At the time of writing, there have been 33 deaths, over 3,000 homes destroyed and ten million hectares of land scorched. What good can come of this disaster? In the midst of this dreadful tragedy and our collective sorrow and anger, let's look for rays of light. Let’s try for a positive future and better outcomes.

Indigenous fire management

Following on from Australia/Invasion Day we can start with black and white views of the bush. The right wingers, which we call ‘crimsons’ – the opposite of greens (see the recent ToT column), call for more hazard reduction, more logging and more land clearing to alleviate bushfires. That is, managing the bush for fire. Which, as many have pointed out, is similar in intent to indigenous ‘fire-stick’ processes.

This fire season has seen a huge increase in interest about indigenous fire management for cropping, food and safety. So much so, that a book by one of the indigenous experts, Victor Steffenson, is being rushed into publication on February 18. Called Fire Country, How Indigenous Fire Management Could Help Save Australia, it continues a recent run of books on indigenous practices that have captured the imagination of us Gubbahs, (see Marcia Langton’s Welcome to Country, Bruce Pascoe’s Dark Emu or Bill Gammage’s Greatest Estate on Earth). All part of a change in fortune for indigenous design and culture.

It will be fascinating to see how some of the right-wing proponents for activities such as hazard burning square the circle of their interests with those that hold the traditional knowledge. It puts me in mind of a quote attributed to Ishi, the last of the American Plains Indians. When asked what he thought of the white man, he reputedly said “he thought of them as children, smart but not wise”.

The clearing, the logging, the tree thinning, the hazard reduction all seems very smart, but at the same time it lacks the wisdom that comes from thousands of years of indigenous practice. That will change.

Local communities

We have witnessed a complete inversion of the political pyramid of Australia’s three levels of government.  Local Councils are now to the fore, with mayors featuring in TV reports to explain what was happening, since they best know the people and places in their regions. We see first-hand what local community really means as local councillors, often unpaid volunteers, take action on the crisis.

By contrast the NSW state government looked foolish for having slashed $12.9m from Fire and Rescue NSW and $26.7m from the Rural Fire Services. And the federal government, which likes to be seen at the apex, was left floundering, leaderless, with bad photo opportunities, before calling in the troops.

There’s been a dramatic change to the political order: local communities now rule over the Canberra ‘bubble’. The poorest paid and lowest ranked of politicians are now in charge of the planning and rebuilding of Australia’s burnt out regions. They know the locals, the area, the terrain and the details. Now they need to be paid properly to administer their patch. Think global but act local.

And it could be time to rethink Council boundaries. Not the spurious idea of ‘amalgamations’, but to better represent the ecological areas of water collection and bushfire exposure. In line with last week's ToT column the Councils should have both European and Indigenous names, recognising the Aboriginal language groups in their region.

Servants and volunteers.

In the same way as the political pyramid is inverted, so the relationship between politicians and their servants has been inverted. Shane Fitzsimmons, the Bushfire Commissioner for New South Wales, was in total command, a rigorous presenter of information of which he was completely across. By contrast, the state premier Gladys Berejiklian was wooden as she struggled with her social empathy deficit.

Most of the RFS and CFS are volunteers. As the fires expanded, we began to realise that we ask too much of these local workers. Entreaties to bosses to be lenient in leave, and supplementary pay offerings by the Feds seemed inadequate, particularly as the season wears on, and the next and the next. We admire and celebrate their service, but we ask too much for free.

It's time we had a fully professional bushfire force, trained and paid for regional firefighting, undertaking bush maintenance and fire control advice in the off season. Volunteers would still be needed, but it would be akin to the way the paid lifeguards (Bondi Rescue) look after the beaches on the days that the volunteer life savers don’t.

Back at the local Council it is critical that the staff are of the highest calibre, particularly where councillors continue to be poorly paid, or not paid at all. The politicians may be out the front, but it is the work done down the back that really counts. Acknowledging this will be a major change moving forward.


