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On Christmas Day 2015, the weather conditions around southern coastal Victoria weren’t particularly notable. There had been a long dry spell, and a total fire ban had been forecast, but otherwise there was little to forewarn of what was to come.
That day, a bushfire swept through the small coastal township of Wye River and destroyed more than 100 houses – 80 per cent of the town. Thanks to early warnings and a fast-acting community, no lives were lost. But the devastating event has revealed some significant flaws in our interpretation and implementation of bushfire regulations, as well as highlighting opportunities for improvement.
Some of the houses that burned in the Wye River fire had been built to bushfire regulations. There is a misconception that this makes them bushfire-proof, and this reveals a basic flaw in our understanding of the aims of these regulations.
The goal of bushfire building regulations is ultimately to prevent loss of life, by making a house that can withstand bushfire long enough that its occupants can escape safely after the fire front has passed.
But no house is an island. It is surrounded by other houses, by landscaping, by add-ons, by natural debris, by the everyday bits and pieces of life, and by an environment whose aesthetic appeals to its owners. None of these elements are covered by bushfire building regulations, and each one of these can significantly amplify the impact of a bushfire on a house and a community.