Victoria

Sep 16, 2014

Five years on from Black Saturday, Victoria drags its feet on bushfire protection

Although the state government has implemented most of the recommendations of the Bushfires Royal Commission, there is still important work to do, writes Crikey intern Andrei Ghoukassian.

Five years after the Black Saturday bushfires that devastated Victoria, the state government is yet to act on recommendations designed to protect lives in schools, hospitals and aged care facilities. The important changes -- which were due to be implemented in 2012 but have yet to be passed through Victorian Parliament -- were left out of bushfire reforms announced by Planning Minister Matthew Guy in May. The United Firefighters Union, which has been critical of both the royal commission and the implementation program, told Crikey the government's response had been "disgraceful". "It's purely a matter of cost. The government is short-changing Victorians. How can you put a price on ensuring the lessons from the past are not repeated?" secretary Peter Marshall asked. The Bushfires Royal Commission was established in 2009 to investigate the extreme fires that killed 173 people and destroyed more than 2000 homes. The commission was entrusted with the task of investigating the causes of the disaster, as well as producing guidelines to ensure the horror would never be repeated. The report was critical of those leading the emergency services response and lamented the lack of co-ordination between the departments. Unsurprisingly, some heads rolled: then-police commissioner Christine Nixon stood down after famously leaving the emergency command centre at 6pm to have dinner. According to the Bushfires Royal Commission Implementation Monitor's (BRCIM) latest report, released in July, 11 of the 67 recommendations handed down by the commission in 2010 have not been implemented, and 21 individual actions are "ongoing". The report is largely positive in its assessment of the implementation program, but it has serious concerns about the state government's management of actions related to non-residential structures that were due in March 2012. The commission recommended the state government apply bushfire construction provisions to "class 9 vulnerable use" buildings, such as schools, childcare centres, hospitals and aged care facilities. The BRCIM's report says  the commission is satisfied with the progress of other delayed actions, but those relating to these buildings are "well overdue, and the BRCIM has received no evidence of progress of this action during 2013-14".
"Nothing has happened since then, but the state government insists it is not backing away from its pledge."
The proposed changes require amendments to Victoria's Building Regulations Act (2006) to ensure class 9 structures are subject to bushfire performance requirements. A separate but linked action requires the creation of guidelines for retrofitting existing class 9 structures with performance enhancements. Crikey understands the enhancements would include features such as fireproof insulation. The necessary legislation was drafted in 2012, but it failed to progress further because of the requirement for a regulatory impact statement (RIS). While in 2012 the BRCIM was satisfied that "the state has made every possible effort to expeditiously proceed with the amendment", it rapidly lost patience. The RIS was delayed further due to a lack of data, but was finally released for consultation in August 2012. Progress stalled again, and the BRCIM took a dim view of the delays in its 2013 report:
"At the time of writing this report, the action was 15 months overdue. As the proposed amendments have been drafted, the BRCIM urges the State to finalise this action as a matter of priority."
Earlier this year Planning Minister Matthew Guy announced bushfire regulation reforms that included an amendment to the act enforcing minimum requirements for all new buildings in bushfire-prone areas. But the actions required for class 9 structures were ignored, and the package was announced after the BRCIM received final evidence for its 2014 report. As a result, the BRCIM was not able to properly assess the changes nor comment on their effectiveness. Nothing has happened since then, but the state government insists it is not backing away from its pledge. "The Napthine Government remains absolutely committed to implementing all 67 recommendations of the Royal Commission, and we have never wavered on this promise," the government said in a statement in August. Victoria is tipped to endure another above-average bushfire season, with Emergency Management Victoria claiming it could be worse than last year's, when more than 460,000 hectares of land were burned. Matthew Guy and Minister for Bushfire Response Kim Wells were both contacted by Crikey. Neither responded before deadline.

