Bushfire reaches tertiary level

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Bushfire reaches tertiary level

This article appeared in the Winter 2012 edition of Fire Australia magazine.

A new tertiary course for bushfire consultants based on the latest research is being developed by a consortium of university and fire industry bodies. By Kirralee Morgan.

On 7 February 2009, with drought drawing moisture from the landscape and the summer heat stifling the community, the Black Saturday bushfires swept swiftly through the thick Victorian bush, obliterating homes and devastating lives with a fiery force not seen since the Ash Wednesday fires almost 26 years earlier.

Three and a half years on, the smoke may have cleared but the fires are still sparking intense discussion and research in many areas including bushfire behaviour, land use planning and building design in fire-prone areas. One point of discussion has been the training and knowledge provided to people dealing with bushfire-prone areas, and how this learning can be improved.

The Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission (VBRC), which was established to investigate the causes and responses to the Victorian fires in early 2009, made recommendations on research and further learning. One such recommendation adopted by the Victorian Government — VBRC Recommendation 55 — was for the State to initiate the development of education and training options to improve understanding of bushfire risk management in the building and planning regimes. This included a recommendation for the State to assist a tertiary institution to develop a course on bushfire planning and design in Victoria.

The University of Melbourne was subsequently granted the opportunity to run a tertiary bushfire course through its Department of Forest and Ecosystem Science in conjunction with its Faculty of Architecture, Building and Planning. To ensure the new course meets national standards and adequately caters to the need for further research, a steering committee is overseeing its development. This committee has representatives from Fire Protection Association Australia (FPA Australia), the Victorian Building Commission (VBC), the Country Fire Authority (CFA), the Victorian Department of Planning and Community Development (DPCD), and the Victorian Department of Education and Early Childhood Development.

The course in Bushfire Planning and Management has been specifically developed in accordance with the recommendation and will commence in early 2013. It will provide a suitable and professional platform for recognising the skills of bushfire consultants operating in Victoria.

Building on an existing five-day short course, Development and Building in Bushfire Prone Areas, which was established by the University of Technology Sydney in 2010 in the wake of the 2009 bushfires, the new bushfire course will offer a higher level of qualification. The University of Melbourne will offer the course at Certificate (completion of four subjects) and Diploma (completion of eight subjects) levels. It will also be offered part-time to cater for participants currently practising in specific fields. An entry requirement for the course is a completed undergraduate degree in a discipline such as science, architecture, engineering or surveying.

Planning for the future

Bushfire CRC researcher Associate Professor Kevin Tolhurst from the University of Melbourne, and one of the coordinators of the course, said the course was a necessary step for the future.

“Since the events of Black Saturday, the new planning and building regulatory framework acknowledges that there are significant interactions between the landscape, the climatic conditions, the arrangement of houses and other infrastructure in the landscape, and building design and placement. However, these interactions are complex and the royal commission recognised this, which is why this course is so important, as it will help to educate the people with the know-how to develop better designs and infrastructure for the future,” he said.

“The need to have bushfire consultants and regulators better trained to be able to consistently and reliably design and assess building developments in bushfire-prone environments is essential to the safety of the community.”

A/Prof Tolhurst said the steering committee played a vital role in ensuring the course achieved its desired outcomes.

“It has been important to have the key stakeholders involved in the development of the course to ensure that the outcomes meet everyone’s needs and there are no surprises in the development of the training and accreditation process,” he said.

The new course draws heavily on research conducted by the Bushfire CRC over the last decade by some of its leading researchers including Dr Chris Weston, Justin Leonard and A/Prof Tolhurst. The Bushfire CRC has produced a large amount of subject material for the course from its early research program, and now through its University of Melbourne-based Fire in the Landscape projects (Fire Australia, Autumn 2012).

Deputy CEO of the Bushfire CRC, Dr Richard Thornton, said the knowledge coming from the Fire in the Landscape projects and the research on fire weather, urban planning, community safety and building construction, is central to the new bushfire course, as it will greatly assist future planning and management.

“The knowledge gained from such research will ensure our land can be managed better before and after a fire. It will allow for better planning of strategies in fire and emergency management and will give future generations the tools to be more resilient to bushfires,” he said.

Dr Thornton said the course will draw on new research as it evolves.

“The Bushfire CRC’s research extends across many fire-related disciplines and this will continually enhance the content of the new course with improved knowledge on bushfire impacts and behaviour.”

FPA Australia has also been closely involved in the creation of the bushfire course. As part of its role on the course steering committee, FPA Australia has provided a vital link between the course’s design and the fire protection industry.

Skills development a priority

Matthew Wright, Chief Technical Officer and Deputy CEO of FPA Australia, said the knowledge of the Association’s technical department has been relied on heavily in the development of the course.

“The Victorian Government specifically sought FPA Australia’s involvement in the development of the course to ensure it would provide the skills necessary in the current marketplace and, in particular, the Victorian legislative landscape and local climate and conditions,” he said.

“FPA Australia has helped to ensure the course attends to and connects the scientific understanding of bushfire behaviour and risk with the legislative goals and requirements for construction in areas subject to bushfire planning and building controls. This has been possible due to FPA Australia’s unique exposure to both bushfire science and industry demands.

“As the peak national industry body, FPA Australia represents the interests of our members in the Australian fire protection industry, including bushfire consultants, by providing an excellent avenue for them to improve their knowledge and skills when dealing with bushfire-prone areas,” he said.

A/Prof Tolhurst said, “those wishing to expand their credentials even further will be able to complete the equivalent of 16 subjects and qualify for the Master of Forest and Ecosystem Science.

“On top of that, students will also be offered the opportunity to undertake individual subjects without completing the full award, which is often done by consultants or agency people with a wish to strengthen a particular aspect of their skills. A maximum of two subjects can be done this way and students can choose to be formally assessed or not.”

The new bushfire course accommodates the adoption of a new Australian Standard AS 3959-2009 Construction of buildings in bushfire-prone areas, and the designation of Bushfire-Prone Areas and Bushfire Management Overlays following the 2009 fires.

The course is aimed at professionals in the planning, building, engineering, architecture and environmental industries with roles in the design or regulation of development in a bushfire environment. Urban planners, rural developers, public land managers, architects, fire engineers and fire agency planning regulators would find the course relevant. Although existing courses present bushfire-related subjects in building design, and training sessions are run by agencies such as the BC, DPCD and CFA in Victoria, none cover the material and research as extensively as the new course aims to do.

Mr Wright said, “right now there is no requirement for consultants providing bushfire advice to be registered or formally recognised in Victoria. Accordingly, in Victoria anyone can prepare a Bushfire Attack Level assessment in accordance with AS 3959-2009 or develop a Bushfire Management Statement to accompany a planning permit application. Understanding of the intent of planning and building controls combined with a scientific understanding of bushfire risk is critical to realising more appropriate development in bushfire-prone areas and increasing the safety of both responding emergency services and the community.”

The course will provide graduates with the necessary skills to undertake designs and prepare alternative solutions in bushfire-prone environments. The course will cover, among other things, land use planning for mitigating bushfire impact, bushfire building design and construction, fuel assessment and management, bushfire behaviour and firefighting techniques.

A/Prof Tolhurst adds, “the integrated nature of the course will mean that most participants will need to develop a greater understanding of areas outside their normal expertise.

“The University of Melbourne intends to offer the course for decades to come, to ensure industries dealing with bushfire-prone areas have enhanced, up-to-date information with which to design and manage infrastructure and environment for the future.”

The Bushfire Planning and Management course begins in early 2013. More details at http://www.forests.unimelb.edu.au

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Release date

Wed, 01/08/2012