THE Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission final report has outlined 67 recommendations about changes needed to reduce the risk, and the consequences, of similar disasters in the future. The report was released yesterday, almost 18 months after the devastating February 7 Black Saturday bushfire that took the lives of 173 people.
Premier John Brumby yesterday tabled the final report of the 2009 Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission in the Parliament of Victoria and released it immediately to the public. The report comprises four volumes and a summary.
The Commission was asked to inquire into and report on the causes and circumstances of the fires that burned in January–February 2009, the preparation and planning before the fires, all aspects of the response to the fires, measures taken in relation to utilities, and any other matters it considered appropriate.
One of Australia's worst natural disasters, the Commission said the "most serious consequence of the fires was the death of 173 people".
"Left behind are families, friends and communities still trying to come to terms with their loss. Accompanying this loss of life is the fires' impact on property and the infrastructure that supports communities, as well as the substantial environmental impact, which will take years to fully reveal itself—let alone be ameliorated."
The Commission estimated the cost of the disaster to be more than $4 billion, with 2,133 houses destroyed as a result of the fires. Nearly 100,000 hectares of Victorian parks were damaged by fire, 90 per cent of this consisting of National Park. The RSPCA estimates that more than 1 million animals died in the fires.
The Commission found that there was no single agency or individual in charge of the emergency and that the roles of the most senior personnel were not clear.
With an increasing population locating in the rural–urban interface combined with the "probable effects of climate change", the Commission said the risks associated with bushfires are also potentially increasing and that "planning and building controls are crucial factors affecting safety in a bushfire."
The Commission stated that there are some areas where the bushfire risk is so high that development should be restricted. Further, the Commission proposed that the "Victoria Planning Provisions relating to bushfire and the CFA guidelines for assessing permit applications in areas of high bushfire risk be amended in order to give priority to protecting human life and to ensure that development does not occur in areas in which either the bushfire risk or the environmental cost of making people safe is too high."
It was stated that a future review of these planning controls should be undertaken to "determine whether the objective of substantially limiting the construction of homes in areas of high bushfire risk has been achieved. If not, more prescriptive controls should be introduced."
The Commission also proposes better mapping of bushfire risk and biodiversity in order to improve information and understanding of bushfire and that bushfire risk should be accounted for in the application of controls on clearing native vegetation. It said the construction of houses on high-risk sites that are too small to create and maintain defendable space should be restricted.
The report concluded that construction standards for bushfire-prone areas do not adequately cover all the important components of bushfire risk and that building regulations do not adequately cover the construction of non-residential buildings such as schools, hospitals, child care centres and aged care facilities.
The report found problems with the planning and building systems in that they operate prospectively and have minimal capacity to deal with past decisions, existing urban form, settlement patterns and existing buildings, limiting the ability to account for people already living in high-risk areas.
In a controversial move, the Commission proposes that "action be taken to help people move away from those areas where other bushfire risk-mitigation measures are not viable. In particular, the State should develop and implement a voluntary retreat and resettlement strategy—including non-compulsory land acquisition—for existing developments in areas at unacceptably high bushfire risk."
A further issue identified in the report was the ability to ensure that the standards that applied at the time of subdivision or construction are maintained. The report emphasised the need for mechanisms to ensure that bushfire safety continues to be a priority for building owners and the Commission proposed a number of recommendations to ensure that standards are maintained, including "amending the Sale of Land Act 1962 to require that vendor statements include information that will help potential buyers understand the bushfire risk of a property before they finalise the purchase."
The Commission outlined 18 recommendations for Planning and Building. The Commission also proposes recommendations regarding Victoria's Bushfire Safety Policy; Emergency and Incident Management; Fireground Response; Electricity-Caused Fire; Deliberately Lit Fires; Land and Fuel Management; Organisational Structure; Research and Evaluation; Monitoring Implementation; and Reflections.
The 2009 Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission final report is available online from <http://www.royalcommission.vic.gov.au/>. It is available in hard copy and can also be viewed at a number of Victorian locations. For more information, please visit the Victorian Government website at <http://www.vic.gov.au/> or view the Premier's Media Release at <http://www.premier.vic.gov.au/component/content/article/11346.html>.
THE COMMISSION'S PLANNING AND BUILDING RECOMMENDATIONS
The State identify a central point of responsibility for and expertise in mapping bushfire risk to:
- review urgently the mapping criteria at present used by the Country Fire Authority to map the Wildfire Management Overlay, to ensure that the mapping used to determine building and planning controls is based on the best available science and takes account of all relevant aspects of bushfire risk
- map and designate Bushfire-prone Areas for the purposes of planning and building controls, in consultation with municipal councils and fire agencies
- finalise the alignment of site-assessment methods for planning and building purposes, taking into account bushfire risk to human safety as well as to property.
The State implement a regional settlement policy that:
- takes account of the management of bushfire risk, including that associated with small, undeveloped rural lots
- includes a process for responding to bushfire risk at the planning stage for new urban developments in regional cities, the process being similar to that used for new developments in Melbourne's Urban Growth Zone.
The State amend the Victoria Planning Provisions relating to bushfire to ensure that the provisions give priority to the protection of human life, adopt a clear objective of substantially restricting development in the areas of highest bushfire risk—giving due consideration to biodiversity conservation—and provide clear guidance for decision makers. The amendments should take account of the conclusions reached by the Commission and do the following:
- outline the State's objectives for managing bushfire risk through land-use planning in an amended state planning policy for bushfire, as set out in clause 15.07 of the Victoria Planning Provisions
- allow municipal councils to include a minimum lot size for use of land for a dwelling, both with and without a permit, in a schedule to each of the Rural Living Zone, Green Wedge Zone, Green Wedge A Zone, Rural Conservation Zone, Farming Zone and Rural Activity Zone
- amend clause 44.06 of the Victoria Planning Provisions to provide a comprehensive Bushfire-prone Overlay provision.
