The cost of being bushfire prepared

Across Australia major bush fire events have caused extensive damage to rural and regional areas and in recent years more urbanised areas have come under threat.

In Western Australia, the threat of bush fires in semi-rural and fringe area developments has come under particular scrutiny since February 2011 when 71 homes were destroyed in the Roleystone-Kelmscott area of the Perth Hills. As a result of the devastation that the bushfire caused, the state government initiated an independent review that was undertaken by Mr Mick Keelty AO to investigate bushfire risk management in WA.

One of the major areas that the Keelty report considered was bush fire risk management and ensuring that homes in bush fire risk areas are appropriately prepared. In response, the state government has released a revised State Planning Policy 3.7: Planning for Bushfire Risk Management and associated Planning and Development (Bushfire Risk Management) Regulations.

Under the revised State Planning Policy 3.7, the FES Commissioner will publish a bushfire prone areas map (BPAM). The new regulations (that come into effect in September 2015) will then require new developments and homes located within a designated bushfire prone area or located within 100m of bushfire prone vegetation larger than 1 hectare, to assess their Bushfire Attack Level (BAL) according to the BPAM.

Dependent on the resulting BAL, the developer and/ or homeowner will be required to seek development approval and adhere to the relevant building code (Australian Standard AS3959). While these building codes and standards have been in place across Australia for many years, they have not been commonly applied in WA due to lack of broad mapping of bushfire prone areas by local government. Now that the state government is providing an overarching BPAM, areas at risk will have to comply with the standards.

In terms of new developments, developers will be required to consider fire management in the early stages of the development approvals process. This is likely to require the advice of a fire management consultant and the publication of a Bushfire Management Plan (BMP). Common issues that a developer is likely to consider include provision of emergency access ways, location of lots to minimise risk, vegetation clearing (where allowed) and increased water availability for fire fighters.

Developers may be refused approval for a project if they are unable to meet the bushfire protection criteria or, if the proposed land for development is located in a ‘flame zone’ where only necessary or required development may occur.

The developer will also need to consider the location of any proposed hospitals, retirement villages and other buildings or areas where occupants may need extra assistance to respond or evacuate in the case of a fire emergency.

At a home owner level, the developer will ultimately hand over the prepared bushfire management plan to them. It will then be local government’s responsibility to monitor compliance and the land owner could face fines if they fail to implement a BMP correctly.

The state government has advised that compliance with the state planning policy and regulations is likely to add $10,000 – $20,000 to the price of a new home. The Master Builders Association has argued this cost is likely to be higher, at approximately $22,000 for an average home.

Dependent on your designated BAL, some of the basic standards include requirements such as ember protection screens on all windows, weather strips on external doors, any timber frames to be fire retardant treated, consideration of roofing materials and much more. (For a compressive information on what is required see the full Australian standards document).

With a renewed focus on bushfire risk and the additional costs of building associated with these designated areas, it will be interesting to see if this has any impact for demand for housing in these areas.

Will potential buyers be turned off by bushfire risk? Will the added building costs be too prohibitive, particularly for first home buyers?
Once the regulations come into effect in September 2015 we will start to see the real impact on housing construction costs. At the moment, local estate agents in areas that have recently experienced the threat of bushfire have not noticed a significant decline in interest from potential buyers given the inherent bushfire risk.

So, people may not be deterred by the risk of bushfire…but will they be put off by the added costs?