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Inquiry urges Australians to avoid building homes in bushfire areas as disaster risk grows

SYDNEY – A long-awaited report into Australia’s devastating bushfires last summer has provided an ominous insight into a post-global warming future and raised questions about where Australians should live and the types of homes they live in.

The report, by a Royal Commission inquiry into the bushfires that began in late 2019 and stretched into 2020, found that climate change was leading to more intense and catastrophic natural disasters.

“The summer of 2019-2020 – in which some communities experienced drought, heatwaves, bushfires, hailstorms, and flooding – provided only a glimpse of the types of events that Australia may face in the future,” it said.

“Natural disasters are expected to become more complex, more unpredictable, and more difficult to manage.”

The commission highlighted the need for Australia to consider how and where to build homes, businesses and infrastructure.

It heard evidence that more than 380,000 properties are in high risk natural disaster areas – a statistic that is not surprising given that even some densely-populated suburbs of Sydney and Melbourne are surrounded by forests that regularly experience fires. But the commission heard that the growing threat from more extreme disasters such as fires and flooding meant that 735,000 properties would be in high risk areas by 2100, even if no new homes were built.

“How towns and cities are planned and the manner in which homes and infrastructure are built have long lasting ramifications,” the commission found. “These decisions influence the exposure and vulnerability of communities and assets.”

Bushfires are a regular occurrence in Australia, where vast swathes of territory are covered by thick dense bushland that can turn into a tinderbox in dry weather.

In the 2019-2020 bushfires, 33 people died across the country and more than 3,100 properties were destroyed. The Insurance Council of Australia said 99 per cent of buildings destroyed were within 500 metres of bushland.

In addition, the fires razed more than 24 million hectares of land, producing smoke that contributed to hundreds of further deaths due to cardiovascular and respiratory effects. Almost three billion animals were also killed or displaced, threatening native species and causing long-term ecological consequences. The total estimated cost of the fires was more than A$10 billion (S$9.79 billion).

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The Royal Commission, chaired by a former Chief of the Defence Force, Retired Air Chief Marshal Mark Binskin, recommended that state and federal authorities consider introducing a nationwide procedure for informing residents and potential homebuyers about the risks of individual properties. In addition, the commission said state governments and local councils should be required to consider the disaster risk in specific areas when deciding whether to allow construction of new buildings.

“Development in high-risk areas should be avoided unless risk can be clearly communicated and cost-effectively managed,” the report said.

The commission heard that some 90 per cent of buildings in bush-fire prone areas do not satisfy current building safety requirements because they were constructed before the latest standards were introduced. But upgrading all properties in Australia would cost billions of dollars.

The commission recommended that state governments and local councils consider providing subsidies to homeowners to encourage them to upgrade homes or reduce the risk to their properties.

Responding to the commission’s 80 recommendations, the Federal Minister for Emergency Management, Mr David Littleproud, committed to “actioning many of the recommendations as soon as possible”.

“The Royal Commission report outlines lessons for us all on how to better prepare for, manage and recover from natural disasters,” he said in a statement. “There are lessons for governments, essential service providers, insurers, charities, communities and individuals.”

Significantly, the Commission noted the effects of climate change, saying that further warming over the next 20 to 30 years was inevitable. It did not make specific recommendations about emission targets, but observed: “Catastrophic fire conditions may render traditional bushfire prediction models and firefighting techniques less effective.”

The ruling Liberal-National Coalition has been reluctant to impose strict carbon emission reduction measures or embrace ambitious green energy targets.

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Discussing the Royal Commission report, an expert on fire science, Professor David Bowman, from the University of Tasmania, called for public monitoring of the implementation of its recommendations.

“Fundamentally, political appetite will determine whether the royal commission’s recommendations ever become reality,” he wrote on The Conversation website. “There is much work to be done by governments and others…And the Morrison government has given next to no indication it’s willing to seriously tackle the problem of climate change.”

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