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Living with fire: deciding where to build

With an early, devastating start to the bushfire season in New South Wales and Queensland, recent disasters in Victoria and Tasmania, and projections that current trends will continue under climate change…

Planning law could do much more to prevent us living in bushfire-prone areas. Brian Yap

With an early, devastating start to the bushfire season in New South Wales and Queensland, recent disasters in Victoria and Tasmania, and projections that current trends will continue under climate change, it is time to look beyond emergency responses and controlled burning. The calls for a broader perspective on bushfire management are mounting.

Bushfire risk is both a spatial planning and an emergency management challenge. The majority of bushfires start close to the urban fringe. Most of the financial losses come from damage to private property and public infrastructure. If the object is to cost-effectively manage the risks to people, property and infrastructure, it is not enough to focus only on emergency management and disaster recovery.

Our research shows that spatial planning, including conventional land use and a wider range of legal instruments, is a critical tool for adapting to climate change, particularly the increased frequency, intensity, and altered distribution of bushfires.

New standards for bushfire-prone areas

The Royal Commission into the 2009 Victorian bushfires recommended development be substantially restricted in areas of highest bushfire risk and that planning provisions give clear priority to the protection of human life.

A host of amendments to planning laws in Victoria were directed towards these recommendations. These provide important lessons for the rest of the country.

A key initiative was state-wide bushfire hazard mapping. This now forms a core part of all Victorian planning schemes. Land in bushfire-prone areas must undergo specific risk assessment during development assessment. Development can only proceed if the level of risk to human life, property, and community infrastructure is acceptable.

The assessment of what constitutes an “acceptable level of risk” is teased out in specific planning provisions. It generally involves a combination of defendable space and construction standards. These limit the amount of discretion available to development assessment agencies.

Development approvals in bushfire-prone areas must now include conditions requiring the maintenance of bushfire mitigation measures. These include construction standards, defendable space, water supply and access. In new subdivisions, construction standards and building envelope information must be included on the property title, to alert future owners of these requirements.

The emphasis on protecting human life should help in minimising risks. But land use planning for bushfire also needs to consider other priorities, such as native vegetation and biodiversity conservation. Achieving this balance will require local councils to have the courage to say no to development proposed for high risk, high conservation value areas, rather than managing risks through through vegetation removal.

Existing communities – is retreat the answer?

These changes account for new development, but what about people already living in bushfire-prone areas?

Even where communities are destroyed, there is intense political pressure to commit to rebuilding in the same location. This is fine for areas where future risks can be managed effectively (without compromising other policy goals like conservation). But high risk areas may need other strategies. The Bushfires Commission recommended the Government consider retreat for exceptionally high risk areas.

But the property buyback scheme that followed was voluntary and lacked strategic focus. The result was a lower concentration of properties in high risk areas. This arguably just spreads emergency resources more thinly.

Mandatory retreat policies are rare, and would probably be overkill as a response to fires. An alternative could be designating hazardous areas as “future acquisition”, as previously occurred in the Dandenong Ranges near Melbourne. This would give current owners the security to remain, but give local or state government the power to acquire land when the owners decide to leave.

Insurance can also help shift development to less risky areas. Governments need to harness this power to drive behavioural changes. Insurance policy pricing and coverage can send price signals about the riskiness of certain areas, and influence property choices.

Some policies require the property owner to rebuild in the same location following fire. But there are examples, such as floods and earthquakes, where insurers permit policyholders to apply their payout to rebuilding elsewhere.

Short of mandatory retreat policies, there are other ways of influencing the behaviour of property owners and buyers. For example, notations on a property’s title or similar information in sale contracts and rental agreements can indicate the bushfire attack level of the property’s construction. Similarly the number of times bushfire has affected the site can alert future occupants of the risks.

Levies on at-risk properties such as those applied in Victoria can also provide market signals about the full costs of living in certain locations, as well as raising the revenue required to support emergency services to these areas.

None of these tools may be popular with property owners who fear cuts to property value, or new imposts. But they are important complements to the current risk management strategies for bushfire-prone areas.

Join the conversation

13 Comments sorted by

  1. Gil Hardwick

    anthropologist, historian, novelist, editor and publisher at eBooks West

    Ah, planning law, indeed so.

    We might add actuarial risk into the mix, and in the event require real estate agents to fully inform potential buyers of the very real and ongoing risks, and of incidence and frequency associated with areas with a long history of bushfire and with building in dry schlerophyll forest generally, and for that matter on floodplains and low-lying coastal strips.

    It's going to get worse, far worse, yet we've been discussing and in some places implementing these options for over 20 years now.

    Way past time for broader public education, and for the political will finally to properly administer subdivision and housing development or face charges of culpable negligence at both local and state government levels; though especially at local government level.

    1. James Hill

      Industrial Designer

      In reply to Gil Hardwick

      Too many pigs, Gil, with their snouts in the housing trough for any "rational" discussion let, alone action, to find any room.
      So much for the "debate", doomed by self-interest to be denied any latitude at all.
      Sort The Rort, and the problem might just resolve itself by itself.

    2. Michael Shand

      Software Tester

      In reply to Gil Hardwick

      I have to agree with James, we constantly here calls for "More Land More Land" by developers and citizens alike.

