In some areas, barely 10 per cent of the homes lost in the Black Summer fires have been rebuilt due to struggles with development approvals, insurance shortfalls and labour and material shortages. Now another fire season looms. By Kieran Pender.

Red tape delays Black Summer rebuild

A woman looks down at a fallen statue in the centre of a backyard stripped and blackened by fire.
Graeme and Robyn Freedman’s fire-damaged home in Wandella on January 8, 2020.
Credit: Supplied

It has been almost four years since Graeme Freedman and his wife, Robyn, lost their home in Wandella, in the picturesque hills behind Cobargo, just inland from Bermagui on the New South Wales South Coast. The Black Summer bushfires roared through the rolling terrain on the morning of New Year’s Eve 2019, destroying the Freedmans’ property and many others nearby.

Ever since, the Freedmans have been slowly rebuilding. Mired in red tape, it took them six months to get development approval. The fire was so fierce it destroyed underground infrastructure, which is not covered by insurance policies. Then the Covid-19 pandemic contributed to material shortages and price hikes, while trade skills are in short supply in regional Australia. It was a perfect storm.

Late last year the Freedmans moved into an almost-completed granny flat, intended to be the first phase of construction of their home. “It’s safe and it’s warm – it’s tiny, but it’s better than a caravan,” says Graeme Freedman, who had previously been living in a caravan onsite.

Data gathered from two of the worst-hit local government areas on the South Coast, Eurobodalla and Bega, show the extent of the long tail to the Black Summer recovery. Across the two councils, about 1000 homes were lost in the 2019-20 bushfire season – most during the devastation of New Year’s Eve. Barely one in five families are back in their rebuilt homes.

In Eurobodalla, which encompasses Batemans Bay, Mogo, Malua Bay, Rosedale and Moruya, development applications to replace about three quarters of the 501 homes lost have been assessed and approved. At last count, 136 occupation certificates had been issued – meaning construction had been completed and residents could return. In other words, approaching the fourth anniversary of the bushfires, only 27 per cent of houses have been rebuilt.

The rates are worse in the Bega Valley Shire Council, which is more rural and was hit particularly hard around the Cobargo area, near the Freedmans’ property. Only a third of the 467 dwellings lost to the fires have had development applications lodged and even fewer have had occupation certificates finalised, with the percentage returned to their new homes barely in the double digits.

In some respects the slow progress should not be surprising – research following the 2009 Black Saturday bushfires in Victoria found some home owners were still rebuilding a decade later, and only 63 per cent in highly impacted communities felt “mostly” or “fully” recovered by 2019. As the Freedmans experienced, the rebuilding after the Black Summer has been hampered by the pandemic, development process delays and trade and material shortages. Now, four years on, another fire season has arrived.

That reality became clear at the beginning of this month, when a bushfire moved through the area between Bermagui and Cobargo. “We had a direct view from our place of where it started,” Freedman says. The fire burnt 5000 hectares and destroyed several homes. It was an ominous warning of the upcoming summer, the first since the traditionally wetter La Niña weather pattern came to an end. “I think,” Freedman adds, “people have been showing signs of stress in the last couple of weeks.”

The extent of the Black Summer devastation surrounding their property means the Freedmans’ home is unlikely to be impacted this season. But Freedman is fretting about what the summer ahead means for others. “I think there’ll be places close by, where it hasn’t burnt, that will probably burn this year,” he says. “There might be some fairly big losses. There’s just so much unburnt bush out there. It’s not going to be good.”

The Albanese government appears to be taking seriously the growing challenge of disaster management in the climate crisis. When Emergency Management Minister Murray Watt was approached by The Saturday Paper for comment, he responded with three pages of detail on what the government is doing to help bushfire survivors and prepare for this summer.

Watt said that since taking office the government had “worked hard” on the “long task of recovery from the Black Summer bushfires”, a task made more difficult by “compounding, concurrent natural disasters across every state in Australia, with recovery hampered by COVID and all the challenges that have come with it”. Watt acknowledged “the job is not yet completed, and that this is causing ongoing stress for affected communities” – particularly with the “first significant fire season since Black Summer” ahead.

