CFA advice on defendability ‘inadequate’ Reluctance to advise home owners

THE CFA was still reluctant to give home owners advice on the defendability of their homes, and its advice was inadequate, the final report of the Bushfires Royal Commission said.
It recommended people be warned that current building standards were designed only to provide protection from bushfire for 15-20 minutes, but many Black Saturday survivors had faced firefronts that lasted over an hour. “The standards also assume a home will be actively defended,” the report said.
It warned that the CFA’s advice focused on the immediate surrounds of a house but many of those who died were in areas of heavy forest or on the crests of hills “and in similar positions the commission considers would have been undefendable on 7 February, even if the properties themselves were relatively clear and well maintained”.
“These broader factors affect the ferocity of the approaching fire and whether the house could be subject to very heavy ember attack. Assessments of defendability should therefore consider the nature of the nearby undergrowth and fuel load.”
It said studies had suggested houses needed to be 100-140 metres from bushland but urgent research was needed to determine the best minimum setback.
It criticised the low number of individual site visits made to assess defendability, which it said possibly reflected “the CFA’s reluctance to date to provide such advice”.
After Black Saturday, the CFA Act was changed to give the agency protection against legal liability for offering such advice. But the commissioners said it might be necessary for the act to be amended again to make overseeing defendability advice one of the chief officer’s core responsibilities.
The government should evaluate the situation in two years and if there was no improvement, the issue should be mandated for the chief officer, the report said.
It also warned that CFA guidelines did not cover farm, commercial and industrial premises, which required separate expert advice.
A spokesman for the CFA yesterday said site visits were just one way it helped prepare the community, and that people were welcome to phone regional fire service officers to discuss the defendability of their property.
The CFA advises about defendability in community education materials and offers an online questionnaire.
Following the commission’s interim report, it revised its advice to warn that defending could mean death and is not an option for children, the elderly or others with vulnerabilities; that not all houses are defendable, and many more will be undefendable in extreme conditions; and that preparation must involve pumps, hoses and fittings designed for extreme conditions.