Speaking of Councils, one of their main tasks in the near future is approvals for replacement homes and buildings. A great first step would be to make the entire process clearer, easier and less costly. Many councils are intending to waive all costs for applications, vital for owners who have never ventured through the tortured approval process. But not all. Wingecarribee in NSW intends to require full freight, which may be OK for Sydney’s Eastern Suburbs’ elite rebuilding their retreats in Bowral, but not those in Wingello and Bundanoon.

Importantly, we need to go much further than lowering application costs. The process will be far more rigorous than before, and many applicants wanting to rebuild will have never encountered it. Houses will need better designs, with higher material standards and levels of infrastructure, subject to more reports. Owners with little or no experience of this process need help. We need to put into place a ‘Bushfire Design Advice Panel’ or BDAP at every council.

These panels, consisting of designers, building scientists and planners with knowledge of regional and bushfire design, would offer free advice to applicants on all aspects of the process: whether to rebuild, siting, design, materials and code compliance (see below). And that advice could be binding for Council approvals.

The Australian Institute of Architects has instituted an ‘Architects Assist’ initiative (here), with some 500 practices offering free design services for people who have lost houses in the bushfire. Admirable, but my cynical question is: have you done a recent house under $500,000 in a regional area to a BAL FZ? Let's go to the Building Designers Association BDA for that advice.

Bushfire codes

The disastrous Victorian Black Saturday bushfires of February 2009 led to a series of studies to improve bushfire safety, including new and improved design codes. We now have codes for three things which we might call security, sprinklers and shelters.

AS 3959 covers the design of buildings including the Bushfire Attack Levels (BAL), detailing how to make a building secure against bushfire. AS 5414 is for Bushfire External Water Spray Systems, covering the use of sprinklers to wet buildings, essential for protection of existing buildings that cannot reach AS 3959. Thirdly, the ABCB has issued a performance standard for Private Bushfire Shelters and has amended the BCA for these ‘refuges’ or ‘bunkers’.

Designing building codes is a difficult and tricky business relying on modelling and estimates. Testing to destruction is rarely financially feasible. We are now going to see ‘test results’ for many of the code assumptions made, seeing how buildings designed to those codes stood up to these severest of bushfires.

We now have a huge number of buildings of different designs and qualities that burnt, some made to code and many not. There will be ample scope for the CSIRO and universities to investigate the performance of buildings against these codes so we may improve the standards for all buildings, both new buildings and retrofitting the old.


Australians (and others) have donated in extraordinary amounts to philanthropic and volunteer organisations. A total amount of money to rival that which has been promised by the Federal Government. Why? A mixture of our generosity and tax smarts.

Being tax deductable, donations are a positive form of tax evasion, or reduction at least. The Australian tax collected to GDP ratio at 25 percent is one of the lowest in the world, and we rely on philanthropy to a far greater extent than we care to admit.

Australians know that volunteer organizations are better run and closer to the ground, thus more effective and are better value for money than the state and federal governments and are learning that tax deductibility gives way to direct how their monies are spent. The massive shift to privatising everything, including emergency payments, has forced this outcome.

It is hugely ironic then that politicians, such as NSW MP Andrew Constance, member for the South Coast area of Bega, are criticizing volunteer organizations for being too slow, when his own government had ripped money away from the Rural Fire Service, making it more difficult for them to perform their tasks.  And saying that 10 percent for administration costs is excessive shows a complete ignorance of market forces.


These bushfires may herald a massive change in Australia's politics and delivery of services: a greater recognition of indigenous wisdom; a greater appreciation and support for local communities; greater support for the operations of local councils; better codes for safety and survival; properly funding volunteer organisations; and a recognition that having outsourced compassion and cash to philanthropic organisations, they are doing a better job than the government did, or could.

Tone Wheeler is principal architect at Environa Studio, adjunct professor at UNSW and is president of the Australian Architecture Association. The views expressed here are solely those of the author and are not held or endorsed by A+D, the AAA or UNSW. Comments can be posted here or addressed to [email protected].