Many homes with little fire protection

Megan Neil
(Australian Associated Press)


Up to one million homes in bushfire-prone areas have little or no fire protection, but in some cases it would be cheaper to knock down and rebuild them than upgrade them, a royal commission has been told.

Ninety per cent of buildings in bushfire-prone areas were built before bushfire planning and construction regulations came in, the Bushfire Building Council noted.

Existing or legacy buildings do not have to be upgraded to meet the bushfire-safety standards, which apply to new homes and developments or significant modification to a property.

“The key problem is the legacy of past decisions and planning that has permitted houses with little or no protection against bushfire or other natural emergencies or disaster,” Australian Institute of Architects member Nigel Bell said.

There are up to one million existing houses in high to extreme bushfire-risk areas that have little or no fire protection, the institute’s submission to the natural disasters royal commission said.

Mr Bell noted AAMI Insurance estimated the additional building costs to meet more stringent construction requirements in a high-risk bushfire area at more than $100,000.

“There is too little evidence that the significant extra cost has actually made a huge difference when saving houses,” he told the Royal Commission into National Natural Disaster Arrangements on Wednesday.

The institute said the costs could be prohibitive for people who wanted to upgrade their homes.

It said some projects required a complete house upgrade to meet the more stringent Australian standard for building in bushfire-prone areas, which was changed after Victoria’s 2009 Black Saturday bushfires.

“The cost of trying to retrofit is higher than demolition and trying to build again for what might be only a marginally safer house,” Mr Bell said.

The Victorian government said there were large groups of legacy buildings constructed before 2009 that did not meet the current bushfire safety standards, adding retrofitting them to comply with those requirements could be very expensive.

“Land-use planning has facilitated the creation of defendable space around such buildings; however, construction standards do not meet contemporary requirements,” the government’s submission said.

“Their owners/occupants are consequently more at risk in the event of an emergency.”

Insurance data showed 99 per cent of homes destroyed or damaged last bushfire season were located on or within 500 metres of land declared as bushfire prone, and 74 per cent were built before the introduction of the national bushfires construction standard.

Climate change risk analysis company XDI estimated there are more than 380,000 properties across Australia at high risk from natural hazards, the inquiry was told.


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