ROB PURDON. Insuring against future bushfires

Jan 21, 2020

This summer’s bushfires are a tragedy. There has been massive habitat loss, and we all want to help those who have lost their properties and businesses. But climate change means that we are facing a “new normal”.

Therefore key issues for future policy are what ongoing role should there be for the Commonwealth Government, what freedom should landowners have to rebuild what they like where they like, what additional requirements should there be to make their homes fire-resistant, and should people who want to live in more dangerous locations be prepared to pay the additional insurance themselves.

Whilst a few visionaries foresaw the likelihood of a dangerous bushfire season for 2019/20, few appreciated the scale of the conflagration, the social, the environmental or the economic impact that we have witnessed to date.

Nor did many see the political firestorm either and assumed that the Commonwealth Government would be in a better position to provide effective assistance to States and Territories at short notice. Not swan off to Hawaii when leadership was required at home or provide limited piecemeal intervention in an ad hoc uncoordinated and un-communicative manner.

That said, let’s hope that even during this current fire season, whilst the fires are still burning, that we can start to have a strategic, co-operative discussion about a national bushfire strategy and wider drought and climate change policy.

As a thinking nation, not unaffected by a previous history of severe bushfires, we are now facing the likelihood of a future with more devastation, more frequent and more widespread bushfires and associated impacts.

Whilst the burden for bushfire management and response has traditionally been a State Government responsibility, ably assisted by a very dedicated courageous and generous volunteer force, it now seems appropriate for the Commonwealth Government to have a greater role because of the national consequences of past and future devastation.

There’s a lot to bring together, involving stakeholders at all levels of government, the private sector, community organisations, local communities and individuals. The Commonwealth can and should be taking the lead in this strategic response.

Obviously urgent assistance is needed for those directly and indirectly affected by the fires. The loss of life, the loss of homes, loss of stock, loss of business enterprise (farming, local suppliers and tourism), the loss of habitat and native flora/fauna, and the loss of holiday houses have all left a large part of Australia reeling. Not to mention loss of visual amenity of our bushland areas.

In considering a bushfire mitigation strategy we will need to consider a range of inter-related issues:

· funding for the Rural Fire services (tankers; air support: payment of firies; etc)

· replacement of infrastructure

· land management including fuel loads (backburning) in our national parks and state forests

· a rethink of settlement patterns in fire prone areas

· better building standards

· compulsory building and business insurance; and

· better co-operation between all levels of Government and other sectors.

To be fair, most States and Territories have taken lessons from recent fire events that have gone some way to mitigating future events. For example, in the ACT the devastating bushfires of 2003 led to the introduction of new planning standards in greenfield residential estates to provide improved levels of protection. And there has been more emphasis on building standards, fire training, better land management and community awareness. But more can and must be done, including a more direct role by the Commonwealth in preparation for future bushfire management.

Should we be allowing settlement in areas that are fire prone? This is a vexed question. Presumably most of those people who live in a treed bushland environment will want to go back despite the potential for more heartache.

But there is a wider public cost to this action unless the risk is firmly laid at the feet of those who want to live in this type of environment.

Should the public purse and the safety of firies and other support personnel be jeopardised to protect these bushland inhabitants and their property when there is no action taken by the residents to gain effective insurance against fire and to compensate the public purse?

Should residents living in these environments be allowed to build dwellings that are not fire-proofed? Should these residents be allowed to create firebreaks around their properties that extend into adjacent national parks, wildlife reserves or state forests?

Whilst these issues are State and Local Government responsibilities in the main, there is a case for greater strategic Commonwealth assistance to support research into bushfire and land management and ecology. There may also be a Commonwealth role in co-ordinating corporate donations to disaster relief.

Losing one’s place of permanent residence is tragic. The evidence suggests that many homes in isolated rural areas affected by the fires (or floods) are not adequately insured. If this is the case, some effort should be made to assist these households, but action taken to avoid creating a situation where this could be repeated in potentially only a few years’ time when the next conflagration returns. And conflagration is likely to return.

Resettlement has to be one option for consideration. Do we encourage such households to find cleared land closer to towns rather than in dense bushland? Or do we permit substantial clearing of vegetation to create sufficient fire breaks to mitigate against future burns. And provide more resources to mandate better building standards to further reduce the risk. But this will increase redevelopment costs and reduce habitat for native fauna and vegetation. And if households cannot afford these actions how can they afford to pay (increasing) insurance premiums?

Perhaps State and local government policies permitting rural residential development and sporadic settlement in isolated areas need to be revisited with tighter restrictions on uncontrolled and or unmanageable development.

And should households that have lost uninsured holiday houses be compensated by governments? Again, anecdotal evidence suggests that many holiday houses are either not insured or greatly underinsured. If households can afford the luxury of holiday houses and the toys that go with them (boats, trailers; etc) but not pay for the insurance to cover the costs of so-called natural disasters, then why should the public purse be used to support this group?

There will always be urban edges to cities and towns. These will require greater attention with effective setbacks to any adjacent fire-prone resources. Perhaps there is also a Commonwealth role in this area for cooperative information collection and research. Commonwealth infrastructure assistance for projects that facilitate higher density living in central city areas would also assist.

Let’s hope in the coming months, even while the current fire season is still with us, that the Commonwealth Government will take the initiative to bring together in a bi-partisan and cooperative manner all of the stakeholders to have a constructive discussion about both the short and long term issues raised by the current bushfire disaster.

Let’s also hope that, at least at the Commonwealth government level, decisions are made in terms of efficient and effective funding allocations helping those in greatest need now and addressing longer term strategic issues, rather than allocating funding for short term political gain.

Rob Purdon is a geographer and qualified urban planner with many years consulting experience to private clients and government agencies, a dedicated bushwalker, and owns an (insured) coast house in southern NSW.

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