Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
A burning question
In the aftermath, writes Elizabeth Farrelly, surely the question is not why but will we ever learn?
Well, the mayhem a little oxidation can cause! Oxygen, which may sound like a shower gel/pop group/health spa, is earth’s commonest element and revered like the life-force itself. But there are times when it sure seems to favour entropy. Age, rust, fire they’re all pretty scary. But fire, unlike those other two plodders, is fast, fierce, and up your back passage before there’s time to breathe baby photo.
Get used to it. “Australia’s south-east is rated as one of the world’s most bushfire-prone populated regions,” warns Insurance Australia Group’s chief risk officer, Tony Coleman. It’s one hot, dry continent, getting hotter and drier more lightning, stronger winds, less rain. Never mind who’s to blame. Fire stands to become a way of life. So is someone up there trying to tell us something? Are we doing something wrong here?
Well, yes, actually. On top of the climate-change factors we know about, there’s cuddling up to some of the most combustible species on the planet, for one. Regarding nature as universally benign, when this is clearly not the case. Allowing denial to determine what and how we build. Confusing desires with rights. Failing to think it through. That’s the short list.
Let’s get one thing clear. This has nothing to do with Walter Burley Griffin. A garden suburb man he may have been, but Burley Griffin’s Canberra housed its citizens in tight urban blocks of three-storey terrace houses. Leafy streets, sure, but it was a long way from Bill Bryson’s forestful of gnomes caricature. And Stromlo, planted by the Commonwealth, was strenuously sustained by local treelover politics. Just for the record.
But Canberra’s a soft target, in any case, a carbuncle, signalling much broader dysfunction in this country’s nature-culture interface. Two centuries on and we’re still acting like it’s merrie-Englande-with-space-and-a-decent-climate. Maybe, just maybe, it’s time for some serious thought.
Fire is endemic to Australia. Since 1788 it has become more frequent and more intense. The biota, while often severely damaged, is generally resilient. A number of plants and some animals such as the Leadbeater’s possum and the western hare wallaby exploit it; a few even need it for survival. That’s nature.
Culture, ironically, having adapted less, suffers more. People, buildings, gardens, crops, livestock, pets in bushfire the whole cultural overlay sustains serious physical and emotional injury. Not to mention the money aspect. But do we respond with clear-eyed analysis? Detailed scrutiny? Introspection? Not a jot. Bushfire may be catastrophic, but we still see it as both occasional and local, lapsing back into denial and complacency the ashy morning after.
The Commonwealth’s 1984 report of the Ash Wednesday fires the previous year noted with dismay “houses that, for bushfire protection, were poorly designed and badly sited, virtually built on the ashes of similar houses that were destroyed by fire”.
This intriguing phenomenon is well documented. It happened after the 1944 Beaumaris (Victoria) fire, despite government research and advice, and it’s happening again.
Only now, climate change is turning 100-year fire events into 15- or 20-year events. So critical self-analysis examining not fire suppression, hazard reduction and clear-felling (we’ll do that anyway) but our own patterns and habits of settlement in a fragile ecology seems well past due. Are we building sensibly here?
Buildings are tools masks, if you like, or armour to screen our relationship with nature. Defence, always a main task, has often generated distinctive and even beautiful typologies. The medieval castle, with its arrow-slit windows and corbelled battlements, is an obvious example. The Georgian terrace, so admired by modernism, was shaped, stripped and proportioned not by aesthetic or spatial preference but by post-fire legislation, the Act for Rebuilding the City of London 1667.
Across Australia, though, from Roleystone in WA to Pittwater, we collectively and unanimously deny fire defence as an issue. And blithely build broad-eaved, timber-decked, open-fronted, steep-sited, north-facing, pole-founded houses designed to invite conflagration. Downright “burn-me” houses.
Why? Blame the presumption that “true” Australian architecture comprises some kind of uptown amalgam of our Anglo-imperial traditions (veranda, woolshed, slab hut), blended with modernist view-gluttony and postmodern “touch the earth lightly” eco-babble. So accepting are we of this premise, so persuaded by the international marketing push that has sold us back the tin shed as our own national symbol, that we are happy to burn for it. Or so it seems.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Our architecture needn’t be as quite self-immolatory as our flora. Rather than riffling through our semi-apt history for a plausibly “Australian” architecture, we may be better to think sideways about who really needs to live in or near bush, and about what they build.
