Aussie fires meet urban sprawl

Fed by high winds, fires continued to burn Sunday in three of the country's six states.

Less than a week after their house burned to the ground in a bushfire in the country's capital, Canberra, Peta Mackenzie Davey and her husband, Chris, are already drawing up plans for their next home.

"It's what keeps me sane, the thought that yes we will rebuild, the sooner the better," says Peta.

But with more than 500 homes destroyed, four people dead and more than $100 million in damage, some in Canberra are worried about continued urban development into fire-prone wilderness areas. The chief minister of Canberra, Jon Stanhope, says the time has come to "rethink the bush capital."

Still reeling from the shock of the worst firestorm in more than 50 years, which blasted through the city's drought-stricken south-western suburbs Jan. 18, urban planners are being forced to go back to the drawing board.

Grassy suburbs surrounded by pine plantations and native bush lie just outside the city center. Kangaroos, wallabies, and other native animals frolic in the vegetation. Only 20 minutes from the Parliament Building, sheep graze. Over time, the capital's territory has extended more than 750 square miles beyond its original 100-square-mile area.

But amid the worst drought in a century, this combination of urban development and wild landscape has proved combustible. When the fire started in early January at nearby Namadji National Park, a 230,000-acre nature reserve, the picturesque capital became a tinderbox.

And Canberra is not the only Australian city in this predicament. Around the country, other fires continued to rage Sunday in three of the country's six states. A major fire was burning out of control west of the Blue Mountains, which stretch to the western outskirts of Sydney.

After Australia became a federation in 1901, the grazing land which would become the capital city was chosen as a compromise to placate politicians from both Sydney and Melbourne. Planners also decided to plant commercial pines in the area, in what has become a $75 million a year industry.

Capital in the wild

Built around a man-made lake, the inland capital was designed for up to 75,000 people. But now more than 300,000 people live in the Australian Capital Territory, where more than 40 percent of the total area is designated as a national reserve. In its early pioneering years, few politicians wanted to move to Canberra, a small country town with aspirations to greatness. To encourage them to move, the federal government agreed to rapidly upgrade basic amenities, such as sewerage and water supplies.

"It was really a result of political expediency, rather than a result of town planning, that resulted in a clutch of Canberra suburbs being placed cheek by jowl with the pine plantations - with explosive results, as we see today." says Patrick Troy, a professor at the Center for Environmental Studies at the Australian National University in Canberra.

In the 1980s, reports began warning of possible fire disasters in Canberra, but they were largely ignored. Meanwhile, a succession of worsening bushfire disasters around the country has occurred in the past 20 years.

While building more fire-resistant houses will be among the focuses of reconstruction now- roof-mounted sprinkler systems and the like - some experts believe such measures are mere Band-aids.

"Look, you can decide to put steel roofs instead of tile, you can redesign the roads to provide for quicker getaways, have fewer cul-de-sacs, but if you get flames fanned by winds of 120 kilometers [75 miles an hour] like this time, then nothing is going to save you," explains Troy. "You will still be in the bush."

El Niño, which scientists say explains the extreme weather patterns in Pacific Rim countries, is expected to produce some relief from the current drought by April. But many Australians worry that global warming will make fires more frequent on the world's driest continent.

"What we need is rain, and lots of it. But if the drought continues, the next year could be worse than this one," says Geoff Campbell, former chief planner for the National Capital Development Authority.

The challenges of the bush

Since Europeans first settled the continent in the late 18th century, extreme weather and other natural hazards have shaped the national character.

"Australians have had a love and fear of the bush ever since the white settlers first arrived - but they love a challenge," says Brian Roberts, a professor at the Center for Developing Cities at the Australian National University.

Australia's original inhabitants, the Aborigines, coexisted with bushfires for 50,000 years, and even learned to use them to their advantage. Fresh regrowth after a burn attracted kangaroos and other prized prey.

Instead of adapting to nature, Australians continue to confront it. Ever-expanding suburbs on the fringes of major cities spill into bush land, putting more and more people in harm's way. Despite this, some an easygoing "she'll be right, mate" attitude still prevails among some residents. Says Ryde James, of the Australian National University's department of forestry: "It's like the people who live under Mt. Vesuvius in Italy. Where would they shift to after all these years?" They just keep coming back after every eruption. That's life."

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