Building on the Bushfire Royal Commissions of the past

Examining housing recommendations from previous Victorian fires

Last updated 2 Mar 2020

The Australian bushfires of spring and summer 2019–20 have had a terrible cost in lives lost and homes destroyed. The scale of the burning is estimated at the end of January 2020 as around 5.3 million hectares in NSW (and ACT)2.5 million hectares in Queensland; 2.1 million hectares in Western Australia; 1.5 million hectares in Victoria; 485,000 hectares in South Australia; and 36,000 hectares in Tasmania. The number of properties destroyed has raised questions as to whether governments rebuild or relocate communities in bushfire prone landscapes.

While the Prime Minister has announced a Royal Commission into the recent bushfires it is useful to consider the findings and outcomes that relate to housing from the two previous Victorian Government Royal Commissions, held to investigate catastrophic fire events that occurred in 1939 and 2009—70 years apart.

Although there have been at least 18 major bushfire inquiries in Australia conducted by the Federal and state and territory governments since 1939 the two Victorian Government Royal Commissions have been very influential on policy development.

Victoria is in one of the most bushfire prone regions on Earth,  and the two royal commissions both reinforced the need to have planning rules to clarify where people can build and to what level of fire protection in order to minimise the death and destruction caused by bushfire.

Victorian Royal Commission 1939

The Victorian Government’s Royal Commission into the 1939 fires (which killed many workers in sawmills isolated deep in the forests of central and north eastern Victoria) identified that ‘there are forest regions in Victoria which are particularly dangerous fire areas. Of these regions it can never be said that their mills are quite safe at all times or that, at some times, any mill is reasonably safe'.

The 1939 Royal Commission’s seeming focus on fire safety for sawmills rather than ‘housing’ reflects the reality that prior to the 1939 fires many mill workers and their families lived very close to the sawmills, with the ‘houses and huts of the employees … generally built in the vicinity of or grouped about the millbuilding'.

The Royal Commission recommended that ‘in areas of extreme fire danger, the future policy … should be directed to the non-admittance of new mills to such dangerous areas, and to the future removal of such mills as are now in those areas.’ The Commission also recommended that all buildings at a mill site (including worker’s accommodation) be at least 5 chains (about 100 metres) from the forest, as opposed to the previous requirement for the mill building to be 2 chains (40 metres) from the forest (while workers’ accommodation was not included in that requirement, often being built right next to, or amongst, the forest).

2009 Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission

The 2009 Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission Final Report made more extensive recommendations that Victoria Planning Provisions ‘adopt a clear objective of substantially restricting development in the areas of highest bushfire risk' (recommendation 39) and that ‘the CFA will approve new developments and subdivisions only if the recommended bushfire protection measures—including the minimum defendable space—can be created and maintained on a continuing basis' (recommendation 40).

The 2009 Final Report also advised that the Commission ‘considers that there are some areas where the bushfire risk is so high that development should be restricted’ and that ‘action be taken to help people move away from those areas where other bushfire risk-mitigation measures are not viable'.

Bushfire Management Overlays and Bushfire Attack Levels

As a result of the 2009 Royal Commission, the Victorian Government has created a Bushfire Management Overlay (BMO) that is applied to land which has the potential to be affected by extreme bushfires. Building permits for dwellings inside these areas will require householders to have a number of permanent firefighting structures, such as installing water tanks in areas accessible to firefighting trucks and close to residential buildings; have driveways and roads that allow for heavy fire trucks to travel on to reach the dwellings and to turn around if necessary; and have a defendable space around the dwelling where grass must be cut short and vegetation kept under control and at an appropriate distance from the building.

Buildings must also be built to a minimum bushfire attack level (BAL) consistent with the type and volume of vegetation around the property and whether that vegetation is up or down hill from the dwelling. This requirement is because a fire doubles its speed for every 10 degree increase in slope.

For buildings there are six BAL categories, ranging from 0 for homes not in bushfire affected zone through to BAL-FZ, the highest rating for homes that may experience direct exposure to flames from the fire front in addition to severe radiant heat (over 40 kW/m2) and ember attack. It is important to note that building to BAL-FZ does not mean a house will not burn down in a bushfire, rather that it has a better chance of surviving a fire.

Building to BAL-FZ standard is estimated to add at least more than $100,000 to the cost of building a typical four bedroom home.  The extra cost of building must also be taken into account with higher premiums when insuring the property as any damage to the dwelling in future (whether due to hail, fire or flood) will need to be repaired to the more expensive BAL-FZ standard.

The Royal Commission findings—particularly from 2009—have influenced building in bushfire prone areas across Australia. Indeed, the NSW Planning for Bush Fire Protection 2019 guide for councils, planners, fire authorities and developers, published by the NSW Rural Fire Service acknowledges that it ‘builds on the outcomes and lessons of bush fire events experienced over the past decade including the 2009 Black Saturday bush fires in Victoria'.