How our schools are preparing for bushfires

Public school communities are preparing for bushfires as El Nino brings an increased risk of extreme heat and reduced rainfall. Linda Doherty reports.

A close up photo of the front of a fire truck. A close up photo of the front of a fire truck.

The NSW Department of Education is ensuring it is ready for a potentially dangerous bushfire season this summer, which follows three years of high rainfall and vegetation growth.

In an early sign of concern, a number of schools have already been temporarily closed since September due to bushfire threat.

The proactive moves by the Department aimed to minimise any threat to students and staff in high-risk areas, according to Secretary Murat Dizdar.

“This was to ensure the health, safety and wellbeing of students and staff in schools that had been assessed as having extreme or high bushfire risk,” Mr Dizdar said.

Dianne Van Berlo, the Department’s Executive Director of Health, Safety and Staff Wellbeing, said decisions to close schools often had to be made quickly, as weather conditions became threatening, on the advice of emergency services.

“We do not make these decisions lightly, but our focus is always on the safety of our school communities,” she said.

“We’re very mindful of the trauma of the 2019-20 bushfires that remains for so many of our staff and students and school communities. We want to minimise any impact on them by taking proactive action to ensure they know their safety is our priority.”

In 2022, the Department reviewed the bushfire risk ratings of its 2200 schools.

The revised school ratings coincided with the introduction of the Australian Fire Danger Rating system (AFDRS) in September 2022 to ensure nationally consistent colours, signs and terminology to signal the level of threat from fires.

These new ratings under the AFDRS are moderate, high, extreme and catastrophic.

Source: Australian Fire Danger Rating system

Further information regarding the implementation of the Australian Fire Danger Rating system is available from the NSW Rural Fire Service.

Risk ratings and school closures

The department’s Bushfire Risk Register was reviewed and updated in 2022. Each NSW public school has a risk rating, from Category 1 (extreme risk) to Category 4 (low risk).

Ms Van Berlo said the ratings reflected the risk profile of each school to bushfire and grassfire.

“The ratings take into consideration things like landscape scale, distance to vegetation, bushfire behaviour, impact of catastrophic bushfire behaviour, as well as situational factors such as evacuation and isolation from emergency services,” she said.

Under the new ratings system, Category 1 and Category 2 schools will be directed to temporarily close when Fire Danger Ratings in the upper end of extreme, and/or catastrophic ratings are issued or forecast for the following day.

“We work closely with the NSW Rural Fire Service and the State Emergency Operations Centre,” Mr Dizdar said.

“When the Fire Danger Rating exceeds pre-agreed thresholds developed in consultation with the RFS, we direct schools to temporarily close.

“We also need to take into consideration secondary impacts such as smoke and ventilation, heat, road closures and increased traffic.

“We encourage parents and carers to always follow the advice of police and emergency services during periods of heightened bushfire risk.” 

Students will be provided with learning from home resources if their school is temporarily closed.

How do schools prepare?

Bushfire risk to NSW Department of Education schools is managed through a range of interventions from preparatory activities such as vegetation management programs to school-based emergency management plans, including a response to bushfires and grassfires that consider the risks specific to the communities where schools are located.

Schools are provided with resources to communicate with their school communities at the start of the bushfire danger period to outline the bushfire risk rating of the school and the potential for Category 1 and 2 schools to temporarily close due to fire danger ratings.

NSW bushfire danger period

The Bushfire Danger Period (BFDP) is from 1 October to 31 March each year, but the dates can vary due to local conditions.

Australian warning system alert levels

There are three alert levels for bushfires, which are updated regularly in the Hazards Near Me app

  • Advice – a fire has started. There is no immediate danger. Stay up to date in case the situation changes.

  • Watch and Act – there is a heightened level of threat. Conditions are changing and you need to start taking action now to protect you and your school community.

  • Emergency Warning – the highest level of bushfire alert. You may be in danger and need to take action immediately. Any delay now puts your life at risk.

An additional alert level exists for non-bushfire related incidents:

  • Incident registered – a white triangle indicates an incident (bushfire or other) has been registered and is currently under investigation. There is no action to be taken at this time.

Smoke and air quality

Schools should look for ways to minimise exposure and the adverse effects of bushfire smoke, including cancelling sporting events and other outdoor activities, keeping students and staff indoors and monitoring air quality.

Smoke particles can aggravate existing lung conditions such as asthma. Schools are advised to confirm student health care plans, ensure medications are readily available, and to seek medical attention for at-risk members of the school community if necessary.

Stay informed

These are useful resources to stay up to date during the bushfire danger period and when there is local bushfire activity.

In an emergency call Triple Zero (000).

Contact the Department's Incident Report and Support Hotline 1800 811 523.

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