Call for federal approach to bushfire bunker before “more lives are lost”

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Political inaction to normalize fire safety bunker facilities across Australia will cost lives this summer, a former intelligence chief said, as bureaucracy and bureaucracy continue to hamper the process in areas prone to fire. bush fires.

The fire bunkers in Victoria – the only state with a formal accreditation system – saved the lives of six people who took refuge there during the black summer bushfires of 2019-2020, who killed 33 people across the country.

Accredited bunkers have since become a popular addition for landowners, but people outside Victoria face a list of hurdles in the form of building approvals, board approvals, and engineering assessments, which made the installation process a long headache.

Adding to their woes is the lukewarm enthusiasm of firefighting authorities – who fear that adding a bunker to a property will make some people complacent about bushfire preparedness and use it as a first resort. .

Accredited bunkers must be airtight with sufficient oxygen for each person for at least one hour.(Provided: Donald Graham)

Australian National University Center for Military and Security Law Honorary Professor Clive Williams said there should be a common federal standard for bunkers to create affordable, not over-designed designs.

“It’s very depressing – there is no doubt that more lives will be lost in the next bushfire season.”

Victoria’s push for regulation

After 173 people died when the Black Saturday bushfires ignited in Victoria in 2009 – the worst fires ever recorded in Australia in terms of loss of life – the Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission of 2009 found that eight of the victims died while using informal bunkers.

The shelters included shipping containers, basements and self-built bunkers.

Recommendations were made to regulate private bushfire shelters and, as there was a lack of technical standards for structures, the Victorian government hired CSIRO and its Country Fire Authority to work on establishing some.

In 2014, the Australian Building Codes Board (ABCB) drew on the work of CSIRO to create a National Construction Code (NCC) against which all bunkers must now be assessed.

Victoria went further by accrediting and pre-approving commercial lines of bunkers to streamline their installation.

Marysville elementary school is in ruins after bushfires destroyed town
The 2009 Black Saturday bushfires remain the worst in Australian history due to the number of lives lost.(AFP: William West)

Paperwork elsewhere

However, bunker designs outside Victoria are assessed on a case-by-case basis, such as in New South Wales, where applicants must also obtain approval from their local council and comply with the provisions of the Environmental Planning and Assessment Act. .

In South Australia, once the documentation is filed, the relevant board or private building certifier must assess the proposal against the NCC.

If this is satisfied, it will be referred to the Technical Construction Panel of the National Planning Commission before returning to the council for a final decision.

“Regardless of the state or territory in which they are built, private bushfire shelters are considered high risk buildings and require construction approval – this is the case in all states and territories. including Victoria, ”said a spokesperson for the SA Attorney General’s Department. noted.

Men stand around the site of a settling bunker with trees in the background
Accredited bunkers are usually dug into the earth in an open area.(Provided: Forest fire safety bunkers)

But bunker maker Anthony Tratt, who owns Wildfire Safety Bunkers in Victoria, said it was “ridiculous” that after all the money Victorian taxpayers spent to accredit his bunkers, they couldn’t be easily used. between states without further technical assessments.

“At first we tried to help our clients all over Australia with their advice and all that stuff, but all we did was hit brick walls,” Mr Tratt said. .

“It was very thorough and there is no reason why it should not be accepted everywhere.”

Bypass the bureaucracy

Adelaide Hills resident and Country Fire Service volunteer *Peter found it much easier to refer to the accredited bunker he had ordered from Victoria as a storage bunker rather than a personal shelter, in order to avoid the headaches this latest label would face in South Africa.

He has since taken refuge in his bunker during the 2015 Sampson Flat and 2019 Cudlee Creek bushfires and otherwise said: “We would have lost our home in Sampson Flat and again in Cudlee Creek.”

Because his property was properly cleaned and his house and outbuildings were protected by a sprinkler system, Peter was able to turn it on, take shelter in the bunker for up to an hour to wait for the outside temperature to drop below 50 degrees Celsius, then leave the bunker to extinguish the point fires.

A man is seen holding a hose and pointing it at a fire starting at the base of the trees along the road.
The installation of an approved bunker allows well-prepared inhabitants to fight against punctual fires once a front has passed.(AP: Rick Rycroft)

But he also recognized that if they weren’t properly designed and constructed, bunkers could be dangerous, and understood why groups like SA’s CFS were reluctant to approve them, especially if a property was not prepared. otherwise.

“It’s scary going through a bushfire, and the last thing you should do is panic and leave at the last minute, because that’s when people get caught in cars or that trees fall on their roads as they did during the Sampson Flat Fire.

Performance standards

A yellow staircase leads from a concrete room into the open air
Larger fire bunkers can look like storm and tornado shelters like those used overseas.(Provided: Forest fire safety bunkers)

The ABCB performance standard for the design and construction of private bushfire shelters 2014 states that bunkers should be constructed of concrete or solid masonry, located six to 20 meters from an associated building, and be watertight. in air with sufficient oxygen for each person for one hour during which the air temperature cannot exceed 45 degrees Celsius.

CSIRO cautioned that a bunker is not guaranteed as a rescue measure and should not be viewed as an alternative to early departure or a stand-alone solution.

He also said that accreditation was only provided by the Victorian Building Authority and that any company suggesting that CSIRO had personally approved a specific product was “incorrect”.

A simpler way?

Mr Williams said the accredited bunkers sold commercially in Victoria were over-designed and overpriced, and he believed a federally approved alternative could be produced “for well under $ 1,000”.

As an example, he referred to the Anderson shelters which were introduced by the British government during World War II, “which were essentially six pieces of curved corrugated iron delivered as a kit.”

Londoners often buried Anderson shelters in an open space in their backyards, covering them with half a yard of dirt where they were found to be “very effective” in protecting people from “firestorms”.

A corrugated iron door rises from the debris of a bombed out neighborhood
An Anderson shelter remains intact amid the bombings of London in 1941.(Provided: Ministry of Information, UK, via Wikimedia Commons )

Mr Williams said the radiant heat from a fire was what killed people, meaning the safest place was an underground bunker in an open space, away from any burning debris that might fall on it.

“Maybe the government could actually make some money by providing the kit.

“Many properties would survive if someone was there to put out the one-off fires – this is just another example of poor state coordination and lack of leadership.”

A mound of dirt with chimneys coming out of it and a forest in the background
Authorities believe bunkers should only be part of a property’s bushfire preparedness plan.(Provided: Wildlife safety bunkers )

Federal government stays on the sidelines

A spokesperson for the Home Office did not respond to questions on whether the federal government should take over the management of the bushfire bunkers, or whether it would consider a national program to subsidize them and / or distribute them.

“Although there is an Australian Building Codes Board standard for bushfire shelters, the construction of such shelters must still be approved by the relevant jurisdiction.”

The spokesperson said the government “is identifying opportunities to invest in disaster risk reduction and resilience initiatives to better prepare communities for future disasters.”

This included the $ 600 million “Australia Readiness Program to Improve the Long-Term Resilience of Australian Communities”.

* Name has been changed to protect identity

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