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Today’s solution and tomorrow’s problem

Should we expand housing onto Canberra’s bushfire prone land?

Matt Dutkiewicz holding a book of photos from the Canberra bushfires

When Matt Dutkiewicz was hospitalised after fighting the 2003 bushfires at Uriarra Crossing, he thought his brother had died trying to save the family home in Duffy.

Leading a makeshift crew of firefighters when the blazes reached Canberra, Dutkiewicz was stuck battling the fires on the far western edge of the city while his brother Jamie was left to save the family home alone.

“I had started to get calls from my brother to say he really needed help, so I was there trying to save my life, save the life of the crew, and try to work out what we were doing in this almighty fire… and then I eventually lost contact with Jamie,” he said.

Now, as Matt Dutkiewicz reflects on his experience of the fires nearly 20 years on, the ACT Government is considering further expansion of the same western edge he saw burn in 2003 to grapple with the unfolding housing crisis in Canberra.

In June this year, ACT Minister for Planning and Land Management Mick Gentleman announced an investigation into the western edge as a potential option to tackle lack of housing availability and affordability in the city.

At the time of the announcement, Canberra’s median house prices were the second most expensive of all Australian capitals, measuring at $1,154,535 for houses and $599,735 for units, according to data from Domain.

More recent data reveals that while Canberra’s vacancy rate for homes has hit a 21-month high in September, it’s still only 1.1 per cent, remaining a landlord’s market with the highest median weekly rental prices in the country.

Canberra’s first sample of data from the 2021 census made the housing situation somewhat clearer when it revealed the population had reached a high of over 454,000 people, which ACT Chief Minister Andrew Barr said was around 21,000 more than estimations had anticipated.

An under-construction apartment building covered in scaffolding

While Minister Gentleman was unable to comment on the investigation, ACT Chief Planner Ben Ponton of the Environmental, Planning and Sustainable Development Directorate said extensive research will be undertaken before the government will commit to anything.

“The western edge investigation area is approximately 9,800 hectares which includes land generally bordered by the Murrumbidgee River and existing urban areas of Belconnen, Molonglo Valley, Weston Creek and Kambah,” he said.

“We will now be moving into preliminary strategic planning phases, with ongoing environmental surveys expected. This will include identification of bushfire threat and mitigation measures.”

The investigation into Canberra’s western edge has been underway since 2020, where environmental safety surveys were at the forefront.

According to the Western Edge Investigation Area Preliminary Bushfire Risk Assessment [PDF] produced by the directorate in 2020, the potential expansion area has been identified as bushfire prone land.

The report reads, “the pattern of bushfire hazard is extensive enough and continuous enough to support larger sized bushfires, although fire history for the region indicated large landscape bushfires occur at a very low frequency”.

A road sloping away and off into the distance with bushland in the background

For the Canberrans like Matt Dutkiewicz who were in the very thick of the 2003 bushfires, the identified severity of the disaster is enough to discourage advocacy for building on the previously burned western edge.

Major General Peter Dunn, who was the Commissioner for the ACT Emergency Services Authority that was set up after the 2003 bushfires as a statutory authority to rebuild Canberra’s emergency services, also can’t forget the severity of 2003.

Having seen Canberra’s bushfires firsthand and analysing the response to them, Dunn said the fire services did everything they could with the unprecedented and new conditions they were presented with.

“There were fire scientists at the time, who said this is not right, this does not compute, this represents huge change in what fires will be like from here on out,” he said.

“There were a number of people afterwards suggesting there needed to be a different process to attack these fires because something has happened to the climate, but all the standard operating procedures were being followed at the time, and little more could, and can, be done.

“Nothing would have stopped the fire, and frankly, they said behind closed doors, we were very lucky to get away with what happened… it could have been much worse.”

Burnt-out cars at the base of a collapsed power pole
Photo: Matt Dutkiewicz

Since 2018, Dunn has been a member of the Emergency Leaders for Climate Change advocacy group, which calls upon the government to act on emissions, and provide resources to better prepare Australians for extreme disasters.

His advocacy extends to the importance of alerting the community within these “traditional fire path areas” that they are putting themselves in danger, as fires of this calibre will happen again.

“The Government now has to figure out, do we expand further into the available area to the west and with large scale fires coming every 25 years or less… which they already have started to do with suburbs like Wright and Coombs,” he said.

“When you get fire, you get ember attack, which causes most of the destruction to homes even when landscape fires aren’t really close to them, and anywhere remotely close to large areas of vegetation is in danger of that.

“We have to be transparent with the people and the community about the risk that comes with living in these areas, because fires will happen there again, and they need to be aware of that… and they could be just like they were in 2003.”

A suburban street with houses at either side

Bushfires have long been a part of Australia’s history, and the location of the nation’s capital is within areas with a significant past of bushfire events.

But as Canberra grapples with its growing population, there isn’t an appropriate alternative area within the capital where expansion could realistically happen except for the western edge, Dunn added.

Master Builders ACT’s Chief Executive Officer Michael Hopkins has long been advocating for this expansion on Canberra’s western edge, suggesting more housing stock for the growing population is the best way to deal with the current housing problems.

“There is undoubtably a general under supply of residential dwellings across the board in Canberra at the moment, and there seems to be a particularly high demand for land for single housing,” he said.

“We are hopeful that the western edge area could accommodate some more of that greenfield development and land for single housing.”

Hopkins said the expansion will have an impact on easing house prices as it is to accommodate population numbers in Canberra, which has been a problem since the beginning of the pandemic.

“I think one of the main contributors to the rapid increase in land prices we have been over the last few years is an undersupply, particularly in the ACT,” he added.

“One of the biggest contributors to the overall housing affordability issue has been the cost of land… so adding to supply is one measure the government can use to ease those affordability pressures.

“What is really important is that we provide the housing that our future community needs, whether that be single detached housing, townhouses or apartments.”

A man sitting on the edge of a tinny boat among the ruins of a burnt-down house
Photo: Matt Dutkiewicz

Despite having the memories of watching the western edge of Canberra burn, Matt Dutkiewicz also can’t deny the need for more housing in Canberra to combat the issue the territory is currently facing.

However, this recognition goes hand in hand with seeing his family home reduced to coals, and hearing the news that two of his neighbours in Duffy had died because of the 2003 bushfire disaster.

“I think the risk is certainly increased with this expansion, but we definitely need more housing for the population, I can see that,” he said.

“With that said, the fires that I saw around the western edge area showed us all that there is really nothing much that can be done in the face of them.

“It has really just come down to saving life at this point, and, as I saw, along with everyone else in Canberra in 2003, sometimes it’s just not possible in these extreme circumstances.”