The summer of 2019/20 was always going to be like no other. A prolonged drought, unusually strong winds, and the early onset of scorching temperatures, all combined to elevate bushfire risk.
What no one expected, was the sheer scale of devastation.
By early January 2020 (not even midway through summer), over 6 million hectares of land had been burnt1. Countless homes and businesses were destroyed, and tragically, lives were lost.
While this bushfire season has simulated fresh debate about climate change. It has also delivered valuable insights that home owners and property investors would be wise to heed.
We look at six lessons from Australia’s bushfire disaster of 2019/20.
1. Know the property’s “BAL”
This fire season has impacted locations we don’t usually associate with bushfire risk, including coastal communities and even metropolitan locations such as Turramurra2 in Sydney.
This highlights how almost no location is immune from the risk of bushfires. So whether you’re buying a home or investment rental, it’s worth knowing the property’s Bushfire Attack Level – or BAL.
BAL measures the risk that a property could be impacted by bushfire. It’s determined by location, the distance from vegetation to the building, and the slope of the land (fires travel uphill much faster than downhill). The NSW Rural Fire Service has a checklist you can use to determine a property’s Bushfire Attack Level – you can find it here.
2. Preventative features can be a wise investment
The current Australian Standard AS3959-2009 prescribes a number of building design features that aim to limit bushfire attack. However, given emerging trends of increasing bushfire ferocity, Archicentre, the building advisory service of the Australian Institute of Architects, has questioned the benefit of these design requirements, which were devised over a decade ago.
Nonetheless, Archicentre3 says some basic preventative features can help to mitigate bushfire attack, such as adding shutters to windows, checking for zero penetration points in roofs, and adding wire/mesh to subfloor areas. Given that ember entry and associated spot fires, rather than direct flame contact, account for 75-80% of homes destroyed by bushfires4, these simple features make a lot of sense.
3. Insurance is a must – though premiums could rise
A home or rental property is a substantial asset, and definitely worth insuring. Most insurance policies offer bushfire cover but you need to be sure your property is adequately insured, and that you have the right policy for your needs.
It’s also reasonable to expect premiums to rise. By early January, the insurance industry had received 8,985 fire-related claims since September 2019. Many more claims are expected to be lodged, and insurance losses stand at $700 million5.
The possibility of rising premiums should not deter you from insuring your home or rental property. Talk to me for expert advice selecting cover that suits your budget and your property. This is not something to leave to chance.
4. Landscaping can help reduce risk
Each bushfire season, home owners are advised to clean gutters and remove leaf debris from outside areas. In fact, these steps should be part of the regular maintenance program for your home or rental property.
What’s less well known is that outdoor landscaping – be it for a house or apartment block, can lower a property’s bushfire risk.
The Victorian Country Fire Service (CFS) says garden design should incorporate four key principles:
- Create defendable space
- Remove flammable objects from around the house
- Break up fuel continuity (keep plants separate), and
- Carefully select, locate and maintain trees.
In particular, the CFS advises against having vines that grow on structures. They directly add fuel load to a building, and can act like a ladder taking flames to upper levels.
5. Consider the impact on short term rentals
If you’re buying a property with a view to making it available for short term rentals through the likes of Airbnb, consider whether the property could be in or near a bushfire prone area.
The recent bushfires resulted in a number of main highways and arterial roads being closed, and this has seen tourism take a serious hit even in areas that were not directly affected by bushfires. This can leave investors facing a loss of rental income, and you need to be able to manage the possibility of such a shortfall – or insure against it.
6. A bushfire history doesn’t always lower values
It’s a fair bet that bushfire risk will loom large on property buyers’ checklists in the future. But on the plus side, areas previously impacted by bushfires have not always experienced a fall in value.
A number of suburbs damaged in the dreadful Black Saturday fires of 2009, have gone on to record median property price growth well above other parts of the state6, though this may reflect the construction of new, higher quality homes.
Hopefully, we won’t see the likes of the recent bushfires again this summer. But there are no guarantees. What matters is that you keep yourself and your family safe.