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We are not doing nearly enough to prevent bushfires

Unless there is a substantial increase in prevention investment, governments will continue to commit Victorians, and all Australians, to the growing, unsustainable liability of natural disaster impacts.

Even if you don’t live in a bushfire prone area, as a taxpayer footing the bill for recovery costs, you should be outraged that your money is not being effectively managed.

While bushfires are not discriminating, recovering from bushfire disasters hits low-income families the hardest. The more resources you have, the more likely it is that you can afford to rebuild your business, rebuild your home, absorb losses or permanently relocate to a lower risk area.

Community-wide bushfire resilience projects reduce risk for all residents. As well as avoiding or reducing future bushfire impacts, reducing exposure to risk creates an environment that attracts competitive insurance coverage, encourages investment, improves property values and provides the security and wellbeing that come with sustainable living.

What does it cost to improve bushfire resilience for all residents of a community? Using Wye River as an example because we have recent data, it would cost approximately $8 million every 10 years including maintenance and renewal costs to provide grants to prevent ember ignition for all older properties, a 35 megalitre dam for township firefighting water, upgrade the Surf Lifesaving Club to a Community Fire Refuge, annual fuel management program within and around the township, annual property inspections to test safety systems and annual emergency planning and education.

These measures are specific to the needs of this particular community, based on our risk assessment and cost-benefit analysis.

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If the measures were implemented, our resilience model determines the reduction of future losses to be at least 65 per cent. The direct economic cost of recovery of the 2015 Wye River bushfire was $300 million – under full evacuation on a severe fire day (not extreme or Code Red).

Based on historical bushfire return periods, we estimate every dollar spent on community resilience saves $4 in recovery costs. Even greater return on investment will be achieved with the increase of bushfire frequency caused by climate change.

The reason that our experts include ember protection for older homes is because over 92 per cent of property loss in a bushfire is due to ember ignition and about 95 per cent of properties in high risk areas were built prior to bushfire construction standards being introduced.

A clear and very present danger for Australian communities is the risk of large-scale life and property loss from house to house ignition, known as urban conflagration.

This type of fire destroys whole townships in a domino effect, where embers ignite a home, and the burning home ignites any other home within 10 metres of it. This type of fire ignited one home per minute in the 2018 Californian Camp Fire – killing 91 people and destroying 18,800 buildings. While the US has a mandatory evacuation policy and highway infrastructure to quickly evacuate people, lives and property were still lost.

Townships at risk of urban conflagration in Victoria, such as Eltham and Warrandyte, are potential death traps due to poor evacuation routes – only two river crossings which are congested under normal conditions, unmanaged fuel loads and a low number of new buildings built to bushfire construction standards.

Full evacuation may take days for such a highly populated area, so resilient homes are required to provide shelter if leaving early fails. If evacuation is successful, then resilient housing has a better chance of still standing when residents return.

Eltham and Warrandyte are potential death traps.

There are a number of natural market incentives and government incentives that can drive long-term behaviour change to the point that future generations will wonder why on earth we lived in such a dangerous manner. The same way we might think about the days before car seat belts and pool fences.

Our independent experts have proved that measurable improvements to bushfire resilience are  absolutely possible, but it takes political will and government investment. Unfortunately for communities, politicians quickly arrive on the scene of a natural disaster but are absent in their funding commitment to prevent the disaster in the first place.

Kate Cotter is CEO of the Bushfire Building Council of Australia.

*According to the Australian Business Roundtable into Disaster Resilience and Safer Communities (which excludes climate change impacts).

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