Residents of the fire-ravaged towns of Wye River and Separation Creek are facing new bushfire building codes that are the toughest in Victoria, leaving some wondering whether they will be able to afford to rebuild.
A total of 116 houses were lost in the Christmas Day bushfire that swept through the Victorian coastal hamlets on the Great Ocean Road.
Nine months after the fire, no homes have started to be rebuilt.
The local Colac-Otway Shire Council, with the support of the State Government, introduced a planning amendment after the fires that has resulted in the Bushfire Attack Level (BAL) rating of many homes being pushed higher.
Higher BAL ratings stipulate homes must be built with certain materials and in a certain way to give the structures the best chance of surviving fire.
But they can easily add at least $100,000 to the cost of a home, and some residents say they are struggling to afford it.
Bushfire management consultant and former senior Victorian government bushfire protection officer, Denis O’Bryan, said the imposition on residents was unfair and subjective.
“Every step of the way it’s been totally unfair on the residents of Wye River and Separation Creek,” he said.
“The [BAL rating] is too high and it’s preventing people from rebuilding.”
Mr O’Bryan has called on authorities to rescind the planning amendment.
“The rebuilding program is like pouring alcohol onto an open wound,” he said.
He said if the government properly managed the land around Wye River, then it would better protect homes, rather than imposing higher BAL ratings.
Mr O’Bryan and other fire experts have questioned the effectiveness of the BAL system altogether, given high BAL-rated homes burnt down in Wye River and Separation Creek in the Christmas Day fire.
Bushfire rating forcing couple to build own house
Wye River residents Tony and Lesley Maley lost their home during the Christmas Day bushfire.
Since then, their block has been designated the second highest rating, BAL 40.
“Prior to BAL 40, we were BAL 29 in this area which is fairly standard,” said Mr Maley, who is a volunteer firefighter.
“Now we have to build to BAL 40 which is going to add $150,000 on our build.”
The couple will build their home themselves, in order to afford it.
Separation Creek resident Kate Beamish has been allocated the highest BAL rating.
“To be slapped with the highest rating, it’s pretty hardcore because it’s a lot of money,” she said.
She said the family thought about moving elsewhere, until they realised they could fit a fire bunker on their property.
That means they can build to less stringent, and expensive, standards.
“It’s actually going to save us between $80,000 to $120,000 by putting that $15,000 fire bunker in,” she said.
However, because of the small and steep nature of many of the blocks, it’s only possible for some residents.
BAL rating ‘scientifically right’
Emergency Management Commissioner Craig Lapsley said the high BAL ratings were being imposed for a reason.
“In 2009 we lost 173 lives, 2,000 homes in an afternoon. The BAL rating has been put in as a result of that. It’s scientifically right.”
He said steep and bushy terrain around Wye River meant that special provisions had to be imposed, and if some homes were not built to high BAL ratings, they could compromise others in the event of another fire.
“We can have the debate – happy to have the debate with communities to better understand (BAL ratings),” he said.
“But we should not compromise safety of building design in this state on what might be emotional driven feelings. Preservation of life has to be number one.”
Ms Beamish is happy to pay the price.
“It’s tough, there’s no doubt about it. But [the regulations] are there for a reason. I don’t want to go through this bushfire again, I want my house to be safe, I want my family to be safe,” she said.