An audit of NSW public schools in bushfire-affected areas has found more than half face a medium or high risk in a future fire.
The NSW Department of Education audit used NSW Rural Fire Service mapping to classify 175 government-owned school sites as high risk. The analysis covered areas across regional NSW and greater Sydney, including Asquith, Pennant Hills, Wahroonga and Frenchs Forest.
About 195 schools were considered medium risk, including some of the areas worst hit by last summer's catastrophic blazes, from the Mid North Coast to Batemans Bay.
The results have been used to inform which schools require the greatest bushfire hazard reduction works, such as vegetation maintenance and asset protection zones, which were credited with saving sites such as Broulee Public School at the height of the bushfire crisis in January.
Broulee principal Matthew Rose said flames came as close as 1.5 metres from classrooms at the South Coast school, but the only structure lost was a shed.
Mr Rose credits the lack of damage to vegetation clearing almost four months earlier, which left a 70-metre protection zone around the school hall.
"We thought the fire would probably skirt around the town, the area, and we would be protected," Mr Rose said. Instead, he was forced to respond to an emergency alert to evacuate his nearby Malua Bay home on New Year's Eve and head straight to the beach.
It was only after the firestorm hit that day that he heard "a whisper that a school in Broulee had been burnt".
"To be honest, I thought it might have been one of the private schools there, rather than mine," he said.
Mr Rose said he found the western edge of the school "totally devastated", including the shed that had been storing the school's mower, shade shelters and mulchers.
"The area that had been mitigated was the area most substantially hit. If it hadn't been for the asset protection zone we definitely would have lost more buildings," he said.
"I don't think there is any doubt [the protection zone] took so much heat out of the fire which was so hot it melted electrical cables in the ground."
Around 32 of the school's 360 students were directly impacted by the fire, with 21 students losing their homes. Under the recent audit, Broulee Public School was deemed to be of medium risk in a bushfire.
NSW Education Minister Sarah Mitchell said preparations were well underway at public schools ahead of this year's bushfire season, informed by the findings of the risk audit.
She said annual audits and vegetation management programs "undoubtedly saved schools in last summer’s fires".
"As well as being important educational assets, in times of crisis our schools are centres for the community," she said, pointing to Eden Marine High School, which was used by the Australian Defence Force last year as an accommodation and operations centre.
The audit found 258 schools presented a low risk, 84 a very low risk, while 34 exhibited no risk at all. The audit surveyed 712 schools.
RFS spokesman Ben Shepherd said because schools catered for children, "our most vulnerable", it was vital they maintained bushfire action plans as well as their land. "By and large you will find most of them do that and do it very well," he said.
Since 2013 the Department of Education has engaged Aboriginal social enterprise Muru Mittigar to undertake asset protection zone and bushfire vegetation maintenance works at nominated bushfire-affected school sites.
The strategy has included skills training and employment opportunities for Aboriginal people across NSW.
An Aboriginal cultural burn pilot program is also being trialled next winter, which will combine cultural burning practices with non-Aboriginal land management on public school land.
During the 2019-20 bushfires one school was destroyed, and one significantly damaged – Bobin Public School on the NSW Mid North Coast and Wytaliba Public School on the Northern Tablelands.
Start your day informed
Our Morning Edition newsletter is a curated guide to the most important and interesting stories, analysis and insights. Sign up to The Sydney Morning Herald’s newsletter here.