What urban planning strategies need to be employed when designing and building bushfire resistant houses? And how do we help larger communities be more resistant and resilient to bushfires in the future?
There’s been a lot of talk about whether people should be ‘allowed’ to rebuild in these areas, and the potential for BAL ratings or requirements to increase in response to these fires.
In this video, we talk more about that topic and what to consider in terms of planning and strategising your project moving forward.
In this interview, I speak with Jeff Dau from Ember Bushfire Consulting.
EMBER Bushfire Consulting is a team of qualified, accredited and experienced fire industry professionals.
Co-Founder, Jeff Dau, has had 28 years of experience as a professional in the fire services industry. For the past 12 years this has been in a range of fire safety fields including fire safety engineering, bushfire protection, building certification and regulation and urban planning.
So let’s dive in.
Amelia Lee + Jeff Dau (Ember Bushfire Consulting)
[Amelia Lee]: Now you do a lot of work with subdivisions and helping developers understand better, I suppose, subdivision strategies and those types of things in bushfire prone areas.
How can some of that work that you do help communities understand how to build better resilience around their holistic performance in these types of situations?
[Jeff Dau]: So that’s the .. I guess … that’s the good news again, how this bushfire protection is influencing the way that we plan. So bushfire protection, very much, is a planning issue, it’s not a construction issue.
If we’re dealing with it at the construction side of things, then something’s been missed. Just because you can build in a BAL Flame Zone, it doesn’t mean that you should. And so that obviously clearly … and I, you know – again, I’m on the side of Black Mountain here.
My residence is probably BAL 40. Although it was built in the 60s, so there’s no chance so you know, we’re very much ‘leave early’. There’s no hanging around here on a bad day. And so what up property looks like, is we’re backing straight onto a reserve. There’s just no, there’s no set back. There’s no nothing. There’s no level of protection at all, no construction, but no, no setback.
So what we see in a lot in particular in Canberra, and seen in New South Wales is that when these new suburbs: they have to, by legislation, they have to get assessed and designed to consider bushfire now which is great.
So largely, we’ll see lots of edge roads – great. That’s, you know, something that’s never going to change. That’s a beautiful thing, the APZ (Asset Protection Zone) because it never really has to be managed.
And then along the easement, you’ll have, you know, grassland and what-not, you know, the small pocket of grassland.
So that’s the first thing I’ll say is that the suburbs have been designed. Access: there’ll be multiple points of access. So as a whole of community, they’re much better. Water supplies are taken into consideration. You know, historically the water supply has been to deal with structure fires, fires within the structure.
Now that it’s it’s actually looking at what’s … in the event of, you know, a bush or grass fire coming to the subdivision. These are now considered there as well. And then obviously, then the management and maintenance of these APZs and so that’s going back to some sort of body corporate or whoever’s running the subdivision now. So these areas are now managed on an ongoing basis. So that’s how it’s changing, which is great.
So the ideal … The hope is, is in that in any new suburb, any new subdivision, you shouldn’t have BAL 40 and BAL FZ (BAL Flame Zone) properties because if it hasn’t been, it shouldn’t have been, it shouldn’t have been accepted that DA planning level and that’s what RFS (Rural Fire Service) is [reviewing]
So that’s a lot of my work is to make sure that there is no dwelling, no building envelope, that is susceptible, is subject to a BAL 40 or BAL FZ rating. So hopefully we’ve got that right.
And then BAL 29 is a good build in terms of the cost and material selection. So that’s what I’d say in the planning and the planning space, even for two lot subdivision. So property owners have got a large lot, they want to break it down into two lots.
Even that new lot has to pass a test and that’s what we’d go in, taking planning bushfire protection and we assess the access … you know, where they want to build, and we will direct them on that as well. So, yes, that’s what’s happening in the planning space. And that’s where it all does need to happen.
[Amelia Lee]: It sounds incredibly sensible, in terms of an approach. Let’s be preventative about this and, and proactive, rather than us just willy nilly subdividing, and then letting the individual be the one who has to deal with the fallout of it.
[Jeff Dau]: Yes, that’s right. And that’s a product of the 1997, 1999 fires and before in New South Wales. They said, ‘You know, what, we need to change this’. And in 2006, planning for bushfire protections came in. And looked at construction, looked at all those elements that we talked about.
So I think we’re getting it right, we are getting right. And then, our evidence is that the construction is getting better.
So this, this need not be bad news. You know, it’s actually we’ve got some positive news, is that we are we making some changes here.
[Amelia Lee]: It’s been really interesting, I’ve had the benefit of talking with people that were very closely involved in the recovery after the Victoria 2009 fires and then seeing them being called in to help with this recovery effort now.
And the body of knowledge and experience being able to add to, I suppose, how people recover, how areas are going to recover, and what actually is going to be a better strategy moving forward.
There was a bit of criticism with the 2009 fires, that people were just pushed, there was an urgency to rebuild, and to try and get people kind of back to normalcy as soon as they could possibly be. And so people were, I think rebuilding, they were seen to be rebuilding potentially too soon for when they were ready.
And you know … and so, it’s, I think it’s really encouraging to see that, where there’s a different approach happening this time and it’s also being guided by a different learning process, that’s happening between these different 2003, 2009 fires, and what that might mean for planning moving forward.
