Properly sealed and ventilated buildings, a review of prescribed burning and greater controls on wood heaters are canvassed in a new Bushfire Smoke and Air Quality Strategy released by the ACT Government.
Nearly two years after the bushfire smoke haze that smothered the ACT during the Black Summer fires, the four-year strategy and action plan includes measures to keep smoke out of buildings, identify clean-air refuges for people and provide better physical and mental health responses.
It provides for a review of air quality monitoring approaches during fuel reduction burns, and better air quality monitoring and forecasting including the potential of a low-cost sensor network.
Environment Minister Rebecca Vassarotti said it was important that hazard reduction burns were done at times that minimised the health impacts.
“There is a balance of risks that we need to be managing when we are preparing for bushfire season and it is true that hazard reduction burns do create some air quality issues and this strategy is looking at what we can do to minimise the impact,” Ms Vassarotti said.
The future looks increasingly bleak for wood heaters, with the strategy outlining more compliance and greater incentives for people to swap the fire for electric heating to stop the build-up of smoke in winter – particularly in the Tuggeranong Valley.
Wood heaters are already banned in some new suburbs and while Ms Vassarotti would not go as far as to say that a ban would be extended across the city, she says their future was a conversation Canberra should have.
“We do need to have a community conversation about what the future of wood-fire heaters is,” she said.
“But if we do have wood-fire heaters, we need to make sure that they are meeting environmental standards, that people are using them in the correct way and sourcing wood that is sustainable.”
The strategy sets out plans for smoke and heat-affected people to be able to take refuge in public buildings and community clubs, which will be able to receive government financial help to update ventilation systems, install air filters and door and window seals.
“Were looking at what we need to do in terms of creating refuges, particularly at those times when we have these extreme events where we can provide safety, particularly for vulnerable Canberrans that they can come together safely and access good air quality,” Ms Vassarotti said.
The ACT is already on a 10-year pathway to have climate-ready buildings, including changes to building standards and working with the Australian Building Codes Board to consider changes to the National Construction Code.
The strategy also commits to better health warnings and messaging, and economic support for businesses impacted financially by smoke events.
Ms Vassarotti said the Government’s focus on the pandemic had delayed work on the strategy.
“It was really important to get this strategy out as the bushfire season started this year,” she said.
Ms Vassarotti said the Government would be talking to the community and stakeholders as it worked through the strategy’s action plan.
The Bushfire Smoke and Air Quality Strategy is available on the ACT Government website.