Source: OCSE



This section provides an assessment of the occurrence of fire in the ACT, including prescribed burns and bushfires. The following indicators are assessed:

For background information on fire in the ACT see Background: Fire. The occurrence of fire and its impacts is also discussed in Climate change, Biodiversity, Air, Water and Land.

The 2019-20 bushfire season was one of the worst on record for the ACT and across much of South Eastern Australia. A total of 24.3 million hectares were burnt across Australia resulting in significant impacts on life, property, the environment and community health. The fires were a consequence of climate change which is contributing to more severe fire seasons that are starting earlier and lasting longer (see Climate change).

The impacts of the 2019–20 bushfire season on the ACT’s community, environment and biodiversity are discussed in 4. Bushfires in the ACT. The future risk of bushfire in the ACT is also discussed.

That the ACT Government: 


Research and undertake ecological burning to improve the health and biodiversity of native vegetation communities, particularly for grasslands which require more frequent fire.


Ensure ecosystem and biodiversity outcomes are considered before conducting fuel reduction burns so that ecologically appropriate burning is undertaken.


In response to increasing fire danger in the ACT, ensure adequate resources are available to reduce the risk of fire impacting on sensitive ecosystems and environmental assets, and to improve suppression opportunities and effectiveness should a fire occur.

F1: Area burnt in prescribed burns and bushfires




The 2019–20 bushfire season was one of the worst on record for the ACT. Nearly 90,000 hectares, around 40% of the ACT, were burnt including 80% of Namadgi National Park and 22% of Tidbinbilla Nature Reserve. Within the ACT, around 75,000 hectares burnt by the 2003 bushfires were re-burnt in 2020. This will affect native vegetation, biodiversity and ecosystem health for decades to come. The 2020 bushfires demonstrate the significant ongoing risk of large and severe bushfires in the ACT. For most years, the area subject to prescribed burning far exceeded that of bushfires. Prescribed burns are dominated by fuel reduction activities, with ecological burns responsible for only 2% of all burning activity between 2009 and 2022. However, there is a growing recognition of the importance of fire for vegetation, biodiversity, and cultural management in the ACT.

F2: Fire Risk




Although fire severity risk conditions are highly variable in the ACT, periods of high risk occur regularly, potentially leading to more severe fires and greater difficulty in fire suppression. The fire severity risk conditions were particularly elevated in the month leading up to the Orroral Valley fire in 2020, as well as for the first two days of the fire. There has also been an increasing occurrence of consecutive fire seasons with elevated fire severity risk in the ACT. 

Climate change is expected to further increase the ACT’s fire severity risk in the future.


Environmental condition is healthy across the ACT, OR pressure likely to have negligible impact on environmental condition/human health.

Environmental condition is neither positive or negative and may be variable across the ACT, OR pressure likely to have limited impact on environmental condition/human health.

Environmental condition is under significant stress, OR pressure likely to have significant impact on environmental condition/ human health.

Data is insufficient to make an assessment of status and trends.



Adequate high-quality evidence and high level of consensus.

Limited evidence or limited consensus.

Evidence and consensus too low to make an assessment.

Assessments of status, trends and data quality are not appropriate for the indicator.


Prescribed burns

Fire ignition causes

Fire risk


With Canberra considered the ‘bush capital’ and the ACT’s recent history of devastating bushfires, fire policy has a critical role to fill in protecting communities, infrastructure and the environment. The ACT has a robust legislative, policy and operational framework for bushfire preparation and response. This section is concerned with the intersection of these with environmental values. Protection of human life and property is the primary objective for bushfire policy in the ACT. A major challenge in this area is therefore to balance management strategies so that they also maintain ecosystem function and biodiversity values while not compromising this goal.

Policy framework

The Strategic Bushfire Management Plan 20192024 is the principal guiding policy for bushfire management in the ACT. It aims to provide a strategic framework to protect the ACT community from bushfires and reduce resulting harm to the physical, social, cultural and economic environment of the Territory. It is a requirement under the Emergencies Act 2004 and is prepared and administered by the ACT Emergency Services Agency. This plan considers several aspects of sustainability and environmental protection in relation to bushfire preparedness and management. It recognises that there are trade-offs between bushfire risk reduction and the protection of biodiversity values, air quality and water quality, and presents strategies to address these where feasible. The Strategic Bushfire Management Plan 20192024 also acknowledges the increasing challenges to fire management planning posed by climate change, an increasing population, and a growing urban footprint with a correspondingly larger urban-rural boundary.

The Regional Fire Management Plan 2019-2029 is prepared by EPSDD and outlines how bushfire fuel management will be conducted on land managed by both EPSDD and TCCS. This plan includes the location of prescribed burns and whether the primary objectives are fuel reduction, ecological or cultural outcomes. Prescribed burning is used to modify fuels to reduce risk, and to maintain vegetation communities within ecological thresholds. The Regional Fire Management Plan 2019–2029 aims to balance fire fuel management with other values for which the natural estate is managed, such as nature conservation. It also considers the ecological impacts of roads, fuel breaks and fuel reduction activities.