Because we’re, you know, particularly down the eastern seaboard of Australia, which is where, you know, everybody was shocked to see the spread of the fires down that eastern seaboard.
But that’s also one of the most densest areas for population in Australia, and the densest areas for subdivision and for growth over the next 20 years. So it’s great to see that this is all informing that process in terms of a planning approach.
[Jeff Dau]: Yes, it’s coming together.
[Amelia Lee]: Now there’s been a conversation around should people even be allowed to rebuild in some of these areas.
I know that a lot … these areas that were affected, a lot of them are in your jurisdiction in terms of the areas that you service in your business.
What’s your thoughts around how you’ll help clients who might be rebuilding after this kind of event, to think about the strategies of rebuilding in these areas and whether it’s good decision in terms of what they do for their futures.
[Jeff Dau]: Yes, it’s a hard one, you know, and we’ve had ‘stay and defend’ for a long time … ever since … you know, and that’s I think this is largely what’s led to you know, a lot of fatalities in the light.
Whereas in say, the United States is they get the National Guard in and they just evacuate everywhere. But you see massive property loss as well.
There’s been some really bad fires there in California and you’ll see whole subdivisions just gone. So it turns from a vegetation fire into this suburban conflagration.
Like it’s just property to property to property. So, would be the point is, it would be a shame to lose that, that ability to stay.
Or to, you know, take that decision away, and I think we’re going to be holding on to that. What that means then for rebuilding is that … I think you know, largely, we should be allowed to go back in.
But because I think what is also happening is that now we’ve got this, because of these changes, we’ve got this other consideration in thought process. Exactly what we’ve just been talking about.
The structure is now more resilient, we’ve, you know, we’ve done all we can to improve the property. So I think that there’s going to be … my point is that there’s going to be less reliance on, you know, staying to defend.
The people are going to go, “you know, what, I’ve done a lot, and I’ve done everything I could to prepare this property from, you know, from the outset, when it was built. The APZ’s (Asset Protection Zones) are good, I’m now much more comfortable to leave”.
So it would be a shame to just have this situation where people are forced to evacuate, and therefore, not allowed to build.
But, I think that we have this, this other element in there that now helps that. Only because we’ve got these, you know, this new bushfire protection… we’ve improved bushfire protection.
I hope I’ve kind of answered that, you know. I think… I can’t see it happening where people won’t be allowed to build back in.
So in summary, what has changed is that we’re now perhaps more confident or positive that the structure of the home will survive.
Therefore, that takes the pressure off on having to stay and defend, and they can leave, and leave early. So, therefore they should be able to build.
I hope that answered the question. I sort of danced around there, but you know what I mean … I think that’s what’s changed. We’ve now gotten a new consideration.
You know, if you’ve built to BAL 29, and we’ve got the sprinkler system, and we’ve got a really good APZ, you’ll be, you know, far less likely to stay. You’re going to “you know what, I’m going to leave. And I reckon my house has got a good chance to survive”.
[Amelia Lee]: I think what the interesting challenge or the most, I suppose, the most confronting challenge for people is going to be is that the cost of rebuilding, and rebuilding to that standard, and whether that makes it unaffordable for people.
I know that there’s been fires that were a year prior to the most recent ones where a lot of those areas had become BAL Flame Zone in the time, you know, as legislation had been updated.
And so the people that lost their homes, that were in these areas, that then need to be rebuilt as BAL Flame Zone and they’re either uninsured or underinsured … is the challenge then of that cost of rebuild.
And it’s, yes, it’s that tricky balance, isn’t it, between having strategies around rebuilding to a code level that actually gives you that resilience and performance around your property, but then also being able to fund it and have a continuing lifestyle with your family around that area. So, there’s a lot of puzzle pieces coming into play.
But I think that you’re right in terms of just saying to people a blanket, ‘no, that place is no longer safe to leave, you can’t rebuild there’ is not the approach. And we do have the policies and procedures in place to enable rebuilding.
It’s the affordability piece that might be the challenging one.
[Jeff Dau]: I was just going to see, you know, encouraged by … to see how many people are leaving. It would appear is that there are fewer and fewer people who are willing to stay because, you know, the lessons of the past. Because of the ’03s (2003) and ’09s (2009 fires) which had huge, you know, a huge number of fatalities.
So I think people are learning as well. And it just, you hear it on the, you know, on the TV, when you certainly over the last summer, is that “I’m just going.
I’ve done what I can, I’m just going”. So I think that is happening more and that’s that’s, you know, very good thing.
And hopefully it does support this idea that, you know, we’ll go back there, you know, we’ll do what we can to the house and to the home. But the most important thing is life.
This interview is part of our Rebuild + Build Better series.
Be sure to stay tuned as we share more information and expertise in helping you rebuild after bushfires, or build homes more resilient to climate conditions and in bushfire prone areas.
Resources mentioned in this video:
Get in touch with Jeff Dau, Ember Bushfire Consulting >>> https://www.bushfireassessor.com.au/
Find a qualified bushfire consultant by searching for an accredited provider on the Fire Protection Association Australia website >>> http://www.fpaa.com.au/
Get access to the Australian Standards AS3959 (instead of Hardcopy, change to PDF Download for 1 user to change the fee to FREE) >>> AS3959 IS HERE