Bushfire survivors ‘living like refugees’

Bushfire survivors ‘living like refugees’

23 October 2009

published by www.independentweekly.com.au

Australia —

After Colin Hill’s Humevale house was destroyed in the Black Saturday fires of February 7, he promised his two daughters they would be spending Christmas in a new home.

Almost nine months on, his block, which sits on Hawkes Road on a hill with magnificent views over a valley towards Whittlesea and the Melbourne skyline, remains empty with no hope of a move in by December.

“It was a naive promise,” Mr Hill said.

He regards himself and his neighbours as refugees, the forgotten people of the Victorian bushfires, who are living in sheds, converted horse floats or caravans and drowning in red tape as they try to put their lives back together.

“There are people living in Third World conditions up here,” he says.

“Everybody is on edge.”

He says the new building regulations that were introduced in March have added tens of thousands of dollars to the cost of a new home and some of the Fire Zone (FZ) rated products have not yet been invented.

On top of that he is battling the Whittlesea Council over his rates notice that values his property at more than $400,000.

“Look around, some dirt and a lot of burned trees – the council is just another set of vultures trying to get at us,” he told AAP.

He has appealed the rates and called in an independent valuer.

He says a lot of For Sale signs are appearing in the area but the land is almost impossible to sell because of the stiff new building codes.

A 40-acre property went for auction last week and could not attract a bid apart from a vendor’s bid of $320,000.

Mr Hill estimates that before February 7, that land, with house intact, was probably worth about $1 million.

Under the new FZ regulations, Humevale is rated in the highest risk area in which to build because of the sloping land and high vegetation.

A few kilometres down the Whittlesea-Yea Road at Kinglake West, where homes were also wiped off the map, weatherboard houses with wooden outdoor decks have sprung up on flat land.

How is it, Mr Hill asks, a community that was also devastated by fire can rebuild at a lesser standard than him and his Humevale neighbours.

“It’s a hotch-potch of building regulations,” he says.

He believes everyone should build at the BAL 40 (Bushfire Attack Level) standard, which is the next one down from FZ.

He says there should be designated bushfire areas and all properties required to meet the same building standards.

Mr Hill, who spent 15 years as a volunteer fireman, says that to rebuild he would need new fireproof doors and windows complete with shutters, which he estimates would add up to $35,000 to the cost.

He says a compliant roof would add another $20,000.

The new building products have to be able to withstand 30 minutes of continuous flame at increasing temperatures.

“This has nothing to do with how a fire behaves,” he says.

“The fire that came through here was estimated to be travelling at 100 kilometres per hour and would have been gone in seconds.”

He says every house along Hawkes Road, except for two, were destroyed and the major factor behind their survival was that the owners stayed and defended.

Mr Hill has plans to turn his new home into a virtual bunker when construction finally does get under way.

He has already established an earth wall that he says will direct any wind coming up from the valley over his house.

He will plant fire-retardant native trees such as blackwood and put sprinklers around the house.

A concrete water tank would be his last-resort refuge.

“I want to make it a model for fire safety – I’ve been ready to build for four months but there is so much red tape,” he said.

Archicentre general manager David Hallett has some sympathy for Mr Hill and says people in his position should speak with a building surveyor and explain what they are doing to protect their property.

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