Bushfire Recovery: Conflicting priorities for infrastructure repair

There are a lot of buildings and infrastructure in NSW and Victoria that are currently lying in ruins. As the repair and rebuild efforts begin, an important question is facing those involved in the recovery efforts for Australia’s ongoing bushfire emergency, particularly for the newly formed National Bushfire Recovery Agency: Should infrastructure be rebuilt to withstand higher temperatures given the unprecedented intensity of this bushfire season, or should the speed of the recovery be prioritised?

As huge swathes of NSW and Victoria, as well as parts of South Australia and Queensland, come to terms with the devastating results of the weekend’s catastrophic fires, the announcement of a federal $2bn recovery scheme made on Monday by Prime Minister Scott Morrison has come as a huge relief to many. For businesses local to the affected areas, the commitment of significant public spending will present opportunities to recoup, at least in part, the losses many are suffering, such as for those in construction and landscaping.

To other businesses that rely on tourism income, the dedicated agency provides hope that roads and other transport infrastructure will be reopened sooner, with provisions specifically to boost tourism in those areas. Currently, many roads in the South Coast, East Gippsland, Upper Murray and Snowy Mountains regions remain closed, though some are beginning to reopen, as repair efforts are balanced with the needs of emergency workers in reaching affected communities.

25km of NSW rail lines are also believed to have been affected, as are road signs, bridges, and other infrastructure. Much of the damage is still to be assessed, due to the size of the affected area and the existence of ongoing fire danger in some regions blocking access.

For those businesses affected, the quicker that transport lines can be reopened the better their chances of survival, after some have lost their most lucrative trading period of the year between Christmas and the New Year. However, the fear is now that a speedy repair will leave the region exposed to future risks.

The extreme heat that the mega fires have been generating, with flames that reached 70m in height, has caused severe damage to infrastructure that would normally be expected to survive a bushfire. The national engineering codes of standard for roads and buildings, which was updated as recently as last year, may no longer be sufficient to address the changing fire conditions.

This fire season, already record breaking for its severity and earliness in the season, is still expected to get worse this year, and in years to come, according to the Bureau of Meteorology. This shift in fire season norms may require a response in Australian fire-proofing building standards. However, the research and investigation required to improve fire-proofing methods, and roll out new regulations, will be neither quick nor inexpensive.

There are further questions regarding how to ensure an uptake of new building practices. After the Black Saturday fires in Victoria of 2009, a group of architects got together under the pro-bono “We Will Rebuild” scheme to provide advice and consultation on how best the build homes that would survive bushfires. However, there is little evidence that many of these were built in at-risk areas. What complicates the current crisis further is that many of the affected regions were not considered “at-risk” until very recently. Years of devastating drought across much of NSW has exposed regions long protected by a wetter climate to the bushfires across the state.

As Australia prepares for a new decade that is likely to be hotter than the one that came before it, increased fire-proofing standards may seem like an obvious first step in this massive rebuild. But any delay is unlikely to be helpful for the residents and victims of the fires, who need to start rebuilding their lives as soon as they are able to.

Beyond the concerns of possible new regulatory standards, the imposition of a national recovery agency could be as much of a threat to the rebuild as it is a boon. Government infrastructure projects are wont to strangle themselves in their own red-tape and expense blow-outs, the NSW state government being possibly the most notorious offender. If bushfire recovery was delayed or blown-out in a Light Rail / Sydney Football Stadium order of magnitude, it would spell disaster for the region. The government will need to take practical steps to streamline and expedite the process if major roads and rail connections are to reopen any time soon.

The new bushfire agency is not the only federal recovery assistance bushfire victims are receiving. The Tax Office has given fire victims a two-month grace period on payments. Centrelink has said it will suspend debt collection and payment requirements such as job-seeking in affected areas. On Tuesday, the Treasury office met with insurance industry leaders to ensure that victims were dealt with swiftly and fairly. Insurance bosses have praised the coordinated governmental support in the debris clean-up, which will leave insurance claimants more money to spend on the repair work. However, the Insurance Council of Australia has warned that the size of the pay-outs, and longer-term changing climate patterns, may have a flow-on effect to premiums. IAG and Suncorp are believed to have the largest exposure to the bushfire claims.

Private companies have also joined the support effort. National Australia Bank has pledged to give customers three-years to pay back loans and interest without risk of foreclosure while they deal with the bushfire fallout, as well as a $5 million bushfire relief fund, and additional support loans for businesses trying to reopen. Westpac, ANZ and Commonwealth have also offered loan and credit relief to affected customers, and all but Commonwealth are offering emergency grants for employees and customers whose houses have been destroyed.

Internationally, celebrities, sports stars, and governments have offered their support, financial or otherwise, as global attention on the disaster skyrockets.

If you want to support Australian firefighting efforts by making a donation, you can donate to local state services such as the NSW Rural Fire Service, Victorian Country Fire Authority, South Australia CFS and Rural Fires Brigades Association Queensland Inc.


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