Many Australians Believe - Wrongly - That Their Suburbs Are Safe From Bushfires

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Many living in suburbs close the outer edge of Australian cities are vulnerable to bushfires because many refuse to believe they are at risk.

Richard Thornton, CEO of the Bushfire and Natural Hazards Cooperative Research Centre, says Australians need to tackle bushfires in more innovative ways.

“We all know that somewhere at some time this year bushfires will destroy homes – just as towns will be flooded and cyclones will pound coastal communities,” he says.

And yet those in bushfires ravaged towns often say: “We knew it was going to be a bad day, but we just didn’t think it would be bad for us.”

For much of the population there is a fundamental disconnect between accepting a risk as a group (as a whole country) and as an individual.

Most Australians get through the year and the next decade or two without personally feeling the impact of a natural disaster.

Dr Thornton says:

“This low likelihood/high consequence scenario is the trickiest of all situations for governments and emergency service agencies to manage. This is particularly true of residents on the urban fringe. Many have a city mindset in a bush landscape. When extreme days hit, it is these people that are most vulnerable.”

The bushfires in Victoria are a reminder that homes and properties in urban fringe areas will continue to be under threat from fires each summer, says Alan March, Associate Professor in Urban Planning at the University of Melbourne.

More than 20 homes have been destroyed in the current fires in Victoria.

Many houses built years before new planning rules are difficult to modify for better fire protection.

“Many people can become complacent, particularly as time passes after a major event, or simply do not appreciate the risks associated with what might appear to be minor vegetation within apparently urban areas, such as parks or grasslands,” Dr March says.

He says it’s important to maintain standards set in planning and design for bushfires.

“Pressure is likely to mount from those wishing to loosen regulations to facilitate urban growth,” Dr March says.

“If we maintain standards, our settlements will increasingly become bushfire resilient in the long term.”

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