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Expert Blog

Blue Mountains house fire losses and Construction Standards.

Black-Saturday-Bushfire

After expressing my respects to the vollies and professional firefighters and firemen, and the many supporting groups and agencies assisting with fire control and the recovery process, I want to voice a concern regarding building standards.

After every major bush fire event, groups of researchers and investigators attempt to determine the cause of ignition of each lost or severely damaged structure.  They also look at houses which unexpectedly survived. The traditional official reaction after a substantial loss of houses has been to create and/or impose tougher levels of protection.  The more politically active and publicity-conscious tend to lead this particular push. There is also a widespread push by groups with a financial interest in the protection industry.  Some rush to defend the use of particular products which come into question, while suppliers of alternate products lobby for changes which favour theirs.  Members of Committees overseeing the regulation of the various guidelines, standards and the like can anticipate ongoing employment for another substantial term of appointment.  A lot of people benefit, directly or indirectly, from major disasters and catastrophes.  Some of these individuals with a vested interest in the outcome may behave less than honourably, and I hope that a degree of scrutiny prevents another knee-jerk over-reaction to the Blue Mountains fire.

In talking informally to owners of lost houses in the Blue Mountains recently, I have been amazed at the numbers of apparently well-built places that were actually left in a totally indefensible condition.  (Correctly) convinced that owners had nothing to fear by telling me the real story, I’ve heard some surprising admissions ‘We always leave the back door open so the dogs can get in and out, and nobody will come into the yard with them wandering around so the place is perfectly safe’ is a reasonably representative, and common, comment.  Similarly, ‘I hate English gardens, native plants encourage all the birds’ seems to be an acceptable reason for disregarding injunctions against creating a virtual bonfire surrounding the house.  ‘There’s no flies or mossies up here so we leave the screens off to see the view better’.  They are some of the reasons given by people who have considered fire but decided not to bother, and are in addition to those who just never thought, and those who meant to but didn’t get around to it yet (for the last 10 years).   Such places will not survive fire – they didn’t – and yet they were built, and initially landscaped, to a very high fire resistant standard, not so long ago. And my point is this:  There is no benefit at all in imposing a higher standard of protection if the houses being lost didn’t meet the present standard in the first place.  Whether they were built before today’s (or the previous set, or the set before that) standards, or because they failed through neglect or virtual sabotage to comply with any reasonable degree of protection standard, is not a valid basis for imposing an even higher construction standard on new houses.  Only if structures that actually complied with the current standard were lost, are there grounds for upgrading the current standard.  Requiring every homeowner to spend an additional $50-100,000 to fit features which have not been shown to be actually necessary, and which may not be correctly maintained or deployed anyway, is wasting money which could be spent on meaningful protection measures to benefit entire communities.

I imagine there will be a significant push for more stringent controls will follow within a matter of months.  It will be backed by cries of “look at what happened on Ash Wednesday/Como-Jannali/Canberra/Marysville (and now) the Blue Mountains”.  “We don’t want these sort of losses to continue.  We have to do something.”  Yes, we do. We have to get older places that don’t meet any reasonable sort of standard, up to scratch.  We have to make sure that people with properly sited and built houses don’t do dumb things that negate the protective measures for which they paid good money in the first place.  We need to make long perimeters of older homes on the fringes of older suburbs which have little to no communal defence against fire, more fire-resistant.  We need to keep bushfires clear of  existing suburbs at least as much as keeping future houses clear of the bush. We cannot afford to continue to make future home construction unaffordable by imposing a raft of extra controls which have not been shown to be necessary additions to those presently in force, but often not actually in use.

(I am a member of various professional institutions, but the views expressed above are purely my own, and not those of any body with which I am associated).