      That is "Too many snouts in the housing trough" looking out for their own interest

    3. Geoff Clark

      Senior Lecturer at University of Tasmania, School of Architecture and Design

      In reply to Gil Hardwick

      Indeed! Compare the densities of some of the most wonderful small towns or cities across Europe and you will find that those of comparable population to an Australian equivalent in many instances take up 1/10th to 1/20th of the area. The result of course is a less dispersed population (good in just about every way) and a clearly defined, and significantly more limited EDGE. If you want to talk sustainable cities, this is step ONE.

      Just because someone WANTS rural residential, or BUSH SETTING…

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    4. Gil Hardwick

      anthropologist, historian, novelist, editor and publisher at eBooks West

      In reply to Gil Hardwick

      Yes, EDGE. Who knows much in this country about edge dynamics, and good design? I suggest quite a few though in a philistine society fobbed off as, my guess, "a bunch of bloody pooftas."

      Sadly we inherited something from the Georgian gentry as some sort of 'man's home is his castle' right called 'the country estate', with extensive clearing and lawns now considered decorative though back then merely providing clear line of sight against interlopers.

      The idea, albeit occasionally sans lawns, remains fashionably ingrained in the mindset.

      Asians on the other hand, like continental Europeans, are happy to pile in together, and to socialise and enjoy a robust cultural and intellectual life.

      They see it as fun, and I'm inclined to agree.

    5. James Hill

      Industrial Designer

      In reply to Gil Hardwick

      There is the argument of economics in this demand for dangerous rural settings in the lower Blue Mountains and that is that the land and therefore the housing is relatively more affordable, and that that rather than the rural setting is major factor.
      Solvable by that Higher density, village setting mentioned.
      But, our former Foreign Minister, when Premier of NSW, famously said that Sydney was "Full".
      Too "Full" to be saved?

    6. Gil Hardwick

      anthropologist, historian, novelist, editor and publisher at eBooks West

      In reply to Gil Hardwick

      The Lower Southwest of Western Australia is directly comparable in relation to Perth as are the Blue Mountains in relation to Sydney. These are designated tourist areas, so I think the comment is valid.

      Owner occupation of houses around Dunsborough and Quindalup, Eagle Bay and Yallingup (Ego Bay and Yuppy-up) is on average around six weeks a year, while for the rest of the year they are let at often huge rates. Even in the Margaret River nomenclature region where residency is a tad more permanent…

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  2. John Newlands

    tree changer

    Some additional issues concern me that go beyond the 'irresponsibility' of those who live in fire prone areas. One is the risks of using secondary roads while escaping a fire. Heavily shaded laneways may be good for local wildlife while fallen branches provide firewood after storms. However they may be a deathtrap during ember attacks. Another issue is that of megafires that stretch emergency services too thin, for example being unable to check burnt out houses for several days.

    As others have said what is good for the goose is good the gander. If bush dwellers are irresponsible in a volatile climate then so are occupants of coastlines and floodplains. If new rules are to apply then share the criticism around.

  3. Will Hunt


    Some people build in places that give most farmers an attack of the screaming heebies just to look at.
    "Like, y'know, we really want to get back to nature"
    Fair enough but do you have to have the rain forest 2 metres from your back door?
    AS far as I am concerned, its a free country and you can build where you like
    BUT .... Don't expect to be rescued when the state decides to burn to the ground.
    I'd go further than that. Anyone who builds or buys in a highly hazardous location should have to sign a waiver absolving the government (local or state) of any obligation to put fire crews at risk in a catastrophic situation before they get the permit.

    1. Jeremy Culberg

      Electrical Asset Manager at Power Generation

      In reply to Will Hunt

      If it is possible to design a house to have a cyclone rating, and zone land in such a way that building approvals require the building to be cyclone rated, it should be possible to design houses for a "insert known disaster(s)" here. Be it flood zones (as per south east Queensland a few years ago) or fire zones.
      Let the people rebuild, but ensure that the new house is rated to survive the fire zone . . . if that requires the person put in a large dedicated fire fighting water supply, and sprinkler…

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    2. Will Hunt


      In reply to Will Hunt

      Fire is unpredictable, Jeremy. Whilst doing volunteer clean up work after the Ash Wednesday fires in South Australia I was amazed at the sheer inconsistency of it all.
      Some solid brick houses with lawns all round were toast whilst other timber framed fibro clad houses on the edge of the pine forest were untouched. I think sometimes in a big fire like that something profound happens, like the air runs out of oxgen. How else do you explain a crawler tractor in a burnt shed, fuel cap blow off, diesel tank bone dry, yet the bag on the seat untouched by fire.
      I agree with all you say, I am just pointing out the unpredictable element of 'sod's law' in bush fire behaviour.

  4. Michael Shand

    Software Tester

    Amazing, Thank you for sharing.

    We need to think beyond back burning - water retention, land use planning, maybe drones to fight fires, etc

    If we employed the people who live in the bush to maintain the bush I think this would help - Lessons from the loess plateau

  5. Neil Oldfield


    My wife and I having grown up in a bushfire area (Warrandyte), and having moved to a house that is "under risk" and in our assesment indefencable, we have a rather pragmatic view on fires. They will happen you need to prepare and be prepared to loose some things. We regularly have non replaceables locked in the boot of our car and bags packed and ready during high fire risk periods. If the fire gets within a set distance we leave. No ifs no buts.

    The problem comes with new poeple coming into…

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