Australia — Building standards for bushfire bunkers must be fast-tracked over the next six months, lawyers assisting the Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission say.
The commission has previously heard evidence dodgy bunker manufacturers were flooding the market as demand for shelters skyrocketed following the February 7 bushfires.
However bunkers are not regulated and the people who make them are free to claim they are life-saving without meeting any agreed standard of proof that they actually do so.
The commission has heard harrowing evidence, including in hearings closed to the public, of people who survived and others who died on February 7 sheltering from the inferno in bunkers.
Counsel assisting the commission Melinda Richards said in a submission on Friday that bunker standards should be developed by April 1, 2010 and be in force by no later than May 1.
The Victorian government, through the Building Commission (BC), should develop the standards, she said.
However the Victorian and federal governments rejected Ms Richards’ suggestion, arguing a national standard being developed by the Australian Building Codes Board is the way to go.
That national standard will not be completed for this bushfire season though, and the Victorian government agreed the BC should develop interim accreditation standards until then.
Ms Richards recommended the standards require bunkers to be built to withstand intense fire conditions and severe winds.
Other standards included ensuring bunkers were designed to allow people to shelter in them for a long time, by ensuring oxygen was not sapped by fire and smoke did not enter.
“It is submitted that the development of a standard for bunkers should commence immediately, for initial adoption in Victoria, and subsequent adoption in the Building Code of Australia,” she said.
The Victorian government said work had already started on interim standards for this fire season to protect people who planned to buy bunkers now.
The Building Regulations Advisory Committee’s work included recommending people be forced to obtain building permits before buying and installing bunkers.
Permits would only be granted for bunkers accredited by the committee that meet performance requirements.
The government submission said a national standard would “access expertise and performance-based and scientifically technical data derived from and developed by a wider range of sources than that available to a state-based body like the BC”.
The Australasian Fire and Emergency Service Authorities Council backed the plans for standards but said residents using bunkers should notify fire agencies of their location.
“It is critical that bunkers are not seen or used as a simple solution to living in bushfire prone areas,” it said.
The issue of bunkers came to a head recently when the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission ordered three businesses to correct misleading claims about the standards of their bushfire bunkers.