NSW Bushfire Policy Does It Measure Up?
Few could have forgotten the tragedy around the Victorian Black Saturday bushfires of February 2009. In response to the huge loss of life, the Victorian government established a bushfire Royal Commission which recently made 67 recommendations.
Other states now have a valuable opportunity to make some comparisons. Weve certainly had our fair share of bushfire disasters. So how does the NSW bushfire policy measure up?
The stay or go approach has been much debated. Victorias Royal Commission recommended that while well-prepared people should be allowed to make the decision to stay and defend their homes, there needed to be a far better bushfire warning system, better advice given, more effective planning by both emergency services and individuals (shared responsibility), and greater emphasis on encouraging people to evacuate.
The NSW Rural Fire Service (RFS) policy also allows people to choose to leave early or stay and defend their homes. Police and emergency services can persuade people to evacuate, but there is no law that says they must comply. Unlike Victorias policy though, the wording used here is stronger. The NSW Bushfire Survival Plan states that on days when the threat is catastrophic or extreme, People in the path of the fire will almost certainly die or be injured and Even well prepared and constructed homes will not be safe. In comparison, Victorias policy replaces the word will with the less persuasive may, making it perhaps easier for people to disregard the level of danger.
Since Black Saturday NSW has created extra levels in its bushfire danger rating system, providing very clear advice about the risks for each level.
One criticism of Victorias Black Saturday response was that there were too few options available to people, such as community refuges to go to if they left their homes. NSW is now in the process of establishing Neighbourhood Safer Places (NSPs), where people can go as a last resort during bushfires emergencies. Its a work-in-progress, but the list of NSPs in different NSW areas is growing.
The Royal Commission also called for a national debate about whether people should be allowed to build (or rebuild) in areas at high risk of bushfires.
In NSW the current Environmental Planning and Assessment Act says that all development applications (eg. to build or renovate a house) in bushfire-prone areas must comply with Planning for Bushfire Protection measures. Among others, these include certain requirements about the construction and design, access, and emergency management.
NSW has recently been criticised for falling down in the area of back-burning, which can significantly reduce the fire hazard.
There are lessons to be learned following any tragedy. Theres a lot to take in, but its good to see that NSW is taking note of some of the Commissions recommendations.