Beyond bushfires: creating resilient communities

Posted March 18, 2020

SGS Economics and Planning Australian bush fire

Earlier this year, the world watched in sympathy as Australian communities dealt with catastrophic bushfires during the hottest and driest year ever recorded in Australia. Now that the bushfires have subsided, how can land use planners assist with the recovery and forge more resilient communities into the future?

Land use planners have an implicit and ongoing interest in developing future and existing settlements and communities. Over the past couple of months in Australia, bushfires have destroyed around 2,800 homes and claimed the lives of over 30 people. Many areas have experienced extended periods without power and with road closures resulting in restricted access to food supplies and fuel. As these areas and communities seek to return to a sense of normality, it is also the time to consider the opportunities to rebuild better and more resilient communities, while simultaneously reducing carbon emissions.

Creating more resilient communities

Directions for creating more resilient communities:

  • Better understand known and potential hazards through enhanced analytical techniques, data usage and spatial mapping.
  • Plan for known and potential hazards, including consideration of rebuilding in alternative locations as a long term response and identifying impacts from future changes in climate.
  • Rebuild buildings that better respond to the local climate and conditions, and are more energy efficient and resilient.
  • Ensure more resilient infrastructure that builds in redundancy to existing transport, energy and water infrastructure networks and limits system failures in extreme weather events.
  • Create greater economic resilience by increasing the strength of local economies through community wealth building.
SGS Economics and planning homes destroyed by bushfire Tasmania
Homes destroyed by bushfire, Tasmania

Better understand known and potential hazards

Rebuilding houses, suburbs and towns requires planning for known or potential risks to ensure that buildings and infrastructure can respond to the real threat of more extreme weather events caused by climate change.

As a starting point, a more comprehensive understanding of future risk and the potential frequency of hazardous events is essential. Identifying the location of these risks through engagement with relevant professionals and technicians, research and data analysis and spatial mapping to more precisely identify higher risk locations is essential to inform this understanding.

In the past, planning for development has considered natural hazard risks based on historical patterns of flooding, bushfire etc. With the expected and ongoing impacts of climate change and the increasing severity and frequency of natural disasters, it is important that new development occurs in areas least likely to be impacted by future extreme weather events and/or designed to better manage or respond to potential natural disasters if, or when, they occur.

In established areas where recent disasters including flooding, bushfires, coastal erosion and drought have occurred, the opportunity exists to reimagine future development and rebuild more resilient, energy efficient, safe and secure settlements.

SGS Economics and Planning resilient infrastructure East Gippsland
After bushfire, East Gippsland

Design and plan land use for known or potential hazards

Better and more informed decisions on ‘retrofitting’ or protecting existing settlements, or on the future location and design of settlements will be enabled by enhanced knowledge of risk and potential hazards.

Protective options include perimeter roads and managing adjacent land surrounding settlements, with the provision of safety bunkers for communities or housing in high risk and/or remote areas. Perimeter roads around settlements can be beneficial as a fire break but also provide access for emergency vehicles and escape routes for local residents where they might otherwise be reliant on a single road, in and out of small and remote settlements. Ensuring that sensitive land uses such as aged care facilities and child care are outside of higher hazard areas is especially important for vulnerable people who are not independently mobile.

Consolidation and intensification of development should only occur in areas where the environmental values will not be significantly impacted by protection measures and away from potentially hazardous urban edges including coastal erosion zones and high bushfire hazard areas.

In some areas resettlement may need to be contemplated. While individual households may choose to relocate, due to the trauma experienced or high costs of rebuilding, there is also the option to consider this at a community level, based on known risks. One option known as managed retreat, has already occurred in towns such as Grantham in Queensland (west of Brisbane) that was severely affected by the 2011 floods. In this example, an Australia-first plan ‘Strengthening Grantham’ was implemented. This plan offered residents of low-lying flood impacted properties the opportunity to relocate to land outside of the flood plain. Residents who took up the offer to swap lots of land were paid to build their new homes with insurance payouts, backed by special grants from the Premier's Flood Appeal. ‘Strengthening Grantham’ was facilitated by a compressed planning process that would typically take two to three years, being undertaken in four months and included visioning and design option workshops with local residents, to identify future directions and desired outcomes for the community.

In other locations, managed retreat may not be necessary or desirable. In areas with a lower frequency or severity of extreme weather events, the alternative to build back better and more resilient communities may be preferable. Equally, in larger, more established settlements the choice may be to build back as more resilient, adaptive and prepared communities, with the option to consider a long term system of planned retreat.

SGS Economics and Planning rebuilding better buildings Adelaide Hills
After bushfire, Adelaide Hills

Rebuilding better buildings

Ensuring that new and existing buildings respond to expected local climate conditions, means that buildings and their occupants can better withstand the extremes of heat and cold, as well as high wind, fire and flood. Improved building standards have already meant that in some areas, new homes are much more likely to survive bushfires through decreasing the risk of ember attack infiltrating the building envelope.

In some areas, bushfire hazard overlays may need to be extended or Bushfire Attack Level (BAL) ratings increased. Currently in Victoria, for example, landowners in designated Bushfire Prone Areas are required to build to a minimum Bushfire Attack Level (BAL) of 12.5, which ensures that a building can withstand ember attack and exposure to a level of radiant heat up to and including 12.5 kW/m2. Higher BALs, such as BAL 40, mean that buildings can withstand burning debris, windborne embers and radiant heat up to and including 40kW/M2, while a BAL of Flame Zone can withstand the radiant heat exposure of flames.

SGS Economics and Planning Bushfire haze Junee NSW Jan 2020 Melbourne to Sydney rail link editorial only
Bushfire smoke haze Junee NSW (Melbourne to Sydney rail link)

More resilient infrastructure

Decentralised energy and water systems

More resilient infrastructure can be achieved through built in redundancy, involving the duplication of critical components or functions of a system to increasing system reliability.

