cleared trees within 40 to 50 metres of their property when planning for a bushfire.
"If you were to clear 100 metres around your house but you had lots of bushland around that, it hasn't necessarily protected you," Dr Price said.
Their research also found that hazard-reduction burning had little effect during fires classified as catastrophic.
Houses within 50 metres of one another were also more likely to catch alight, with the fires passing from house to house.
Dr Price said while the findings were specific to Victoria and more research needed to be done on NSW fires, general conclusions could be drawn around what changes could be made to bushfire planning to help prevent losses.
"The alternatives are to increase the amount of treatment that you put into the landscape, which might mean clearing further back when people put in new subdivisions, or ensuring that houses are strengthened."