'Australia Is On Fire. We Must Do Things Differently.'
BRISBANE, Australia — For Steve Noakes and other owners of real estate in large swathes of Australia, it is time to prepare for a new normal.
"If you'd asked me five months ago if we would be planting 3,000 fire- and drought-resistant shrubs, in this environment that's supposed to be a rainforest and moist, I would have thought you had rocks in your head,” Noakes, the chairman of a rainforest-surrounded eco-resort in the Australian state of Queensland, told Bisnow last week.
“But the big thing is now we have to design, build and operate in a changing natural environment.”
Though the blaze ripped through Binna Burra in September, major fixes have been impossible since; destroyed trees have made the sole access road unstable. The resort is losing $500K AUD a month, Noakes said, but hopes to reopen in April.
The devastation at Binna Burra — where accommodation buildings on Australia’s National Heritage List and a library with historic wildlife books and photos were wiped out — was just the start for Australia’s fire season.
For months, the country has been dealing with fires that have engulfed homes and business, killed more than 1 billion animals and claimed at least 27 human lives. Australia is no stranger to catastrophic events this time of year, but it has never experienced a fire of this scale and magnitude before because of record-high temperatures and enduring drought.
The fires have torn through multiple states at once, forcing the government to call up thousands of members of the army reserve, shelve its commitment to a national surplus this year and defend its stance on climate change.
On Friday, thousands gathered in capital cities to protest the government’s handling of the emergency and its climate policies. Prime Minister Scott Morrison said Sunday his party acknowledges the role climate change has played on this widespread crisis, and said the government’s policies will “evolve.”
Australia still has months left in its brushfire season, but traumatized communities have begun their rebuilding efforts. They now have to consider what their homes and businesses will look like in the aftermath of such unprecedented destruction.
How buildings are designed, the materials that are used and where they are located could all be reconsidered, as the country — and the globe — face up to what a disaster like this could mean for the future of the built environment.
“It sounds terrible, but this is an opportunity,” said Brent Jacobs, research director at the Institute for Sustainable Futures at the University of Technology Sydney, who specializes in social adaptation to climate change. “It's an opportunity to change the way we make decisions about land use planning, where people live and the style of buildings that they live in.”
Since September, more than 2,000 homes have burned down. The Insurance Council of Australia recently pegged the national damage bill at around $700M AUD. Some 9,000 claims have been lodged so far, a number that is only set to rise.
The damage stretches far beyond grasslands, rainforests and private residences. Last week, a ski resort within the Kosciuszko National Park, around 80 miles inland from Canberra, was completely destroyed.
Half of Kangaroo Island off the South Australian Coast — referred to “Australia's Galapagos” because of its seals, penguins and koalas — has burned down, taking homes, untold numbers of unique flora and fauna and a luxury resort with it.
“This sort of shock really does start to make people think,” Jacobs said.
He believes a jump in the price of insurance in certain areas could force people to change where they choose to live. The government could also choose to stop releasing land for development in places that are considered high-risk.
“Part of the problem is we are not really providing consumers with the options,” he said. "What they can choose from when they're building their house is pretty much the same sort of materials that we've used for the last 50 years or so."
Affordability, rather than climate adaptability, has been the focus when it comes to housing construction, Jacobs said. He hopes that changes.
“That’s something we've really got to start to engage the design community in. I don't think we've really done that yet,” he said. “I think the risk of litigation is starting to make people think about these things.”
At Binna Burra, the rebuild is happening under a whole new paradigm. A fire bunker will be installed, and Noakes is looking for architects to potentially design an infinity rock pool along the edges to keep any potential fire at bay.
The resort is adding water stations with hose fittings that meet fire truck standards — all with the understanding that the country’s fire season is going to be drier, hotter and longer in the future.
The greatest lessons, however, have come not from what was destroyed, but what made it through.
“The [more contemporary buildings] are actually built with concrete, at each floor and the walls … the fire came up the hill, and hit the concrete, which had a boarding system underneath it and rolled back on itself — rather than dropping like a tsunami on top of the building,” Noakes said.
Alison Baker runs Banksia Park Cottages in Kangaroo Valley, a small town two hours southwest of Sydney. Just over a week ago, she and her family evacuated as an inferno approached her home and holiday rental business. Her timber house, the home she and her husband built to raise a family three decades ago, is now a pile of ash and some roofing iron.
But five of the six self-contained accommodation cottages on the property are still standing, albeit with damage. Four of them that made it through were made of block walls, a concrete slab and an iron roof — showing them what works and what does not in a major blaze.
These destructive fires have also shifted her outlook.
“Our earth is scorched, there is not a plant that has survived,” Baker told Bisnow last week. She expects to be closed for a year, but are rebuilding with a different approach than in the early 1990s.
“When we arrived here out of the city, we were here to build a dream home, so we used materials that we loved, like wood,” she said, saying design was her focus and that they argued with the local council to get what they wanted.
“With an ever-increasing population, with climate change, all of these things, we have to live differently ... And so when we come to rebuild our home, this will be in the forefront of our mind.”
Baker said that they have been working to become carbon neutral for the last 15 years.
“This is now an opportunity for us. It's buoying our family in this time of sadness that we can do better,” she said. “Australia is on fire, we must do things differently. I don't think government has it in its makeup to move fast enough.”
From a design point of view, even very simple things can make a difference, said Lew Short, director of Blackash Bushfire Consulting, a company made up of bushfire experts who advise on the design of property in fire-prone areas.
A two-meter-wide concrete or stone apron around a house can stop fire from lighting up windows and doors, he said, and heat shields and shutters can prevent radiant heat going in — which can save a structure.
Short noted that every time there is a major fire, building codes and legislation are updated, giving Australia some of the best design practices in the world already. While there are examples of exceptional design in fire-prone areas, he said it remains a pricey luxury.
“You have people that have the right level of insurance and have money that can actually pay for architects, pay people to incorporate good design into their houses," he said. "Others don't have that access.”
He expects there will be some broader “soul searching” in the wake of this damage.
“To me, having fought the fires and having been out there, this is the turning point when we sort of collectively go, ‘Ah, you know what, this climate change thing, it's actually a thing and we need to be taking it really seriously,’” Short said. “And it's not going to happen in 50 or 100 years. It's actually on us now, and we need to adapt much faster.”
Baker and Noakes are like many others in the hospitality business worried about the impact the fires will have deterring international and domestic tourists.
Tourism Australia’s multimillion-dollar advertising campaign in England was paused in the wake of the fires, while Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk has asked President Donald Trump to revise travel warnings suggesting American travelers delay trips to Australia. She stressed large parts of the country are still unaffected.
The fires have shut down highways, including the only sealed road connecting the east and the west of the country for a total of nearly two weeks. Ash may have contaminated drinking water. Extended, widespread smoke exposure could create an unprecedented public health crisis.
Those who live in the path of blazes, but whose property survived by chance, are coming to grips with the destruction around them and worrying what effect the loss of businesses will have on their future. Thousands of their neighbors are suddenly homeless.
“Our next door neighbor's brick home is in rubble and was burnt to the ground. My son’s house has burnt to the ground,” said Deborah Banks, who began evacuating with her animals on Christmas Eve from her riding school and horse stud in Kangaroo Valley. Her property was threatened by fire, but didn’t burn.
It will be months before they can return to live. The fires have damaged the infrastructure that supplies their water. Banks' horses weren't the only wildlife on her property — she said it was home to thousands of wombats and other animals.
“Two days before the fire, you could hear the lyrebirds, you could hear the wildlife,” Banks said. “Now we’ve gone back, and you stand there and it is silent.”