The 2019-2020 fires affected most states and territories, with more than 3500 homes damaged or destroyed, but it was NSW with its vast tracks of bushland that saw the heaviest losses. As of 29 January 2020, 5.3 million hectares had burned, and with it uncountable numbers of animals and birdlife. NSW also had by far the biggest losses of property. While the 2009 Black Saturday fires remains the deadliest bushfire event in Australia’s recorded history (173 people died compared to 33 people last season), the National Bushfire Recovery Agency noted as of April more than 12 million hectares of land had burned. This was greater than the area burned in the 2009 Black Saturday and 1983 Ash Wednesday bushfires combined.
The NSW South Coast in particular saw scenes of chaos. Greg Weller, HIA Executive Director – ACT & Southern NSW says as the fires unfolded, HIA became aware of eight members along the coast who had lost their homes and had ranging impacts on their businesses. ‘It was humbling for our team to talk to these members and their families, to hear the stories of what they had been through and to see the incredible resilience and fortitude on display,’ he says. ‘Where we could offer support to assist even in a small way, it definitely had a lasting impact on HIA staff.’
Greg says the impact was heightened because the region had already had a difficult few years. ‘If you start back in March 2018 with the Tathra fires, which destroyed many homes in the town, the people on the coast have since had to contend with drought, the most recent fires in 2020, COVID-19 and even floods,’ he says. ‘Going from one disaster to the next takes its toll.’
HIA member builder Jimmy Drakos has lived on the NSW South Coast all his life and witnessed first-hand the aftereffects. ‘Cobargo [in particular] was shocking, just tragic,’ he says. ‘A lot of people are still shell shocked by the whole event. I know many of the locals who were affected, and a few people who passed away in the fires. It has been really sad.’
Jimmy, who owns Drakos Brothers Construction, says the business is busy with rebuilds in Cobargo among other towns. It has thrown the reality some victims are currently living into sharp relief. ‘One lady went through a personal hardship shortly before the fires, then lost her home and was underinsured to build to new bushfire standards and recent asset protection assessments,’ he reveals. ‘We completed some pro bono work for her. She is a remarkable survivor and a lovely lady in need of a helping hand.’
Greg says a big concern after any disaster that sees widespread loss of property is how well insurance covers the losses. Where people have an agreed value policy in place, there is always the potential for underinsurance.
‘The onus is generally on the consumer to determine what coverage they take out, and they carry the risk if it falls short,’ he explains. ‘The cost of rebuilding increases naturally over time, homeowners may have undertaken renovations since their policy started, and changes to the Building Code of Australia could mean higher building costs. Not to mention increases due to surge in demand after a significant event.
‘Unfortunately, it is often the builder that is the first point of call for these difficult discussions in what is already an emotional time.’
Before the rebuilding can commence, affected sites must be secured and waste safely disposed of or recycled. Some buildings can contain asbestos, drawing out the process.
‘This definitely meant that the clean-up has taken some time, though fortunately it appears we are now past this hurdle now,’ Greg says. ‘It’s good to see that homes are now starting to be rebuilt although this will be a long process.’