Expanding Canberra: today’s solution, tmrw’s problem


Sara Garrity

Matt Dutkiewicz lost his home in the 2003 bushfires, while he was protecting another at Uriarra Crossing.

When Matt Dutkiewicz was hospitalised after fighting the 2003 bushfires at Uriarra Crossing, he thought his brother had died trying to save the family home in Duffy.

In 2003 at the age of 25, Dutkiewicz was still living with his parents in Burrendong Street, which was left empty on morning of January 18 when he left for work.

A deputy leader in the Rural Fire Service at the time, he was in charge of a makeshift crew of firefighters with one already suffering heat exhaustion from battling the blazes in NSW in the days prior.

As Dutkiewicz and his crew fought the fire at Uriarra Crossing, his brother Jamie battled the fire front on the urban edge of Duffy at their family home.

“I had started to get calls from my brother to say that he really needed help, so I was there trying to save my life, save the life of the crew, and try to work out what we were doing in this almighty fire,” he said.

The fire eventually reached the crew at the location they were stationed at, and in an attempt to protect the property nearby, Dutkiewicz himself became severely injured.

“I had also realised at this time that Grant in the back [of the truck], who had existing injuries, had starting to get really unwell… he started to turn blue, and I actually thought he was having a heart attack,” he said.

“I had to use my old mobile phone in an area with no reception… after about 10 or 12 attempts I finally got through and said I was trapped with someone who I suspected was having a heart attack.

“Eventually, after landing all over the Uriarra Road trying to find us, the South Care Helicopter transported us to Canberra Hospital.”

Car and electricity pole damaged by bushfire.
The wreckage of the 2003 bushfires. (Matt Dutkiewicz)

Once the crew had made it to the hospital, Dutkiewicz had only just realised the extent of his own injuries after he was told he needed to stay overnight. But that was the least of his problems.

“At that stage I had lost contact with Jamie, who had gone completely missing for about six hours,” he said.

“I had received a number of calls from his wife who wasn’t with him at the time, screaming over the phone ‘I can’t get in touch with Jamie, can you find him?’.

“It wasn’t until the next day that we were able to get to Duffy and in contact with my brother again, and actually see what had happened to our house.”

The aftermath of the 2003 Canberra bushfires saw 500 houses destroyed, including the Dutkiewicz’s family home. Four lives were taken on the day, and two of those were his neighbours.

The future of the burned land

As Canberra approaches the 20-year anniversary of the bushfires, the ACT Government has announced an investigation into the previously burned area as a potential option for more housing in the capital.

ACT Minister for Planning and Land Management Mick Gentleman announced in June this year the investigation has been underway since 2020, looking into potential expansion of the western edge of Canberra.

While Minister Gentleman was unable to comment on the investigation, ACT Chief Planner Ben Ponton of the Environment, Planning and Sustainable Development Directorate said extensive research will be undertaken before the ACT Government will commit to anything.

“The Western Edge investigation area is approximately 9,800 hectares which includes land generally bordered by the Murrumbidgee River and existing urban areas of Belconnen, Molonglo Valley, Weston Creek and Kambah,” he said.

“The ACT Government has completed a range of preliminary background investigations that are necessary to provide a complete and informed picture of the environmental issues associated with the area.

“We will now be moving into preliminary strategic planning phases, with ongoing environmental surveys expected. This will include the identification of bushfire threat and mitigation measures.”

According to the Western Edge Investigation Area Preliminary Bushfire Risk Assessment produced by the directorate in 2020, the potential expansion area has been identified as bushfire prone land.

The report reads, “the pattern of bushfire hazard is extensive enough and continuous enough to support larger sized bushfires, although fire history for the region indicated large landscape bushfires occur at a very low frequency”.

The benefit of urban edge expansion in Canberra

Reasoning for the potential expansion into Canberra existing western edge is to provide the capital with a more suitable number of housing options for the growing population.

In the 2021 census, the population of Canberra was revealed to be around 454,000 people, which was approximately 22,000 more than was initially expected, according to ACT Chief Minister Andrew Barr.

Data from Domain revealed the vacancy rate for homes in Canberra reached one per cent in the month of August, which despite being an extremely low value, is the highest it has been in the ACT in nine months.

Canberra’s limited housing stock available in combination with the growing population has encouraged Master Builders ACT’s Chief Executive Officer Michael Hopkins to advocate for this expansion for a number of years.

Apartment building in suburb.
Apartment complexes are being built in new suburbs on Canberra’s western edge.

“Our advocacy has been based around wanting to increase land supply to accommodate our future population, so we are supportive of the government looking to expand its urban boundary,” he said.

“There is a general under supply of residential dwellings across the board in Canberra at the moment, and there seems to be a particularly high demand for land for single housing.

“We are hopeful that the western edge area could accommodate some more of that greenfield development and land for single housing.”

The expansion is just as much about easing house prices as it is to accommodate for the expanding population of Canberra, he added.

“I think one of the main contributors to the rapid increase in land prices we have seen over the last few years in an under supply, particularly in the ACT,” Hopkins said.

“One of the biggest contributors to the overall housing affordability issue has been the cost of land… so adding to supply is one measure the government can use to ease those affordability pressures.

“What is really important is that we provide the housing that our future community needs, whether that be single detached housing, townhouses or apartments.”

At the end of the June quarter, Canberra’s house prices were the second most expensive of all capital cities, measuring a median of $1,154,535 for houses and $599,735 for units, according to the latest Domain House Price Report.

Where do we go from here?

For some, the bushfires were a wakeup call to what the future of climate change will mean for natural disasters in the context of the ACT.

Major General Peter Dunn was the Commissioner for the ACT Emergency Services Authority, which was set up after the 2003 bushfires as a statutory authority to rebuild Canberra’s emergency services.

He has seen both the damage and severity of the 2003 bushfires in Canberra firsthand, which forever changed his outlook and advocacy.

“There were fire scientists [in 2003] who said this is not right, the severity of this fire does not compute, and this represents huge change,” he said.

“There was just no explanation for it… everyone was saying we need to really look at this because the fire behaviour has changed fundamentally.

“Nothing would have stopped this fire, and frankly, they said behind closed doors that we were very lucky to get away with what happened… it could have been a lot worse.”

Since 2018, Dunn has been a part of the Emergency Leaders for Climate Action advocacy group, which calls upon the government to act on emissions, and provide better resources to better prepare Australia for extreme natural disasters.

Despite his outspoken advocacy, Dunn himself recognises there are limited alternative options to suit Canberra’s growing population other than expanding on the existing western edge of the capital.

“The dilemma for the ACT is that there is limited land space, and because the population is growing so rapidly, the question is where is the available land, and that has been to the west,” he said.

“However, for this to work, one of the first things you have to do is tell the community that you are building on a traditional fire path, and do all the appropriate risk assessments.

“I think we have to be transparent to the people and the community, and these are the little things that need to be discussed, because now, we are facing the undisputable impact of climate change on Canberrans.”