Maybe something more solid, more introverted, more protective makes sense? Maybe a squat masonry Tuscan-farmhouse job, courtyard-centred and hunkered well down into planet earth. Perhaps there is a role for hippiedom’s earth-sheltered and rammed-earth specials. Or a fireskin of refractory shutters. Maybe the future Aussie house has a hard, safe centre, a castle keep in sacrificial clothes, so the treasures are safe even if Rome burns.
Those are the “what” questions, about design; then come the “where”, or planning, questions. But it’s not like they haven’t been asked.
Back in 1984 the Commonwealth issued advice on planning and construction for bushfires, recommending an Australian Standard and proposing the use of tax and insurance concessions to incentivise compliance. What has happened since? Not a lot.
The Australian Standard AS 3959 construction of buildings in bushfire-prone areas was eventually adopted in 1999. It stops well short of threatening cultural norms but does at least spell out a methodology for area-based risk assessment (depending on vegetation, topography and fuel load) and a hierarchy of risk-linked construction devices, including ground slabs, metal roofs, window screens, ember guards and fire-retardant timber.
The NSW planning code, Planning for Bushfire Protection, produced jointly by planningnsw and the Rural Fire Service (no doubt shortly to rebadge as firensw, no gap, no caps), was amended in 2001 to incorporate AS 3959. Again, scarcely a paradigm shift, but it’s hairy reading.
Any closer than 20 metres to forest, even rainforest, and you’re in “flame zone” like “outside the scope of this Standard”. Forget about its territory. Closer than 30 metres, to forest or even scrubland, and steeper than a trifling 5 degrees, ditto. Or closer than 50 metres and steeper than 15 degrees. This must make most of Pittwater either flame zone or, next step down, “extreme” fire-risk area.
In extreme areas, expect bushfire irradiance of 21-31 kw/square metre: at this heat timber 20 metres away will spontaneously ignite. Closer still, but above a mere 10kw/square metre, even fire-retardant timber, as officially defined, will burn merrily. The Canberra fire was estimated at 50 kw/square metre.
Because the firefront rushes by, though, while embers smoulder on unseen, most property losses, says the CSIRO’s Justin Lennard in Canberra, arise from windborne ember attack or neighbour-to-neighbour spread. Making the resistant-skin thing a priority.
Besides construction advice, the code requires councils to map bushfire risk and, controversially, to impose “asset protection zones” of up to 100 metres, rendering many small lots unbuildable, and favouring group and low-density development. Already Ku-ring-gai has used the fire bogy to defeat higher-density housing proposals for senior citizens. Maybe one option, in line with Bob Carr’s personal-responsibility push, would be to let people live where they will, but at their own risk. Anything really hazardous would prove uninsurable. Wouldn’t it?
Rocket science this is not, but even now none of the big insurance companies routinely links premium to fire risk, or makes any effort at risk assessment. Why not? Tony Coleman insists that “the insurance industries are run by people who make their money by understanding risk better than anyone else”. But they don’t seem to get this one.
The NRMA says it simply reacts to past claim levels more claims, higher premium; Suncorp/GIO knows of no codes and has no plans to encourage compliance, since bushfire is “less significant than burglary, mathematically speaking”; and AAMI just “doesn’t believe it is the right thing”. So much for self-interest as a lever for social change.
At least the RFS Commissioner, Phil Koperberg, is neuronally functional, holding insurance industry talks as we speak to encourage insurers towards a more abstract and enlightened view. It may not be dramatic, and it may not happen before war brings a whole new meaning to the term “bushfire”, but change is in the (hot, dry) wind.
TWO ILLUS: A firefront with a feast of fuel …
right up to the front (or back) door.
Photo: Nick Moir
Timber houses on stilts just more ”trees” to feed the flames.
Photo: Andrew Meares