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$vuetify.icons.faPhone1300 650 620

Then and Now: The Burning Issues

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It’s nearly two years since the devastating Black Summer bushfires in 2019/20, so are we now future-proofing our properties for the fire seasons ahead?

Simon Croft

HIA Executive Director – Building Policy

As we enter into the Australian bushfire season, it’s a stark reminder that it was two years ago when several bushfires started around the country. What followed was the devastating 2019-20 Black Summer bushfires.

Much has been written and said about the bushfires, covering responses, preparedness and causes. There have been numerous state and federal government inquiries, post-incident analysis reports and a Royal Commission into Natural Disasters. 

There have also been specific government agencies established, both at a state and federal level, to coordinate the rebuilding and recovery and improve building resilience in the future. Much of this work will be long-term projects with some programs still in their infancy. 

HIA has assisted in determining the scope and coverage of several programs, along with directing activities to streamline and cut red tape to enable people to build back as fast as possible. Other work on programs to improve the resilience of existing buildings is also underway.

 

Bushfire building standards 

Australia’s building standards are currently not designed to be bushfire proof. Instead, they are designed to get people out to a place of safety, pass first fire front if they need to stay in their home, and improve the chances of survivability of the building.

While there has been media commentary and various investigations about reviews of bushfire standards and suitability of land-use planning controls in bushfire-prone areas and bushfire mapping, no changes have been suggested as yet.

The post-incident reports have indicated similar findings to previous bushfire incidents – that buildings built since 2009 to current building and bushfire standards, mainly AS 3959, fared much better than buildings constructed before 2009.

Further to this, there have been several studies and articles on houses built in various Bushfire Attack Levels (BALs) that had the fires pass through in close proximity. The buildings performed better than expected, with only some minor damage occurring, such as to trims, waste pipes and landscaping.

By and large, the homes and structures destroyed or suffering substantial damage from the 2019/20 bushfires were older homes, built before building and bushfire standards were in place. This extended to a range of other types of outbuildings and shed houses or ‘shouses’.

Gutters filled with leaves and other debris contribute to a greater fire risk.

Outside elements

The post-incident reports on buildings destroyed, including causes, impact and what could be improved going forward, are still being compiled by relevant government agencies. It’s expected that proposals to enhance the bushfire standards and other regulatory instruments will likely follow.

From these reports, the elements contributing to some of the building damages comprises elements outside and ancillary to the building, including:

  • Landscaping and features such as retaining walls and fencing
  • Gas bottles being stored up against the building
  • Combustible elements stored underneath buildings and carports
  • Plastic and PVC sewer and storm water pipes in exposed subfloors
  • Gutters and downpipes filled up with leaves and other debris and being cleared/maintained
  • Plastic sewer and septic tanks
  • Unapproved renovations and additions to dwellings.

The control of these elements is a challenging aspect to regulate. Most of these matters are generally done post-occupancy of the building and relate to building maintenance or storage issues by the occupants. These elements were even more pertinent in older homes. 

This has seen calls to the various investigations to develop home maintenance standards/guidelines, an existing buildings upgrades scheme, and associated practical policy for existing building upgrades. HIA is actively contributing to this work with governments and Standards Australia.

Building resilience

Following the Black Summer bushfires investigations – and in light of a number of recent natural disasters and extreme weather events – ‘building resilience’ and the role of property protection in building codes and standards are gaining more attention.
These issues cover:

  • bushfires, including the 2019/20 Black Summer bushfires
  • high rainfall and water ingress
  • climate change and energy efficiency of buildings
  • sea level rises
  • cyclones
  • hail storms and heatwaves
  • condensation in buildings and heat island effect in buildings
  • resilience of older buildings
  • adequacy of new buildings and building standards and including property protection and resilience as a core goal of the NCC.

At this stage, it appears more of a watching brief on the issues, without clear proposals on the table. However, governments will need to respond to relevant recommendations from the Royal Commission, state bushfire inquiries and other related inquiries.

Next steps 

HIA has long been involved in the bushfire standards, Australian Standards and building codes committees. Where research and post-incident findings identify proposals to improve building performance, new technology or show demonstrated need for improvements to the NCC and standards, we work on the proposals through consultation and impact assessment. This ensures that any changes are proportional and practical.

To date, much of the findings from the 2019/20 bushfires shows there is scope for buildings to improve their resilience to bushfires and natural disasters. Generally, new buildings and current building standards perform well. However, real improvements lie in existing buildings.

It’s anticipated that more dedicated work will be undertaken over the next 24 months, particularly on building resilience. This feeds into the discussion on NCC changes on energy efficiency and condensation/moisture management to some extent.

HIA keeps members up to date and informed as this work progresses, but it will likely remain an active space over the next few years.