Opinion || Councils can help build bushfire-smart communities

As a firefighter for nearly 50 years, I’ve seen first-hand the devastation fire brings to communities. And this month in particular, with fires raging in Tasmania and Victoria and the anniversary of Black Saturday, is a stark reminder of the immediate and lasting destruction fires bring.  

But what scares me most, isn’t the fire or the risk to my life. It’s how communities are going to cope as bushfire seasons become worse. 

Every year, more and more Australians build their homes in our native bush and every year, our bushfire seasons become more intense due to climate change. Not only are more people putting themselves at risk, but resources to protect these people are becoming stretched thin. 

Despite this, building in bushfire-prone areas carries on - and communities that have been ravaged by fire continue to rebuild.

Local councils, as the tier of government closest to the community, are uniquely placed to work with residents to help them to understand and manage risks in bushfire danger zones. In this day and age, I also believe that this should involve educating communities about climate change. 

To become more fire-resilient, communities need the necessary facts to make informed choices about the risks involved in choosing to build in a bushfire-prone location, how they can mitigate those risks, and how they can stay safe in catastrophic conditions. 

Pretending that longer, more intense bushfire seasons are one-offs or freak occurrences ignores the data - this is our new normal, and if urgent steps aren’t taken to curb our greenhouse gas emissions, it can only get worse.

Some councils, such as East Gippsland in Victoria and Ku-ring-gai in NSW are leading the way, creating resources to help homeowners, builders, and prospective buyers plan and adapt their homes to increase climate resilience, including bushfire threat. This sort of sensible, targeted local advice could save lives.

Urban and rural fire services are increasingly working to educate communities, but often with limited resources against a backdrop of increasing emergency response workloads. By partnering with the fire services councils can help to ensure that crucial safety messages reach those assessed as being at greatest risk. 

Research shows that bushfire seasons will almost certainly continue to become longer and to intensify under current climate change projections. Well informed, empowered communities will be better prepared to withstand them - and also to take action to minimise the climate factors that drive them. Local government can and should play a crucial role in both respects. 

Greg Mullins AO, AFSM is the former Commissioner of Fire & Rescue New South Wales, a volunteer firefighter, and a Councillor with the Climate Council