The Country Fire Authority amend its guidelines for assessing permit applications for dwellings, non-dwellings and subdivisions in the Bushfire-prone Overlay in order to accommodate the amendments to the Wildfire Management Overlay that are implemented as a result of recommendation 39 and make the guidelines available to municipal councils and the public. The revised guidelines should do the following:
- substantially restrict new developments and subdivisions in those areas of highest risk in the Bushfire-prone Overlay
- set out the CFA's guidelines for assessing permit applications for dwellings, non-dwellings and subdivisions—including the minimum defendable space requirements for different risk levels
- clarify that the CFA will approve new developments and subdivisions only if the recommended bushfire protection measures—including the minimum defendable space—can be created and maintained on a continuing basis
- emphasise the need for enduring permit conditions—in particular, conditions for the creation and maintenance of minimum defendable space to be maintained for the life of the development.
- amend the Victoria Planning Provisions to require that, when assessing a permit to remove native vegetation around an existing dwelling, the responsible authority and the Department of Sustainability and Environment, as referral authority, take into account fire hazard and give weight to fire protection purposes
- develop guidelines for determining the maximum level of native vegetation removal for bushfire risk mitigation, beyond which level the application would be rejected.
The Department of Sustainability and Environment develop and administer a collective offset solution for individual landholders who are permitted to remove native vegetation for the purpose of fire protection.
The Department of Sustainability and Environment conduct biodiversity mapping identifying flora, fauna and any threatened species throughout Victoria and make the results publicly available. The format used should be compatible with that used for Bushfire-prone Area mapping.
The Country Fire Authority produce for community guidance material on fire-resistant landscape and garden design, including a list of fire-resistant species.
The State press municipal councils—in particular, Murrindindi Shire Council—to urgently adopt a bushfire policy in their Local Planning Policy Framework and incorporate bushfire risk management in their planning policies and strategies for rebuilding communities such as Marysville, Kinglake and others affected by the January–February 2009 fires.
The State develop and implement a retreat and resettlement strategy for existing developments in areas of unacceptably high bushfire risk, including a scheme for non-compulsory acquisition by the State of land in these areas.
Standards Australia do the following:
- amend the objective of AS 3959-2009, Construction of Buildings in Bushfire-prone Areas, to ensure that it incorporates reducing the risk of ignition from ember attack
- review, and amend as appropriate, the testing methods prescribed in its standards for Tests on Elements of Construction for Buildings Exposed to Simulated Bushfire Attack (AS 1530.8.1 and AS 1530.8.2) to ensure that, so far as is possible, the methods provide a reliable predictor of the performance of construction elements under bushfire conditions.
The Australian Building Codes Board do the following:
- amend the performance requirements in the Building Code of Australia to ensure that they incorporate reducing the risk of ignition from ember attack
- work with Standards Australia to effect expeditious continuing review and development of AS 3959, Construction of Buildings in Bushfire-prone Areas, and other bushfire-related standards referred to in the Building Code of Australia
- negotiate with Standards Australia and SAI Global Ltd an arrangement for free online access to AS 3959-2009, Construction of Buildings in Bushfire-prone Areas, the other Australian standards referred to in AS 3959-2009, and any other bushfire-related Australian standards referred to in the Building Code of Australia
- amend the Building Code of Australia to remove deemed-to-satisfy provisions for the construction of buildings in BAL-FZ (the Flame Zone)
- include in the Building Code of Australia bushfire construction provisions for non-residential buildings that will be occupied by people who are particularly vulnerable to bushfire attack, such as schools, child care centres, hospitals and aged care facilities.
The State modify its adoption of the Building Code of Australia for the following purposes:
- to remove deemed-to-satisfy provisions for the construction of buildings in BAL-FZ (the Flame Zone)
- to apply bushfire construction provisions to non-residential buildings that will be occupied by people who are particularly vulnerable to bushfire attack, such as schools, child care centres, hospitals and aged care facilities
- other than in exceptional circumstances, to apply a minimum AS 3959-2009 construction level of BAL-12.5 to all new buildings and extensions in bushfire-prone areas.
Standards Australia move expeditiously to develop a standard for bushfire sprinklers and sprayers.
The Victorian Building Commission, in conjunction with the Country Fire Authority, develop, publish and provide to the community and industry information about ways in which existing buildings in bushfire-prone areas can be modified to incorporate bushfire safety measures.
The State develop and implement, in consultation with local government, a mechanism for sign-off by municipal councils of any permit conditions imposed under the Bushfire-prone Overlay and the regular assessment of landowners' compliance with conditions.
The State amend s. 32 of the Sale of Land Act 1962 to require that a vendor's statement include whether the land is in a designated Bushfire-prone Area, a statement about the standard (if any) to which the dwelling was constructed, the bushfire attack level assessment at the time of construction (where relevant) and a current bushfire attack level assessment of the site of the dwelling.
The State amend the Country Fire Authority Act 1958 to enable the Chief Officer to delegate the power to issue fire prevention notices.
The State initiate the development of education and training options to improve understanding of bushfire risk management in the building and planning regimes by:
- providing regular training and guidance material to planning and building practitioners
- helping a suitable tertiary institution design and implement a course on bushfire planning and design in Victoria.