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Many are still waiting to rebuild their homes that were destroyed during the Black Summer, but experts have told the bushfire royal commission and parliamentary inquiry that the climate crisis will leave more people vulnerable to disaster. By Rick Morton.

Black Summer bushfire inquiries begin

Bushfire-damaged properties in Cobargo on March 1 this year.
Credit: Brook Mitchell / Getty Images

Months on from the worst bushfire season on record, torched homes still stand as angry reminders of a crisis that killed 34 people and seemed poised to fundamentally change our nation’s relationship to climate change.

Instead, the horror was supplanted by another existential threat, the Covid-19 pandemic. But by the time the worst of this viral threat passes, the next bushfire season will already be upon us.

Within this brief window, the Royal Commission into National Natural Disaster Arrangements, which began quietly last month, will seek answers to the question of what can, and must, be learnt from the Black Summer. Hearings start this month, with the commission’s final report due by the end of August.

When it comes to the question of climate change, however, the commission’s remit is limited, particularly in comparison with the separate parliamentary inquiry, proposed by Labor and supported by Centre Alliance members, One Nation and independent senator Jacqui Lambie.

Meanwhile, as both play out, many of the people worst affected by the fires remain stuck in precarious living arrangements, unable to return to their wrecked properties.

Jann Gilbert, a marine biologist, moved to Mallacoota in the year before the summer’s fires plunged the landscape of Victoria’s East Gippsland region into darkness under a hellish red sky, sending a thousand people to the town’s beaches in search of shelter.

It was “Armageddon”, she says.

Four months later, she drives past the burnt-out shell of her house every day. On Thursday, Gilbert was told that the demolition work she had expected would begin this week was delayed by a further “four to six weeks”.

“I’ll be driving past my burnt home for more than five months by the time it is torn down,” she says. She doesn’t expect to be back living in her home until April next year.

Lives were similarly shattered in northern New South Wales when a fire tore through a valley south-west of Grafton in early November.

Elizabeth Moore lost her home in Blaxlands Creek.

“The fire destroyed random houses all down our valley,” she says. “It still beats me that lives weren’t lost.”

The Moores have only just managed to clear their property.

“Five months after the fires,” Elizabeth says. “Eleven truckloads to the dump and a full day-and-a-half with the big machinery.”

Her closest neighbours still haven’t been able to reach the charred remains of their home. “[They] can’t get their place cleaned up or live there because their bridge is damaged and there is no other access,” she says. “They are still staying in town and may not come back, even though they want to.”

Even with apparent signals that the federal and state governments would pay for and co-ordinate the clean-up and removal of debris for those who lost homes and businesses, progress has been slow.

The work has been delivered by state governments through contractors and subcontractors, but asbestos, lead and other contaminants have caused severe delays.

The Australian Financial Complaints Authority’s lead insurance ombudsman, John Price, tells The Saturday Paper there have been 56 complaints to his agency relating to the summer bushfires, more than three-quarters of which have been resolved.

Instead, he says, the most pressing concern is the time it’s taking to clear burnt-out properties.

“There have been delays, for a whole range of valid reasons, but that doesn’t change the fact this is a problem,” he says.

“The impact of Covid-19 has compounded the trauma in these communities. What we are seeing is some people are putting their claims on hold or pausing work because they don’t want to come into contact with anyone.”

In its submission to the royal commission, insurance giant Suncorp suggests that “negotiations between the Federal Government and the states over funding arrangements contributed towards delays in RoD [removal of debris] schemes being announced, and therefore in works commencing”.

According to Suncorp, some regions that were affected by fire as early as October 2019 have been told removal of debris through government schemes will not take place until June or July this year.

Owing to a complex set of precarious living arrangements before the fires struck, people have remained homeless or in tents and caravans in the months after. Others felt their motivation was blunted by the administrative hurdles they were required to leap in order to receive support, through big charities or from government.

In early January, Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced a $2 billion national bushfire recovery fund to be overseen by former Australian Federal Police commissioner Andrew Colvin. But there was no specific fund.

“Senator, the $2 billion fund is a notional fund,” a bureaucrat told Labor MP Murray Watt during a budget estimates hearing in March.

That makes the spending harder to track, although Colvin issued an update at the beginning of April that said more than $300 million had so far been “provided” through individual grants and small business loans.

But even as the money has started to flow, there is an exodus happening around Blaxlands Creek, Elizabeth Moore says.

“My understanding is about 60 per cent of the people burnt out are not rebuilding and have left or are leaving,” she says.

