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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.