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5 comments

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5 thoughts on “Five years on from Black Saturday, Victoria drags its feet on bushfire protection

  1. Yabba88

    The firefighters know about fighting fires. Their knowledge of preventing or mitigating fires is very limited, and of little value, in much the same way that the bloke who fits a tyre to your car knows very little about tyre design or manufacture. I was a member, and leader in the local volunteer bushfire brigade for many years, and the level of general ignorance amongst my colleagues was disturbing.

    Fire damage to houses can be minimised, and in virtually all cases completely avoided, by fitting roof sprays driven by a diesel pump, and recycling the water sprayed via a decent sized tank. There are no recorded instances in Australia of a house burning in a bushfire where it was fitted with operational roof sprays. The cost of the entire roof spray installation on my house, in thick bush 80 kms NNW of Sydney, was $780. Replacement cost as of now would be no more than $1500, ie 1 year’s insurance premium. Our house was totally untouched in a decent fire that came through pushed by 50 kph north westerlies, which burnt down 5 houses within a 10 km radius. (Watagans) We have bush to 5 metres from the house. House is mud brick and timber.
    Also of interest is recent research showing that Forestry clearfelling and regrowth causes bushfires to be far more severe than those which occur in real, natural forests, like those in national parks.

  2. Yclept

    Just tell Tony that the terrorists are going to start bushfires and money will come flooding in for the recommendations. Easy!

  3. Keifwoki

    Would be nice if the CFA updated their Windows and Windows phone fire notification (fire ready) apps before fire season as well!! Pathetic….

  4. AR

    Phil Koperberg, who knows more about bush fires than most, opined re the Blue Mountains fires last October that expensive updated building regs are a feel-good measure, along the lines of airport security, being seen to do something no matter how ineffectual.
    Or even counterproductive by allowing unwarranted complacency.
    As he pithily put it,”you could have the best building regs available to science, 3 fire engines on standby but if a fire is being pushed at your house by a decent wind, it’s [email protected]

  5. fractious

    AR, as previous Big Kahuna at the RFS, he would know. There is some sense in many of the measures the RFS (under Koperberg’s leadership) came up with in Planning for Bushfire Protection (PfBP) in 2001 (and later amendments), and especially those measures aimed at ‘Special Fire Protection Purpose’ (SFPP) developments (eg. nursing homes, schools – any building regularly inhabited by large numbers of people who are unlikely to be evacuated quickly in an emergency). In many senses these measures are better than nothing (I haven’t seen the figures but I’d love to know the proportion of dwellings destroyed that had virtually no bushfire protection vs. those with), yet I suspect the major test of the efficacy of these measures in protecting life and property is yet to come. Perhaps this year (if the ENSO forecasts come about), perhaps next, but it *will* come.

    The situation was – to the best of my sketchy memory – different in Victoria: while they adopted the provisions of the Building Code of Australia and those of AS3959 for bushfire-prone buildings, they stopped short of adopting the whole shooting match as NSW did, in not giving the CFA the same clout in determining the suitability of bushfire protection measures that the RFS has, and not adopting statutory development guidelines like PfBP. In limited effect the RFS is a quasi DA approval authority, and given that there are many direct parallels between NSW & Vic as far as bushfire behaviour and peri-urban development, the CFA’s limited role may prove to be key.

    Regardless of those differences, even the best system available (the model adopted in NSW) may not be enough. IMO while the power of the RFS as a statutory authority (through the Rural Fires Act and the EP&A Act) to influence various factors relating to individual DA’s, subdivisions and SFPP’s is welcome and better than nothing, it ought to be extended – it’s no good having asset protection zones, special access/ egress designs, standpipes, sprinkler systems yada yada if the entire village is out on a ridgetop with one road in/out. I went to Yellow Rock and Winmalee (lower Blue Mtns) the other day, and the resemblance to Kinglake was eerie. If NSW and Vic mean business when it comes to preventing 2009 and its antecedents ever happening again, then they must allow that some parts of the country should never be allowed to be developed. If certain people insist on their “right” to live in such places, then they must do so at their own risk and sign away any expectation that the state will come rescue them when it all goes off.

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