Let’s act now to rid our cities of this fire threat


Pyro-ter­ror­ism is now a gen­uine threat in our ma­jor cities. Thou­sands of Aus­tralian build­ings are cloaked in mil­lions of square me­tres of com­bustible alu­minium cladding, much like the pan­els in­stalled on Lon­don’s Grenfell Tower. Sadly, that fire killed at least 80 peo­ple.

Alu­minium com­pos­ite pan­els have been widely in­stalled in Aus­tralia for about 25 years. The stan­dard poly­eth­yl­ene core is com­bustible, doesn’t meet ac­cept­able Aus­tralian build­ing stan­dards, and has been banned else­where in the world.

In 2014 there was a ma­jor cladding fire in Mel­bourne’s Dock­lands. Lives would have been lost in the blaze if con­di­tions had been dif­fer­ent. Fire ex­perts are say­ing there may be more than 5000 build­ings in Vic­to­ria alone that con­tain non-com­pli­ant cladding.

The vul­ner­a­bil­ity from un­safe cladding on our build­ings de­serves ur­gent na­tional and state gov­ern­ment at­ten­tion to mit­i­gate the risk of a fu­ture pyro-ter­ror­ist at­tack. We have been warned.

A re­cent Four Cor­ners pro­gram on this is­sue pointed out that a kilo­gram of poly­eth­yl­ene is 1½ litres of petrol. A square me­tre panel on the side of a build­ing equates to about five litres of petrol.

Fire is not a new weapon of war. How­ever, through a mas­sive reg­u­la­tory fail­ure, we have made homes and pub­lic spa­ces po­ten­tially un­safe and Aus­tralians vul­ner­a­ble to py­roter­ror­ism.

While it may not be in chap­ter one of the ji­hadist man­ual, the de­lib­er­ate ig­ni­tion of fires to at­tack peo­ple, in­fra­struc­ture, or nat­u­ral re­sources to ad­vance a po­lit­i­cal ob­jec­tive isn’t un­com­mon.

One study found that from 1968 to 2005, 56 ter­ror­ist groups world­wide used ar­son as a tac­tic. France and Is­rael have suf­fered and for­est fires in Greece, Spain and Es­to­nia are sus­pected of be­ing lit de­lib­er­ately for po­lit­i­cal rea­sons.

So pyro-ter­ror is one of a wide range of sce­nar­ios to con­sider when look­ing to re­duce the pos­si­bil­ity of ter­ror­ist at­tacks in Aus­tralia. The on­line ji­hadist magazine In­spire, for ex­am­ple, pub­lished an ar­ti­cle five years back giv­ing would-be pyro-ter­ror­ists all they needed to know about start­ing for­est fires. It de­scribed the best times and places to start fires in sev­eral coun­tries, in­clud­ing Aus­tralia.

As a weapon of ter­ror, fires are in­ex­pen­sive and low-tech. They re­quire lit­tle train­ing yet have a big im­pact, with guar­an­teed me­dia cov­er­age.

But it’s not just about bush­fire ji­had. The po­ten­tial for de­struc­tive en­ergy that ex­ists in build­ing cladding could un­leash mas­sive dev­as­ta­tion that could eas­ily over­whelm fire safety sys­tems. The numbers of peo­ple af­fected are likely to be greater with high-rise build­ings.

Com­bustible build­ing cladding means that many of our city build­ings are po­ten­tially the next ground zero. Viewed from a coun­tert­er­ror­ism per­spec­tive, these build­ings, with their enor­mous fuel loads lo­cated in and around pop­u­la­tion cen­tres, con­sti­tute a po­ten­tial de­struc­tive power that just awaits re­lease by a py­roter­ror­ist or a care­less ac­ci­dent or elec­tri­cal fault.

It wouldn’t take much: the fire in Mel­bourne’s Dock­land’s started from a burn­ing ci­garette in a plas­tic yo­ghurt con­tainer, which was be­ing used for ci­garette butts. The Grenfell Tow­ers fire started from a faulty re­frig­er­a­tor.

We have re­cently seen trucks used as ter­ror weapons so we know our en­e­mies are adap­tive.

An­thony Ber­gin is a se­nior re­search fel­low at ANU’s Na­tional Se­cu­rity Col­lege and a se­nior an­a­lyst at the Aus­tralian Strate­gic Pol­icy In­sti­tute

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