Sunday 8 February 2009

Bushfire tragedy highlights the dangers of living in 'the bush'

The recent heatwave in South-East Australia for the past week have brought more than 400 bushfires that have so far already burnt out 200,000 hectares of land, destroyed about 700 homes and left 84 people confirmed dead and several more fighting for life with critical burns. Sydney has been fortunate to escape major fires this time around, with temparatures only rising above 41C for the past few days, and a cool weather front expected later tonight.

The Prime Minister, Mr Rudd, announced a joint federal-state $10 million relief fund, and appealed to Australians to give generously. One or more of the big four Australian banks usually collects donations over the counter, or via EFT into an appeal account. I'll probably make a $10 tax-deductible donation (it will make me feel better, even if it doesn't do much for the victims of this disaster), but I wonder why the government doesn't just reduce the proposed $950 economic stimulus by a dollar? $1 per stimulus recipient would roughly double the size of the government relief fund, and would be more likely to be immediately spent by the relief recipients than the typical recipient of the stimulus payment. However, even $20 million relief is only equivalent to $30,000 per destroyed home, so I hope most of the affected survivors have home insurance with bushfire coverage.

My parents own two small (for Australia) farms in NSW. One is reasonably safe fron bush-fires, being sited on a small, gently sloping hill surrounded by many tens of acres of paddock with very few trees. Although the house design isn't very bushfire resistant (having lots of unshielded picture windows and an underfloor space that burning embers could get in and start spot fires) there is an inground swimming pool and plenty of bore water to help with fire fighting. And if a bushfire was close by it would be fairly quick and easy to use the tractor to clear a substantial fire break around the house.

However, my parent's other farm house is just as poorly designed for surviving a bush fire, and is unfortunately much more vunerable to bush fires as it is located on a small (25 acre) hobby farm that is mostly uncleared forest, and the farm backs directly onto a large state forest. That farm is also steeply sloping, so a fire front would travel rapidly from the state forest to the house once it crested the hill behind the house. Several years ago (before the house was built) a bush fire spread from the state forest onto the farm and burnt out most of the hillside and almost spread across the paddocks to the shed sitting next to the dam. Local volunteer rural fire fighters managed to save the shed on that occasion.

Since I might be inheriting that hobby farm one day, and in the meanwhile we hope to be able to use it for holiday stays with the kids (it needs some renovations first), I need to give some serious thought to making that farmhouse more fire-resistant and add a 'safe-haven' room. I'd like to add an a two-storey extension to the rear of the home to provide enough accomodation for my parents and us to all stay there at the same time during summer vacations. The top floor would be living space with a nice view over Lake Wallace, and the bottom level would be partly cut into the hill-side and provide storage space, a games room and a wine cellar. In light of the bush fire risk I think I'll get the lower level of the extension made from cement blocks (with no windows) on a concrete slab directly on the ground, and opt for a concrete slab roof. As the lower level would be partly earth-sheltered, it should provide a secure safe-haven room if a bush fire ever set the house on fire.

Unfortunately many families in the Australian bush live in timber framed houses that provide minimal protection once a fire reaches the house, so a timely evacuation is often preferable to staying and trying to defend the home. That's why the loss of 700 homes hasn't resulted in a much higher death toll, but there are thousands of people left with nothing but the clothes on their back.

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Debt Dieter said...

It's just horrifying, and the loss of life is heartbreaking.

The rational part of my brain always gets angry that people don't adequately insure their stuff though.

Anonymous said...

Oh mate, you sure you can spare the $10? That's pretty stingy. Most people I know (including me) who are on much lower incomes, have given far more. I think you could dig a little bit deeper than that. I've given more than that at my local Subway! (they've got a special Red Cross bushfire donation box, and I've put my change in it whenever I've bought my lunch there over the last month).

While I agree with you that the government's stimulus would be better spent on helping the recovery of the bushfire victims (personally the scale of this tragedy makes me think they should give the whole lot to them, they're guaranteed to spend it quicker than the rest of us, as you've mentioned, and by God do they need it to get their lives back on track).

Oh yeah, don't forget to get your receipt for that $10! Stingy bugger! said...

I haven't got the receipt in the mail yet ;)

I wanted to donate $10, I didn't want to donate any more. Your opinion and the example of others isn't going to change my nature.

$210 million has been raised so far, which works out at around $10 per worker. So I'm just "Mr Average".