2009 Victorian bushfires: spotlight on planning and building regulations

THE Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission this month turned its attention to planning, building and fuel-management practices in the lead-up to Black Saturday.

Among the topics already discussed were the inadequacy and lack of implementation of the Wildfire Management Overlay (WMO), vegetation control and that too many people were living close to the bush.

Counsel assisting the commission, Melinda Richards, stated that "the importance of land use planning as a bushfire risk mitigation measure has been recognised for some time."

Ms Richards said on Monday 8th February that "over the next 60 hearing days the evidence will focus on how land use planning in Victoria deals with bushfire risk mitigation, how well that has occurred and is occurring, whether there are aspects of the way in which the Victorian land use planning system addresses bushfire risk that could be improved and, if so, how."

The commission heard that seven of the 20 councils affected by fire on February 7 last year had not implemented the WMO, a planning tool used to mitigate and manage bushfire risk and incorporated into the planning schemes of 22 local councils.  The commission heard that some of the areas where the fires were most deadly, Marysville, Kinglake, Pine Ridge Road in Kinglake West, were not covered by a WMO.

The purpose of the WMO is to identify areas where the intensity of wildfire is significant and likely to pose a threat to life and property and to ensure that development does not significantly increase the threat to life and surrounding property from wildfire. It provides requirements for issues such as access for firefighting and emergency vehicles on a property, water supply and fuel management and design and siting of buildings.

It was heard that a major limitation of the WMO is that it applies only to new developments and that while the WMO has been in the Victorian Planning Provisions (VPPs) since 1997, the first councils did not apply it until 2004. Consequently, the protective features of the WMO apply only to buildings and subdivisions in a WMO built since at least, at the earliest, 2004 and many municipalities later than that. The WMO has no application to existing buildings and subdivisions.

Ms Richards also discussed controls relating to the removal of vegetation, which are implemented primarily through Clause 52.17 Native Vegetation of the VPPs and environmental and landscape overlays. Ms Richards stated that "these vegetation controls and the exemptions from them are found throughout the VPPs and they are complex and difficult to understand and difficult to apply. They are also difficult to reconcile with advice from the CFA about the creation and maintenance of defendable space."

Ms Richards provided an example of the conflict between planning controls and CFA advice regarding vegetation removal and management. "The household bushfire self-assessment tool the CFA advises that grass in the defendable space around a building should be maintained at a length of no more than 100 millimetres. Clause 52.17 permits native grasses within 30 metres of a building used for accommodation to be cut for fire protection purposes provided they are kept cut to a height of at least 100 millimetres. It is difficult to see how a householder would be able to apply with both clause 52.17 and the CFA's advice."

It was heard that these exemptions have "been simplified and clarified, although not significantly extended," by the introduction of Clause 52.43 into the VPPs, also known as the '10/30 right'. This clause is an interim measure that permits for fire protection purposes clearing of any vegetation within 10 metres of building used for accommodation and the removal of vegetation other than trees within 30 metres of such a building.

On the 9th February, the Commission heard from Professor John McAneney, from the insurance industry-funded Risk Frontiers project at Macquarie University. Professor McAneney agreed with Ms Richards that his research report showed between 80 and 90 per cent of house loss occurs within 100 metres of bushland and confirmed that "if we were to avoid building structures within 100 metres of bushland boundaries, then the majority of building damage would be avoided."

Professor McAneney stated that "there are over half a million addresses [in Australia] within the first 100 metres which we would regard as the most at risk." Further, he said that "there are an awful lot of people living, in my view, too close to the bush in a fire-prone country."

The 2009 Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission continues through February with further hearings focused on planning, fuel reduction and roadside clearing.  Trainscripts and further information can be obtained by visiting the 2009 Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission website at <>.

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