27 February 2024

'It's a disaster waiting to happen': Concerns community bushfire preparedness has fallen by the wayside

| Claire Fenwicke
Join the conversation
Canberra bushfires aftermath

In 2003, fires swept into Canberra, destroying almost 500 homes. There are concerns that community lessons learned have been forgotten. Photo: File.

Canberrans don’t appear to be taking bushfire preparedness seriously and don’t have enough access to resources to better equip themselves for an emergency.

Community preparedness was a major concern raised during a recent public hearing for a committee inquiry into the ACT’s readiness for a bushfire.

ACT Multi-Hazard Advisory Council chair Dr Sally Troy told committee members she didn’t feel communities were adequately ready, and there seemed to be an assumption that people could draw on their experiences of the 2003 bushfires to ensure they were prepared.

“Preparation is about having the right information and the right resources,” she said.

“The ESA does its very best … but we haven’t got a systematic program for communities to do their own planning.”

Dr Troy explained Canberra’s population was very diverse and transient, meaning we couldn’t assume people who experienced the devastation 20 years ago were the same people living in the ACT now.

“That memory and that knowledge fade very quickly.”

READ ALSO End of flood-prone Coppins Crossing in sight as work starts on Molonglo River Bridge project

Another issue was a lack of clear guidance about what was expected of the community and what was expected of the government in the lead-up to and during an emergency.

Dr Troy pointed to the behaviour of some Canberrans who still chose to head to the coast during the 2019/20 Black Summer bushfires even though the area was burning.

“I’m concerned about our worrying willingness to wait for government intervention,” she said.

Dr Troy argued there should be clear, accurate and timely information available, not only about an emergency that is occurring but also about good risk mitigation and management that everyone can do.

Strengthening communities was one area she felt would help people be more resilient and prepared.

“You don’t have to be the person who holds a hose … but you can be the person who organised a gathering on your street,” Dr Troy said.

She also gave examples of connecting with neighbours and volunteering in the local community to strengthen bonds.

“All those things grow knowledge and cohesiveness.”

Community preparation was also highlighted as a concern by concerned residents of Weston Creek.

Representatives Michelle Bourdet and Bill Gemmell appeared before the inquiry, voicing their concerns that the “residual trauma” of remaining residents wasn’t being mitigated.

“We have great concerns about preparedness, great concerns about the environment that we feel are neglected, and there’s a lack of awareness of what to do,” Ms Bourdet said.

She explained people didn’t seem to understand where to find information, how to prepare their community in a proactive way, where they could go in an emergency, a lack of making sure vulnerable groups had access to information, and a lack of awareness of which roads people could use to evacuate.

“You can’t get out of Weston Creek on a normal working day, let alone during an evacuation,” Ms Bourdet said.

“You’ve got this sprawl, and people are getting more and more isolated. There are no evacuation routes or transport routes for them.

“The embers will fall anywhere, and I think it’s a disaster waiting to happen.”

READ ALSO Help save endangered flying foxes from fruit tree nets, urges ACT Wildlife

Several other issues were also raised during the hearing, including development on the western edge of Canberra, infrastructure planning, tracks and trails maintenance, and bushfire prevention measures.

Forestry Australia ACT and Region Committee chair Professor Peter Kanovski said over the past 20 years, investment in new technologies has appeared to be tipped in one direction over another.

“Broadly speaking, as a nation, we’re putting more and more emphasis on response rather than prevention and mitigation,” he said.

Professor Kanvoski argued climate change had reduced the number of days that fuel management practices such as planned burns could be carried out, but there also wasn’t the urgency to ensure that preparation work was done.

“There’s this cycle of forgetting after major bushfire events,” he said.

“My impression is that the level of visibility, the level of attention that [risk management] receives … is not as strong as we’d hoped it would be.”

Former ACT Parks and Conservation Service senior director of fire, forest and roads Neil Cooper agreed that the focus seemed to be on things that were visually good politically.

“There’s a lot of money spent on planes because they’re pretty … but really they’re not as effective [as they’re touted to be],” he said.

Join the conversation

All Comments
  • All Comments
  • Website Comments
privatepublic1:49 pm 29 Feb 24

About a week before the 2003 bushfires took off, I was on Mt Coree (Brindabellas). We noted there was a heavy fire roughly 3km aware direct line of site and there were choppers galore fighting the fire and trucks on the ground. About 10km southeast was another fire. Low wind, but we decided to get the hell out Dodge. These two fires joined forces that obviously devastated Canberra and lots of bush down to the Snowies and up to Mittagong and most probably beyond.

The week of the fire I was in Kambah which was around 5km east of the Bullen range (just back of the river). As I was leaving a friend’s house, the sky went completely dark, while embers from the Bullen range started falling from the sky. We advised our friend to water the roof and I drove off to check on some friends in lower Tuggeranong, while driving at the back of the Hyperdome the fire was crossing the road in anger (also roos and what have you). After we checked our friend, we traveled up the expressway between both Kambah’s and heard a loud boom, all the traffic lights and 666 went off the air, the boom rocked my vehicle.

Eventually we got home to our residence (at the time Curtin) and my street had lost numerous houses. Fact Is that the fire hit the Bullen range that was 5 or more KM away from most of Kambah, Duffy, Curtin and so on, does not make any difference where you are. BTW water pressure was almost nonexistent.

So, in essence my observations were the ESA were undertaking there task very well and Canberrans assisted in any way they could. Having said that no matter if there was an Airbus 380 full of water (not realistic I know) this would have made zero difference.

The ESA may well be doing sterling work in the background, however, as a citizen it has no visibility in my life. I cannot recall being contacted by it, receiving advice from it or even fully understanding its role or purpose. It may, therefore, tick an important governmental box, but as a citizen it’s currently irrelevant, I’m sad to admit.

Capital Retro12:03 pm 28 Feb 24

It’s a fact of life in Australia that there will be uncontrollable bushfires every 30 years. The recent fires have not been “unprecedented” as some “experts” claim.

The 2003 bushfire that devastated some parts of Canberra was caused by a lightning strike and there is no way we can control that situation.

The only solution to avoid destruction of homes is not to build them in the bush.

There should be at least 2kms of cleared land between city fringes and bushland so that fire services can focus on responding only to ember attacks within the suburbs knowing that the fire front cannot progress into suburbs.

There is no need for burn-offs or aircraft.

Given cities expand from an initial core, the effect of your proposal on Canberra is there would be total clearing of every hill in the ACT, on mountains Black, Ainslie, Stromlo, Majura, Red Hill through Isaacs Ridge, and others. Clear-fell the foothills of the Sydney basin. Clear-fell much of the coast for a few kilometres inland.

Fire services are there to control fires not lightning strikes. Fire control was the signal failure in 2003. Aircraft attack was needed on the initial blaze given the terrain, but did not happen.

It is all an example of how you don’t think, hence why you cannot, never will, grasp anthropic climate change.

Capital Retro7:39 pm 28 Feb 24

I hope that you don’t live in the new north-western suburbs then.

Daily Digest

Want the best Canberra news delivered daily? Every day we package the most popular Riotact stories and send them straight to your inbox. Sign-up now for trusted local news that will never be behind a paywall.

By submitting your email address you are agreeing to Region Group's terms and conditions and privacy policy.