Australia– Housing design standards implemented in the aftermath of Black Saturday are deeply flawed, experts say with several bushfire-proofed homes already lost in bushfires this year.
In Christmas Day’s Wye River and Separation Creek fire, at least five bushfire-rated homes were destroyed, Fairfax Media has learnt, despite local fire conditions not being nearly as intense as they were on Black Saturday in 2009.
That raises serious questions about Victoria’s bushfire risk management policy, experts say. Fire trucks snake along the Great Ocean Road near Wye River.
Emergency Management Victoria, however, contests these claims and say the standards performed very well in an extremely intense fire.
A total of 116 houses were lost in the coastal hamlets of Wye River and Separation Creek after an out-of-control bushfire ripped through on Christmas Day.
BAL, or “bushfire attack level”, ratings were required for all new homes in fire-prone areas after a recommendation from the Bushfires Royal Commission in 2009. They prescribe a standard that new homes must be built to.
The standard won’t guarantee a building’s survival, as fires are inherently unpredictable. But BAL40-rated homes, of the type built in Wye and Separation Creek, are designed for “increasing levels of ember attack and burning debris … Together with increasing heat flux and and increased likelihood of exposure to flames”. BAL40 is regarded as the general standard for homes facing significant fire threats.
The Bushfire Building Council of Australia, whose senior members include the former deputy chief officer of the CFA and a sitting member of the Australian Building Codes Board, says the standards are flawed.
“The type of fire and fire weather conditions [during the Christmas Day fire] were well within the design limitations of the building standards,” Kate Cotter, the BBCA’s chief executive, said.
Stephen Kip, a council member, fire safety engineer and board member of the Australian Building Codes Board, said: “There is half a dozen design flaws in them”.
The BBCA’s critique of the standards includes
-No requirement to consider location of gas water heater -No requirements for gutter guards -No ban on keeping a wood pile near the house -BAL-rated houses can be built right next to unrated houses
After the Wye River fires, new BAL-rated homes will be built right next to unrated houses, which pose a serious fire risk.
Getting BAL approval for a house is not cheap in some cases, it can add as much as $50,000 to the cost of a build. For that sort of money, say experts, the fire defence should be more effective.
The CSIRO’s lead bushfire infrastructure researcher wrote a report extensively critiquing the standards in 2009 and suggesting they were actually less effective than standards they replaced. Many of his recommendations remain unimplemented.
Justin Leonard is the CSIRO researcher putting together the report on the Wye and Separation Creek fires.
His 2009 report to the Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission is extensively critical of the bushfire standards. Criticisms include:
-Combustible timbers are allowed to be used on doors and window-frames -No requirements verandas, decks or stairs be made from non-combustible material -No requirement to design for grassfires -No requirement to build sub-floor spaces that block the entrance of flammable material like leaves.
Mr Leonard says many of the flaws he identified have not been fixed.
“I cannot force the processes to adopt what the science says. At some point I have to decide to stick to what I do as an independent researcher.”
Emergency Management Commissioner Craig Lapsley, who walked Wye River extensively after the blazes, believes fewer than 10 BAL-rated buildings burnt down and a number survived. He says the BAL standard no doubt served its purpose.
“If anything, these buildings are stacking up to withstand the passage of fire.
“A fire in Wye River of that intensity or higher would have taken the whole town out. To lose 116 is a loss, but if they had of lost 334 houses that would have been a total loss. They lost a third of the building stock in the most difficult part of the town.”
Peter Newland had a BAL-rated house in Wye River. It burnt to the ground but he’s not angry. Nothing could have survived the blaze, he says.
“The temperature of the fire near my house was hot enough to make glass melt into spiderweb filaments. To have temperatures that hot, nothing was going to survive.”
For now, Wye River’s community awaits the release of the CSIRO report.
The revelations came as the Inspector-General of Emergency Management reported that back-burning was an appropriate strategy to help fight and contain the Wye River.
IGEM Tony Pearce was charged with examining the Christmas Day fire.
Mr Pearce’s report backed incident control view that the fire could not have been resourced more during the initial fire fight without an unacceptable escalation of risk.
“The back-burn strategy was successful in meeting its aim of reducing the fuel loads in the containment lines of the fire,” the report said.
But Mr Pearce was critical of document and recording systems, saying that there were discrepancies between the incident control centre record of the number of firefighting resources being used and that of on scene logs.
“This situation has the potential to impact both firefighter safety and the effective utilisation of available resources.”
The IGEM also found that the fire should have been escalated to a level 3 incident earlier, however he said the classification of the fire would not have changed the outcome.
Emergency Services Minister Jane Garrett said the government would accept all the recommendations as part of the continuous improvement of how agencies work together to respond to emergencies.