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Saturday, July 31, 2010

Victoria Bushfire Royal Commission Final Report

Victoria's Bushfire Royal Commission has released its final report on the Black Saturday bushfires of February 7, 2009, which claimed the lives of 173 Victorians, with most victims in the periurban regions of Melbourne. Interestingly, the Commission didn't shy away from controversial recommendations, including proposing that at-risk communities in bushfire prone areas should be depopulated under a "retreat and resettlement" policy:

"Applying land-use planning and building controls to minimise or reduce bushfire
risk presents challenges. In particular, the planning and building systems operate prospectively and have little capacity to deal with past decisions and existing settlements or buildings in bushfire-prone areas, so they cannot account for people who are already living in areas of extremely high risk. The Commission therefore proposes that action be taken to help people move away from those areas where other bushfire risk-mitigation measures are not viable. In particular, the State should develop and implement a voluntary retreat and resettlement strategy—including non-compulsory land acquisition—for existing developments in areas at unacceptably high bushfire risk."

The Commission therefore highlights some of the difficult choices that decision-makers and individuals will have to make. Robust risk management for such events is difficult to envision if development continues to proliferate in at-risk periurban regions. On the other hand, risk minimization has traditionally been difficult to reconcile with individual property rights and demand for amenity lifestyles. Whether the political powers that be are willing to implement such dramatic vulnerability reduction measures remains to be seen, but Australia's development has never shied away from hazards. That seems unlikely to change now.

Update 8/26/2010: The Victoria government has responded to the Commission's recommendations and, not surprisingly, has opted to support those recommendations which represent incremental, uncontroversial responses, while dismissing some of the more transformational changes recommended by the Commission as too disruptive or costly.

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