The catastrophic 2019-20 bushfire season impacted the environment, communities and stretched resources like never before. New South Wales was the worst-hit state, affecting more than five million hectares, destroying more than 2,000 homes and businesses and forcing thousands to seek shelter elsewhere.
Bushfire response agencies, volunteer recovery organisations and the construction industry are now assisting communities to demolish, remove and rebuild homes and infrastructure destroyed in the fires. A team of interdisciplinary researchers from UOW have joined forces to understand how communities, and the industries and agencies that support them, can build greater bushfire resilience through short and long-term coping capacities.
The research team includes Paul Cooper (EIS), Christine Eriksen (ASSH), Joshua Whittaker (SMAH), Tillmann Böhme (BAL), Scott McKinnon (ASSH), Alan Green (EIS), and Matthew Daly (EIS).
We spoke with Dr Tillmann Böhme and Dr Matthew Daly to learn more about the project.
How did your project team come together?
Some of our research team members were already working together on a Seed grant previously supported by Global Challenges with a similar research focus. After the bushfires, the opportunity became available to assist, so we wanted to expand the scope of that project and our team.
The new focus is to include both retrofitting options for houses and the reconstruction supply chain. At a larger scale, we also wanted to investigate how government industries and the supply chains that exist are driving the recovery process, and then we hope to build up a response for future bushfires to increase efficiency and effectiveness.
We are now investigating those different levels of government and industry, and see what is and isn’t working so well. We will be looking for innovation coming out of the communities affected by the latest bushfires because people need to retrofit existing housing stock and they need to build cost-effectively in case they lost housing stock. In many cases, the rebuild efforts occur under constraints as a lot of houses affected were under-insured and the proposed dwelling need to comply with current bushfire building codes which affects affordability.
What do you hope to achieve?
We are studying the response to the NSW 2019-20 bushfires through a critical lens to inform the construction industry and the organisations and agencies involved in the rebuild on how they can become more efficient and more effective in what they do. The overarching research question is how communities in Kangaroo Valley currently prepare for bushfires and respond to bushfires during disasters, and then how they respond to the aftermath.
The supply chain is crucial when rebuilding houses and infrastructure. Construction companies are on the ground right now trying to rebuild houses and we want to understand the commercial efforts for the rebuild from a construction eco-system point of view.
We want to understand the retrofit designs that are commonly used by residents, where they are getting that motivation and innovation from, and the importance to residents receiving these retrofit measures to help enhance their preparedness and resilience to bushfires in their homes in the future. We also want to know how collaborations with local governments respond to current recovery requirements on impacted communities.
We’re also investigating innovative solutions to assist the rebuild and recovery. These solutions will emerge through the research, but may include prefabricated houses, tiny houses, or even different housing models that respond to community needs.
Why it is important to have people from multiple disciplines working on the project?
We need people from a range of disciplines to understand how communities prepare, respond and recover from a bushfire threat and particularly from the devasting bushfires that came through at the start of the year.
You couldn’t do it any other way. Supply chains are tailored to suit or to serve different markets and what we have is a demand on housing stock that needs to be more cost-effective and cater to a higher BAL (bushfire attack level) rating. However, these products currently don’t exist in the market or are very scarce, so we need to understand the communities that these supply chains are serving in order to develop supply chains that are capable of delivering outcomes in the most cost-effective way.
The social sciences researchers will investigate how people respond and operate their house and how they come together as a community. Designing a house and making sure your house is set up as best as possible to withstand bushfires takes a lot of engineering know-how. The information and materials that are needed, and how it gets there, the response and recovery stage is linked to supply chains.
There are so many different disciplines intersected in a problem like this that you can’t do it without all of them.
We are at the start of our research. We have a plan of what we want to research and learn about and we are ready to respond to the outcomes of the research as we go.