“Many of the problems that were there before the fires, such as mental health issues, have become magnified. Some of these people were self-isolated well before the virus, for various reasons. They don’t do well in normal society. I know of one man who did not access any official help from government or charities. My friend quoted him as saying, ‘The bastards want to know too much.’”

 

The “summer bushfires” are somewhat of a misnomer because, in truth, the season began in July last year, arriving with force in Queensland by September and ending only in March when the last of the fires in NSW and Victoria were contained. It was a black winter, spring, summer and autumn.

Some 18 million hectares were scorched, with more than 3500 homes lost and another 5852 outbuildings destroyed.

There were 417 “excess deaths” as a result of the acrid smoke that blanketed much of the country for months, according to an article published in the Medical Journal of Australia by researchers Nicolas Borchers Arriagada and Andrew Palmer from the University of Tasmania and colleagues at three other tertiary institutions.

The threat of climate change hovers over all this destruction.

As climate scientist Dr Sophie Lewis, a lead author on the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s sixth assessment report, wrote in her submission to the bushfires parliamentary inquiry, 2019 was the “hottest … and was also the driest year on record for Australia”.

“New records were set for high daily Forest Fire Danger Index (FFDI) in all states and territories throughout spring,” she wrote. “Ninety-five per cent of Australia had FFDI values in spring in the highest 10 per cent of values recorded ever.”

Writing to the parliamentary inquiry, NSW Rural Fire Service volunteer firefighter of 35 years Rick Miller said that “without doubt … climate change and the years of drought provided conditions in which fire[s] spread rapidly and were exceptionally difficult to control” in the most recent season.

“Night-time temperatures and humidities rarely fell low enough to allow backburning to be effective on narrow control lines such as roads or tracks,” he wrote.

“Even the fire mosaic created by Aboriginal burning would not have made them immune from catastrophic wildfires under the extreme and prolonged conditions that we experience today.”

Miller said he is “constantly amazed” by people who wish to build the same types of houses on the same land that was so spectacularly burnt.

His observations are echoed at the largest scale by an increasingly frustrated insurance sector, which has seen a volatile climate worsen through the lens of actuarial risk assessment.

Insurers, not known for a carefree approach to damning evidence, are worried.

In its submission to the royal commission, Suncorp, one of the country’s largest insurers, does not mince words.

“As a major insurer, we are concerned that Australian communities are becoming more vulnerable due to the physical impacts of a changing climate,” its submission says.

“Climate change is increasing the risk of extreme physical and economic impacts of natural disasters, including the costs of recovery for governments and communities … Australia urgently needs to change our focus towards risk reduction and resilience building, in addition to limiting the extent of climate change.”

The Saturday Paper understands these concerns are shared by industry body the Insurance Council of Australia, which, in its yet-to-be-released submission to the royal commission, will call on the Commonwealth to increase its spending on disaster mitigation – before disasters hit – to at least $200 million a year, as recommended almost six years ago by the Productivity Commission.

The federal government has never met that recommendation and even when it changed the legislation in September last year, as flames destroyed Queensland rainforest, the amount for resilience preparation in the Emergency Response Fund was only $50 million. The remaining $150 million is for disaster recovery, counter to the Productivity Commission’s recommendation.

These are not theoretical concerns.

Without disaster mitigation and real progress on limiting climate change globally to 1 degree of warming, people and their homes will become uninsurable.

Suncorp uses the example of building codes that feature bushfire attack levels (BALs), a measure of the exposure of homes and property to ember attack, radiant heat and direct flame.

The climate is changing, and disasters are becoming more intense, more often and this alone should mean these BALs are reviewed every five years, Suncorp says.

From the devastating 2019-20 bushfire season, Suncorp provides four examples of its customers who were insured for rebuild costs that did not take into account new severity ratings.

The shortfalls for these homeowners were between $80,000 and $260,000.

Recovery is important, Jann Gilbert says, but Australians will be doomed to repeat the cycle of disaster-rebuild-disaster if the larger lessons of that furnace of a season are ignored.

“We have had at least, at least, 20 years of very, very good scientific evidence that predicted what would happen now,” she says. “And we have a prime minister who, in his previous role, waltzed into parliament with a lump of coal. It is unforgivable. I don’t want to have lost my house for nothing, and if governments continue to do nothing, more homes and lives will be lost for nothing.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 2, 2020 as "Fire alarm".

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Rick Morton is The Saturday Paper’s senior reporter.