The recent Tathra fire is a sobering warning about the risks to life, property and fragile ecosystems under climate change.
Canberra felt the effects of catastrophic fire in 2003 and, following the 2009 Black Saturday fires in Victoria, the category “catastrophic” was added to the fire danger index.
The incidence of preconditions for such fire (extreme weather in the forms of heat, wind, dry periods) is set to increase with climate change.
The Ginninderry areas of West Belconnen and Parkwood have been identified by a leading expert in extreme fire behaviour as potential future disaster zones for fire.
This landscape is similar to that around Tathra.
Extreme fire risk in the local area arises from exposure to the prevailing north-westerly winds, driving from the heavily-vegetated western ranges, and to dynamic fire propagation associated with the gorges that surround the area along the Murrumbidgee River and Ginninderra Creek.
Despite being open to extreme fire risk (for 13,500 potential residents), the NSW area of Parkwood is proposed to be rezoned for urban development imminently – from Environmental Management and Rural uses to Residential.
The landform is such that there will be only one main access road from the most vulnerable portion for escape from oncoming fire driven by extreme winds.
At present, the fire danger in this area is being addressed through building codes, fuel reduction and the creation of an Asset Protection Zone around the outskirts of the proposed suburbs.
These measures might work for ordinary bushfires that burn along the ground and set fire to adjoining property through radiant heat but are less likely to be effective for catastrophic fires with dynamic characteristics resulting in strong winds driving embers vast distances.
Surely, given the current state of knowledge, we should be going a step further and creating no-go areas similar to the 100-year flood zone, based on predicted future fire risk.
No matter how strict the building codes nor how well adhered to, in a major fire homes and lives will likely be lost.
Even in the best case scenario where no houses or lives are lost, is it civilised to put people through the trauma of sheltering in the path of a firestorm with the inevitable, subsequent post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD ) and social and psychological consequences that follow?
What are the public liability implications involved?
It is time that precautionary planning and building safe communities for the future became the prime considerations.
Robyn Coghlan, President, Ginninderra Falls Association Incorporated