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The future of fire: are we prepared for extreme weather events?

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The Black Summer fires that ravaged Australia last year have been a brutal wake-up call to the nation to rethink the management of extreme weather events like bushfires, and develop a greater understanding of what it means to coexist with the Australian bush.

Brodie Mastrangelo is a geography grad who specialises in bushfire planning and design for Strategen-JBS&G, a bespoke “no-nonsense” environmental consultancy firm. When Mastrangelo saw the scale of last summer’s bushfires, he could only feel frustration.

“I felt annoyed that all of the knowledge we have on bushfire behaviour, the research and technology at our disposal haven’t been exploited. At least they’ve prompted a serious look at bushfires and have provided critical data.

“Bushfires will finally start getting the respect they deserve as Australia’s most devastating natural disaster.”

Bushfires do play important roles in Australia’s ecosystems, but they are occurring with more frequency and intensity as the planet continues to warm. The recent ‘bushfire royal commission’ stated that current disaster management strategies will be ineffective in the face of increasingly devastating fire weather, such as record high temperatures, dryness and reduced rainfall. Moreover, the royal commission revealed that 90 per cent of homes in bushfire prone areas were not built to withstand fires.

Build BAL-wise

This is where Mastrangelo comes in – he prepares bushfire management plans for subdivision and land development applications, which include a Bushfire Attack Level (BAL) assessment. BAL measures a building’s potential exposure to ember attack, radiant heat and direct flame contact.

“BAL takes into account how far you are from a certain class of vegetation and what building materials and methods you therefore need when constructing a property,” he explains.

“The aim is to be constructing your development within BAL-29 or lower. With a lot of these new developments in Perth and along the Swan coastal plain, your aim is to reduce the risk of your house igniting through separation from the bush and upping the specs of your house so you don’t have combustible materials facing the vegetation.”

Illustration of the impact of fire on homes based on their BAL rating, with the impact progressively worse as the rating increases.
A BAL assessment assigns your proposed property one of six ratings for fire risk. Credit: Strategen-JBS&G

While BAL assessments form part of the Australian Standards for building construction, Mastrangelo says buildings aren’t always up to code, and there is a knowledge gap when it comes to homeowners/occupiers grasping the real threat that bushfires pose.

“People are becoming more aware of the bushfire risk, but there are still ‘tree-changers’ – especially people coming from the city environment – who forget or don’t understand the importance of a well maintained and prepared property in the bush.

“This problem is being exacerbated in some areas such as Busselton and Dunsborough where a large portion of properties are unoccupied or used for short-stay accommodation. When it comes to new builds, people need to take bushfire risk into consideration.”

He says some of the simplest ways we can do this include following council firebreak practices, designing fire-wise gardens, attending bushfire resilience workshops and researching the wealth of information available on the internet.

“There’s really no excuse for not being prepared. If people want to live in the bush, they need to accept that there is a risk they could lose everything they have to a bushfire.”

“Attitudes need to change and are changing, but perhaps not quickly enough given that climate change is likely to amplify the risk.”

A blackened, scorched area of the Blue Mountains after the 2019-20 summer bush fires.
The Blue Mountains after the 2019-20 summer bush fires.

Fire management is everybody’s responsibility

The Australian Federal Government intends to implement most recommendations in the royal commission’s report, including the establishment of a natural disaster management agency, and the power to declare a national state of emergency.

Mastrangelo supports other findings of the report, such as the need for local government and industry to better communicate the risk of fire to prospective property buyers and more carefully consider disaster risk in future land use planning. He suggests insurance companies will likely lead the way in this step-change.

“I think the insurance industry will undergo the most growth in the near future. Premiums will increase for people living in bushfire prone areas and insurers will prepare policies with more bushfire-specific details.”

When asked about the report’s recommendation to acknowledge the role of cultural burning (the way Indigenous Australians manage landscapes) in mitigating large-scale bushfires, Mastrangelo says we need to be clear about its capabilities.

“Cultural burning strategies won’t prevent bushfires, and that shouldn’t be the aim. The role of cultural burning is threefold: to provide a vehicle to get fire back into the landscape to improve the health of the bush; to get Indigenous people on Country and connect them to their roots; and to reduce fuels to make bushfires more manageable when they do occur.”

Go bush

The Australian environment is a mercurial force: both welcoming and unforgiving, and though we may use it and benefit from it, we should never assume we can fully control it.

“Be in it, understand it and appreciate it,” Mastrangelo advises.

“This means not being complacent or ignorant when living in a bushfire prone area. A stint in the local bushfire brigade, volunteering with conservation groups and attending educational workshops are all fulfilling and rewarding ways to improve respect for the Australian environment.”

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