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Old firefighting methods inadequate: Risk Frontiers

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Australia should move away from long-standing firefighting ideas that are resource-intensive and struggle to control fires when conditions are truly catastrophic, the Royal Commission into National Natural Disaster Arrangements has been told.

A submission to the inquiry from Sydney-based catastrophe modelling firm Risk Frontiers says a national bushfire capability development plan should be urgently created to guide investment in the “next generation” of bushfire fighting capability.

The submission, which has been supplied to, says such a plan will be especially important given the trend toward more dangerous conditions in southern Australia and an earlier start to the fire season due, at least in part, to climate change.

Bushfires make up 12% of normalised Australian insured natural hazard losses over the period 1966-2017, the submission says.

“We posit the need to adopt an all-hazards, whole of community and nationwide approach to managing large scale disasters,” Risk Frontiers says.

“Consideration should be given to multiple large-scale concurrent or sequential events in future disaster planning. There is a need to encourage community participation and greater private sector engagement.”

Risk Frontiers says the 2019-2020 fire season is expected to be comparable to the most damaging seasons – if not the most damaging – in Australia since 1925 after increases in dwelling numbers are taken into account, overtaking the February 1983 Ash Wednesday fires.

Its comparison of risks between perils shows postcodes that face the greatest risk of financial loss to insurable assets lie in WA, Queensland and NSW, with flood and tropical cyclone being the most significant perils.

The Queensland city of Bundaberg has the highest average annual loss relative to all other postcodes, it says.

“Information like this could be employed to guide national mitigation investment priorities,” the submission says.

Risk Frontiers says in the short term there are many technologies and systems already existing that could improve firefighting, such as satellites and unmanned aerial vehicles, or balloons equipped with radio communications.

Autonomous trucks used in mining could help, and resource tracking technologies could improve co-ordination and firefighter safety.

“A research and innovation blueprint is needed that outlines how technologies will be translated to enhance firefighting and resilience in the short term and, beyond this, how the next generation of capability will be designed and built,” the submission says.

The blueprint development should involve government, research and industry stakeholders working collaboratively.

The royal commission will begin two weeks of public hearings on May 25.