In the second of a series of articles on controversial plans for an eco-lodge within Sydney's Royal National Park, CHEYNE ANDERSON discovers bushfire risk is key to community objections.
The eco-lodge proposal for Bournemouth St, Spring Gully, is for a high-end tourist escape that includes six luxury yurts on a parcel of private land on the edge of the national park.
However, critics claim the ecological cost of building the lodge is too high with agressive clearing required to meet bushfire safety guidelines while the fire risk will remain.
Bordering the Royal National Park and the adjacent Spring Gully property, Sussex Street is currently covered in bushland, accessed by endangered Pygmy possums and lined with ancient bloodwood mallee trees.
RVA Australia's Mr. Ron Van Ardenne owns the site and wants to develop a so-called 'paper road' called Sussex Street, based on his claims of right of way as the owner of the property.
Proposed fire risk mitigation includes the development of the road in order to allow fire trucks to reach the luxury camp and clearing of the area around the lodge to create a tree canopy coverage of less than 15%.
Of the concerns raised by the nearby Bundeena community, including environmental impact and the development of the ‘paper road’, it’s the bushfire risk that resonates most with the charred history of the bush township.
In 1994, fires burnt through 16,000 hectares of the Royal National Park. The fire front swept up from the south and blocked the only road in and out of the town, leaving residents to fend for themselves or evacuate by water. The Spring Gully ridge was razed.
David Brown has been a firefighter with the Rural Fire Service Sutherland Shire District for 27 years. He says the current fire risk in the Royal National Park is extremely high, an opinion echoed in the developer’s own Statement of Environmental Impact and an independent assessment of the Spring Gully eco-lodge by Sydney Bushfire Consultants.
Given the size of the Royal National Park and the increasing number of days with ‘Extremely High’ and ‘Catastrophic’ fire conditions, the danger goes with the territory. But Mr Brown explained there was more to the risk.
‘In my time as a firefighter, there’s been three major fires in the National Park in 94, 97 and 2002. There’s a pattern here, we usually have what we call a ‘major fire event’ every five to seven years, but now its 2017 and that simply hasn’t happened.’
If a fire comes uphill it will be roaring along. In '94 it went straight over the top of the swamp
Mr Brown said the lack of major fires in the National Park meant the area was at its ‘maximum fuel load’. Years of stockpiled leaf litter and fast-growing trees accustomed to regular burnings were growing in density. The more densely packed the bush was, the quicker a fire would spread, he said.
The RFS does employ hazard reduction burns, however these are periodic – only occurring roughly once every 12 years. Even when burns did occur at the recommonded seven year intervals, they did not prevent fires, according to Mr Brown.
‘They only focus on what we call strategic fire advantage zones, so you’re more likely to see it in areas closer to the Heathcote end of the park.’
Situated on the south side of Bundeena, there are no natural barriers that can break a fire coming from the south of Spring Gully as it did in 1994.
John Parker is a Bundeena resident and a former volunteer firefighter. He helped to fight the fire at Spring Gully 23 years ago. According to Mr Parker, not only does the lack of firebreak pose a huge threat, but the topography of the ridge makes its far worse.
‘If a fire comes uphill it will be roaring along. In '94 it went straight over the top of the swamp.’
If you chop all the trees down you’ll stop the risk of the main fire, but you’ll never stop a spot fire. They cause a lot of trouble
Aware of the danger, the RFS set a series of requirements on RVA Ltd in accordance with RFS NSW’s Planning for Bushfire Protection. The first is that the controversial paper road must become a reality in order to allow fire trucks to reach the luxury camp in the event of a fire.
The second measure is the ‘asset protection zone’. The assessment by Sydney Bushfire Consultants outlines a protection zone requiring the immediate vicinity of the lodge has tree canopy coverage less than 15%, no ‘flammable shrubs’ within 10 metres and no trees with limbs lower than two metres to the ground.
In a wider radius, a ‘fuel reduced area’ will be in place. In total, it’s estimated the site will lose approximately 50% of its tree canopy.
According to Mr Parker, this is a destructive method that won’t necessarily stop a fire.
‘If you chop all the trees down you’ll stop the risk of the main fire, but you’ll never stop a spot fire. They cause a lot of trouble.’
Critics of the eco-lodge accept that living in the bush presents an inherent risk. However, no amount of regulation or land clearing can stop a bushfire swept along by catastrophic weather conditions, they argue, and therefore the eco-lodge would be folly.
There’s a high environmental cost to meeting RFS regulations that bears out on the ecological sustainability of the proposed lodge. As the Sydney Bushfire Consultants spell out in the report:
‘It should always be remembered that bushfires burn under a wide range of conditions and an element of risk, no matter how small, will always remain.’