Smarter solutions are needed to counter the bushfire threat



Summers of bushfire tragedies produce immense suffering that can never be overstated. But they also bring out the best in the Australian ethos.

Each year we see emotionally charged scenes of service personnel and volunteers exhausted from long, dangerous shifts battling bravely against nature. We see victims who have lost everything. We see communities coming together to support them.

It's enough to make most Australians think how lucky they are to live in such a caring country. But when the fires are out, questions have to be asked about the sense of living in bushfire-prone areas; whether enough is done to limit the risks; and how to attract enough volunteers to work on prevention as well as firefighting.

Rural Fire Service figures show almost 200,000 homes in greater Sydney are within 100 metres of bush. As many as five times that are at risk from embers. Global warming will make bushfires even more common and intense. But population growth in high-risk areas is the most pressing concern.

Fortunately, not all bushfires are inevitable. Arsonists are known to be responsible for about one in four bushfires. A further one-third are regarded as suspicious. The common expression for these potentially lethal criminal actions is "deliberately lit", which understates the damage and implies nothing can be done to stop them.

More must be invested to help identify potential and repeat arsonists. Only 1 per cent of the culprits are found and sentenced, even though most live within a 4 kilometre radius of the fire's source. In most cases offenders light many fires before a pattern is recognised.

Improved co-ordination among police, courts and fire services is crucial. Schools, insurance companies and mental health services hold crucial data about dysfunctional youths and adults. These could identify potential and repeat offenders.

Still, at least half of all bushfires will not involve arson but accident, lightning strikes or natural combustion. Whatever the cause, those in bushfire-prone areas have a duty to minimise risk to themselves and neighbours through commonsense planning.

RFS public education campaigns stress the importance of fire action plans. But a significant proportion of those in bushfire-prone areas either ignore or play down the risks. Having paid for insurance, many are willing to walk away when the fire comes, with little consideration of the effect of their actions on others less willing to leave. Others expect professional and volunteer personnel to rescue them if the need arises.

In a perfect world laws would compel every resident to adhere to the RFS risk-minimisation guidelines. The NSW government would also specify the riskiest areas unfit for living.

University of Wollongong's Dr Trent Penman

University of Wollongong's Dr Trent Penman

University of Wollongong bushfire scientist Trent Penman has written in the Herald that restricting or preventing the building of new houses in the riskiest areas is part of the solution. The problem is that governments have been unwilling to make blanket rejections, preferring to demand tough safety standards for new construction.

Even then, authorities cannot enforce compliance. And they cannot justify forcing people out of established communities. The cost of safety inspections for old and new homes is a significant barrier to bushfire prevention. Councils shrink from funding them through rate rises in case of a backlash.

But smart councils can use incentives such as rate discounts for residents who have regular safety inspections. Development approvals could include requirements for owner-funded inspections each year after construction.

While it is possible for neighbours to report risky properties anonymously, that diminishes the sense of community and can be counterproductive. But technology can offer solutions. Satellite images and even drone aircraft have the potential to model bushfire pathways and identify risky properties.

But perhaps the best option is to utilise the volunteering spirit of bush communities and those beyond. The focus of bushfire volunteering is diversifying away from saving lives and property towards community engagement. In some cases informal advice on bushfire prevention is formalised into community safety brigades, which hold information sessions and inspect properties. These groups provide opportunities for more volunteers to get involved, even if they do not wish to fight bushfires directly.

Most of all, they stress that everyone has a duty to minimise the risks. Bushfires are largely a people problem that has to be managed.