This can include creating stand-alone decentralised energy and water supply systems that do not depend on centralised networks to remain operational. The World Energy Issues Monitor (2019) identifies that in Australia one of the most pressing issues for our energy sector is decentralised systems. For local communities and homes this could include solar power, battery storage, and microgrids that can be deployed to provide backup power in the event of an outage, or used as the primary source of energy, particularly in more remote areas. This has the added advantage of reducing emissions where these power sources are not based on fossil fuels.

Reliable energy supply

Decentralised energy infrastructure will also increase reliability and resilience in the event of ‘upstream’ system failure or shutdowns. Undergrounding electric and natural gas distribution infrastructure and ensuring it is outside of flood zones, can also provide more resilient energy distribution networks that can remain intact in flood, bushfire and high wind events such as cyclones.

Reliable water supply

Water supply is also vital, particularly in times of drought and bushfire emergencies. Ensuring on-site independent access to water supply is critical. In the event of a bushfire, water mains pressure may drop, resulting in water not flowing from hoses and taps at the time it is most needed. Having an on-site water supply through tanks, ponds or dams, together with a pump that can function independent of the electricity grid, ensures not only that water is available, but that it can be used, even when central electricity supplies are not operational.

Provision of on-site water retention, not only at an individual property level, but also at a suburb or district level, can not only provide water reservoirs and buffers in emergencies but also enhance ecological diversity. Water sensitive urban design measures can ensure water is naturally filtered and cleaned (bio-filtration) and also support natural habitat for native flora and fauna. Such systems can also contribute to reduced water consumption which will be critical as rainfall in central storage areas declines or is less reliable.

Sustainable and resilient transport options

Ensuring that there are different transport options available, including transport systems that are not entirely dependent on imported fuel reserves, can become particularly important in periods of local emergency or weather hazard. Cars fueled by petrol and diesel rely on fuel being imported and trucked to individual communities where it is then distributed through the petrol bowser. In the case of extreme events, this system can quickly break down. The recent closure of the Princes and Kings Highways during the bushfires on the south coast of NSW being a case in point. Alternative options include electric vehicles powered by renewable energy sources, with local distribution and storage. There is a need for an acceleration in our uptake of electric vehicles as it is a practical way for transitioning to a clean economy with significant related benefits.

SGS Economics and Planning Eden Aust Jan 2020 bushfire evacuation
Bushfire community evacuation January 2020 Eden Australia

Resilient local economies

Dealing with, and responding to, natural disasters can result in economic pressure on areas directly and indirectly impacted by the natural disaster. For example, when roads and tourist destinations along the NSW south coast were closed due to the 2019-20 fires not only the tourist towns suffered but inland towns that were reliant on tourists passing through were impacted. Businesses can be forced to temporarily shut or permanently close, jobs are impacted and crops and livestock are lost.

Building more resilient local communities by increasing economic resilience can occur through community wealth building initiatives. Community wealth building aims to develop workable solutions to keep money in local communities. Instead of spending significantly more, it relies on being smarter with how money is spent, taking advantage of the benefits of local industries, to support local multiple businesses through their supply chains and employ workers who will spend in their local economy. This model sees the economy as circular and rejects the extractive model of economic development, where money and investment leaks or is removed from local communities. In the event of rebuilding after a natural disaster, this ensures more money is retained in the local community.

In places that have experienced extreme events, building resilience is a key long term solution focusing importantly on strengthening communities, as well as physical adaptation. Building more resilient communities has multiple benefits if done with this potential in mind, including developing greater economic and financial independence through the creation of local jobs and small business capacity, and distributed energy generation that is not reliant on centralised energy sources.

Designing our buildings and settlements to respond to future risks, requires an enhanced recognition and understanding of future climate conditions. This can create communities that not only can withstand more extreme weather conditions but can contribute to reducing greenhouse gas emissions through more energy efficient buildings that are designed for the local climate and increased occupant comfort; sustainable transport that gives people a range of options for travel and distributed renewable energy generation that reduces energy waste and limits the use of finite resources.

While these disasters can have tragic results, they can also challenge us to showcase new ideas and innovation, create new opportunities for local communities and develop more resilient places that respond to the lessons of the past, prepare for the future and create places that strengthen their social, economic and environmental aspects.


Bozuwa and Hanna October 17, 2019. Building Community Wealth through Community Resilience.

Bureau of Meteorology (BOM), 9 January 2020. Annual Climate Statement 2019, Australian Government.

Chiu, O. 2019. ‘Community wealth building offers a way forward for progressives,’ The Canberra Times

Kompas, T., Witte, E. and Keegan, M. 2019, Australia’s Clean Energy Future: Costs and Benefits, MSSI Issues Paper 12, Melbourne Sustainable Society Institute, The University of Melbourne, https://sustainable.unimelb.ed...

Norman, B. and Gurran, N. 2018. Adapting to long term coastal climate risk through planning approaches and instruments. CoastAdapt Information Manual 5, 3rd edn, National Climate Change Adaptation Research Facility, Gold Coast.

Simmonds, J. and Davies, C. 2011. Community Reconstruction – The Strengthening Grantham Project, PIA Conference Toowoomba,

United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), 22 January 2020. ‘Ten Impacts of the Australian Bushfires’,

World Energy Issues Monitor 2019, World Energy Council

Other Studies:

The National Climate Change Adaptation Research Facility (NCCARF) was established in 2008 and ran until June 2013 providing research on adaptation to climate change consisting of actions to reduce the adverse consequences of climate change on human and natural systems, as well as to harness any beneficial opportunities. There are a range of useful studies, research papers and webinars available through the NCCARF website See for example:

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