Among the government’s actions have been the implementation of most of the bushfire royal commission’s federal-level recommendations, the establishment of a unified National Emergency Management Agency, the creation of a Disaster Ready Fund to invest up to $1 billion in disaster mitigation in the coming years, and hosting the inaugural National Disaster Preparedness Summit.

“Looking ahead, after a decade of neglect by the previous governments at state and federal levels, there is significant work to be done to prepare both locally and nationally for future national disasters,” Watt said in the statement. “And while disaster management is primarily a State and Territory responsibility, in our first 16 months in office, the Albanese Government has stepped up to support them.

“We’ve made it a real priority to work with all partners to ensure that Australia is much better prepared for disasters and responds much more quickly. We know that we can’t eliminate disaster risk, and we will face difficult conditions this summer. But already, we’ve made major changes at the Federal level to ensure we’re much better prepared, connected and coordinated than we were for Black Summer.”

The increasing scale, intensity and frequency of natural disasters experienced in Australia, and around the world, will continue unless there is urgent climate action. Watt noted that the government was “tackling the root cause of increasing extreme weather – climate change – by legislating much more ambitious emission reduction targets”. That may be so, and the Albanese government has pursued a more significant climate policy than the previous Morrison government, but Labor is also continuing to approve new coalmines and support the expansion of natural gas projects.

Ron Dunne and his wife, Anna, lost their home in Nelligen, near Batemans Bay, on New Year’s Eve 2019. They spent more than a year battling planning red tape before getting permission to rebuild. After an arduous recovery journey, they have now finally moved out of their temporary accommodation (a shed–caravan combination) and into the newly rebuilt home; although, Dunne says, they are still putting on the finishing touches.

“It’s been a few hard years, but we got there,” he admits. “I took it into my own hands – that was the only way it was going to happen. If you waited for the authorities to help, you’d be still waiting – as I know several people are, still caught up in red tape. A lot of them have given up actually.”

Dunne also worries about the coming summer – he recently had Rural Fire Service (RFS) representatives inspect the rear boundary of his property due to concerns about leaf litter and wattle build-up. “There’s three times as much fuel in the bush as there was, and now we’ve had three or four months with hardly any rain – it’s tinder-dry,” he said. Dunne says he was perplexed when the RFS indicated there was no additional risk factor in the fuel build-up.

For the Freedmans, the rebuild continues. Next month they will take delivery of the steel frame for a shed – during the pandemic, prices doubled and it is only now that the cost has returned to normal. They are still doing work to finalise their granny flat and have not begun the larger rebuild of their house. “There’s still a lot of work to be done,” Graeme Freedman says.

The toll the rebuilding process has taken on so many bushfire victims is grimly encapsulated by Freedman’s attitude to what he would do if the area were hit again. Asked to reflect on the past four years, the Wandella resident pauses for a moment to gather his thoughts. “We’ve done everything we can to design this and use technology and various tricks that make it defensible,” he says. “But at the end of the day, it was never defended because the [RFS] had run out of resources and we were triaged out.

“If that happens again, and it’s not defensible, I’m going to defend it anyway. Because I’m not going to go through this again. I’d rather be gone.” 

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on October 21, 2023 as "The great rebuild".

For almost a decade, The Saturday Paper has published Australia’s leading writers and thinkers. We have pursued stories that are ignored elsewhere, covering them with sensitivity and depth. We have done this on refugee policy, on government integrity, on robo-debt, on aged care, on climate change, on the pandemic.

All our journalism is fiercely independent. It relies on the support of readers. By subscribing to The Saturday Paper, you are ensuring that we can continue to produce essential, issue-defining coverage, to dig out stories that take time, to doggedly hold to account politicians and the political class.

There are very few titles that have the freedom and the space to produce journalism like this. In a country with a concentration of media ownership unlike anything else in the world, it is vitally important. Your subscription helps make it possible.

Select your digital subscription

Month selector

Use your Google account to create your subscription