The Regional Fire Management Plan 2019–2029 was extensively revised following the 2019–20 bushfires, with no burning to be carried out within the fire footprint pending the results of research into ecological recovery. This has resulted in the large reduction in the number of prescribed burns carried out during this reporting period compared with previous reporting periods. This is a good example of the ACT Government applying adaptive management in response to changed circumstances where environmental considerations have been taken into account.

Bushfire Operational Plans are developed each year by land managers to operationalise the Regional Fire Management Plan 2019–2029 and inform the annual program of on-ground bushfire mitigation works. Bushfire Operational Plans detail the specific type, location and timing of fuel reduction activities, access, and infrastructure development to be undertaken. ACT Government agencies, utilities and rural landholders whose properties are within a Bushfire Abatement Zone declared under the Emergencies Act 2004 must prepare a Bushfire Operational Plan for land they manage.

The Ecological Guidelines for Fire, Fuel and Access Management Operations prepared by Conservation Research identify practices to protect ecologically sensitive areas, as well as potentially damaging activities which should be avoided during fire prevention activities. They guide the conservation of the ACT’s ecological assets during the planning and implementation of the annual ACT Parks and Conservation Service Bushfire Operations Plan.

Policy effectiveness

Protection of human life and property is the primary objective for bushfire policy in the ACT. A major challenge in this area is to balance management priorities so that bushfire strategies maintain ecosystem function and biodiversity values while not compromising this goal. Some environmental impacts from prescribed burns are unavoidable, including plants and animals being killed during hazard reduction activities and greenhouse gas emissions produced during planned burns.

When considered as a whole, the policy framework as determined by the various acts, strategies and plans, provides a coherent and evidence-based approach to bushfire management in ACT. It balances investment in technology and research, enhancing operational capabilities through investment in equipment and facilities, improved planning and governance, community outreach and education. There is a strong commitment to targets and specific and actions that are measurable.

In terms of sustainability and maintaining ecosystem integrity, there are two main areas that the Strategic Bushfire Management Plan 2019–2024 considers. The first is the impact of fuel management on ecosystem function. There are trade-offs which must be made between bushfire risk reduction, and protection of biodiversity values, carbon emissions, air quality and water. The plan notes that “While vegetation is defined as bushfire fuel for the purposes of bushfire management, some vegetation has other intrinsic values and can be regarded as an asset to be protected from bushfires. These include vegetation underpinning local ecosystems, Namadgi National Park, nature reserves…” While recognising these intrinsic values, the plan also acknowledges that our current level of knowledge makes it difficult to weigh up the risks and benefits of burning in areas of high ecological value, and recommends research is conducted in order to help “optimise landscape level objectives that balance fuel age distributions and ecosystem function”.

The second is planning and zoning at the urban-rural interface. The Strategic Bushfire Management Plan 2019-2024 outlines several measures relating to fuel management and zoning to reduce risk to life and property. It also acknowledges the need to maintain or increase canopy cover in urban settings. There is a conflict here around managing risk through planning and zoning, whilst maintaining natural biodiversity and ecosystem services, especially at the urban edge.

The Strategic Bushfire Management Plan 20192024 also includes actions relating to climate change modelling in terms of how bushfire management will have to adapt to changing climatic conditions. It does not, however, acknowledge the contribution that prescribed burning itself makes to greenhouse emissions. The ACT Government is involved in reporting and research on modelling greenhouse gas emissions from prescribed burns so progress on this matter is anticipated in future.

In rural settings and in the forested areas, the bushfire policy suite focuses mainly on three areas of risk — ignition management, fuel management and building resilience through community engagement and planning. The management of fuels is a major component of the policy, and one which introduces the potential for environmental impacts from management intervention. Fuel reduction can impact on ecosystem function, biodiversity, ecosystem services (e.g. water) and liveability (e.g. air quality). The impacts and trade-offs associated with this management strategy are not clearly articulated in the policy suite.

At the urban–rural interface land-use planning and zoning is a key instrument for managing risk. The actions under land-use planning are clearly articulated with regards to how planning and land zoning translates to reductions in bushfire risk to social and economic values. With land-use planning, the policy seeks to address components of bushfire risk that stem from human activities. This is particularly relevant on the urban edge where people are increasingly vulnerable to bushfire as population centres expand into bushfire prone land.

The policy setting makes an effort to address issues associated with trade-offs between bushfire protection and maintenance of ecosystem services through the Ecological Guidelines for Fire, Fuel and Access Management Operations. However, as noted in the Strategic Bushfire Management Plan 20192024 further work is needed to better balance fuel management for the protection of human settlements whilst supporting biodiversity values and maintaining ecosystem values. This requires further monitoring and evaluation, and enacting the specific recommendations made in the policy for areas of future research.

The issue of increasing population size and increasing exposure to risk in bushfire prone land at the urban–rural interface is a growing challenge. Maintaining liveability and ecosystem function in these settings whilst protecting communities from fire is a major challenge.