Author(s): Jesse Roman. Published on March 2, 2020.

'People Have Had Enough'
Will Australia's historic bushfire season be a catalyst for change? One activist is hopeful. 


In early February, heavy rains swept across eastern Australia and largely extinguished the last of the bushfires that had terrorized the continent since June. While anguish briefly turned to joy and photos of firefighters dancing in the rain circulated on social media, the reality quickly set in that the end of the fires was only the beginning of the next challenging phase. Australia faces years of recovery, and critical questions remain about how to prevent similar disasters from happening in the future.

Even in a nation accustomed to devastating fires—such as the 2009 Black Saturday bushfires that killed 175 people—Australians had never before dealt with so many fires burning for so long in so many parts of the country all at the same time. A recent survey by the Australia Institute found that 57 percent of Australians have been directly affected by the recent bushfires or their smoke. The hundreds of fires across the continent burned an area roughly the size of England, killed at least 34 people and an estimated one billion animals, and destroyed thousands of homes.

In the wake of such large-scale destruction, the national conversation about what to do next has been charged in way previous bushfire discussions have not, says Kate Cotter, the founder and director of a nonprofit called the Bushfire Building Council of Australia, or BBCA.

“There’s anger out there that seems to be translating to a call to action—and that really is quite different from what we've seen in the past,” says Cotter, 43, who lives near Melbourne on the country’s southeast coast. Much of that conversation, she says, has focused on the nation’s failure to properly prepare for bushfire events. “In Australia today we spend 97 percent of our disaster funding on response and recovery and only 3 percent on either mitigation or prevention—I think that statistic tells you where the action has and has not been,” Cotter says. “It’s becoming an economic no-brainer that we have to flip that investment model.”

Since its founding in 2015, the BBCA has worked on a tool that could speed that shift: the Bushfire Resilience Star Rating Project, a system of quantifying and rating a property’s wildfire risk as a way to help homeowners reduce their risk before the next fire strikes.

NFPA Journal recently spoke with Cotter about the wildfires, the rating project, and how communities need to change their approach to wildfire preparation.

The recent fires in your country have led international news for months. Can you describe what you’ve seen?

What we’ve seen is pretty traumatic in terms of the loss of life and scale of the country burnt. We’re seeing lots of farms destroyed, so not just people’s homes but their livelihoods. The degree of losses in single towns is staggering. Some townships have lost half of their houses, which is devastating. The matchstick trees and silence in the bushland are reminders of how long this recovery is going to be, and it may never be a full recovery.

There have been numerous devastating fires in the past. What about these fires has resonated so much with the Australian public?

In past events, the consequences have largely been isolated, so the attitude was, “Hey, it’s a tragedy, but this is life. It doesn’t happen too often and we’ll be fine.” But because these fires are so enormous and have been burning for such a long time, they’ve impacted the whole country in different ways. Whether that’s through the slowing down of tourism, or the health impacts of smoke blanketing cities hundreds of kilometers away, the reach has been much broader this time, which is a first. These fires have changed everyone’s point of view. There’s a real opportunity now to apply programs like ours that do the work before the disaster.

Kate Cotter of the Bushfire Building Council of Australia conducting a home inspection.


Are people who’ve been impacted by the fire getting in touch with you?

So far, about 650 victims who are thinking of rebuilding have contacted us for assistance, as well as six community groups looking for a master plan to rebuild their whole townships in a better way. We’ve also had thousands of inquiries from people in high-risk areas not touched by this summer’s bushfires who want to do something to reduce their risk before next summer.

Are people angry?

There is a bit of that. Since 1939, we’ve had over 50 formal inquiries and royal commissions into bushfires. After every event, there’s a big inquiry and recommendations are made. They’re often about preventative work, as you can imagine. So there’s a bit of anger in that we just don’t seem to be learning the lessons and we don’t seem to implement anything, or we do it for a couple of years and then we go back to not doing anything. There are a lot of examples. This time, I think there’s a sense that people have had enough of the inaction. Instead of an affected community calling for something to be done, now the whole nation is calling for action. That’s powerful and should hopefully drive investment, innovation, and policy changes.

After entire communities burned in California in 2018, some local jurisdictions actually weakened wildfire regulations in the building code in an effort to rebuild faster. Is that happening in Australia?

There isn’t really any leeway in Australia on the building code itself. It’s a national code. Bushfire building codes will apply to all of the rebuilds from this summer’s disaster. The only power at the state or local level in Australia is more around the planning regulations, which say you need some water tanks on site, or the driveways need to be widened to support a fire truck—things like that, aside from the actual structure. After the Black Saturday bushfires, some of those planning regulations were eased because a lot of the sites wouldn’t have been able to meet current planning regulations. That would have been very difficult politically because you have to somehow make it work for the victims. So we did see some flexibility on the planning side. The building code was pretty much applied as it stands.

How did you become so involved in this issue?

Around 2005, I was an information technology professional and winemaker—I had no real background with wildfire. I started plans to build a family vacation home in a coastal area with a history of bushfires. I wanted to make the house as fire resistant as possible, but it was maddeningly difficult to obtain the right information or the permits to do the work. Architects, builders, product manufacturers, and even government agencies and insurers gave me conflicting advice. The building code provides minimum safety requirements and everyone seemed to interpret the regulations differently. So I sought out many experts—engineers, bushfire scientists, material flammability chemists, emergency managers. The simple question I had was, “What can I do on this particular site to protect my family and my home?”

How did that lead to the BBCA?

I went to the team of experts I had assembled and said, “How do we translate this into something that will help the whole country?” People shouldn’t have to go through a decade of research to build a resilient home. All of the policies addressed new home development, which is less than 10 percent of our housing stock. For the other 90 percent, there’s really nothing going on at the community level to help people make needed bushfire retrofits or take community-wide mitigation measures. That exposure concerned me. My experts told me there were a lot things we can do, but we just don’t do them. Hearing that motivated me. That was the start of the BBCA.

What does the council look like now?

It’s a group of independent experts. We’ve got the former emergency management commissioner for the state of Victoria, fire safety engineers, bushfire research scientists, a materials chemist, fire behavior experts. Many of them have told me that the reason they’re doing this is because they know that all of that expertise and decades of research counts for nothing if we can’t turn it into action, something tangible that will actually change how we live with bushfire.

How did you come up with the star rating idea?

I developed the idea about seven years ago. In Australia we have energy efficiency ratings on appliances and car safety ratings, but there is a complete absence of nationally consistent and publicly available information about bushfire risk. So if you are looking to purchase or rent a property, you literally know more about your washing machine’s efficiency than the bushfire performance of your home. From a consumer point of view, we wanted to get people information about that level of risk and the resilience of the property, and the steps they can take to reduce their risk. We knew that an absence of information guaranteed inaction.

How does the risk assessment work?

There are two Bushfire Resilience Star Ratings: the individual property rating and a community-level rating. They are complementary. The greater the number of highly rated properties, the higher the community rating, and the more mitigation work done at the community level, the higher the individual property ratings.

The individual property rating tries to establish what the exposure looks like for a particular structure on a particular site. We guide people through a detailed self-assessment that takes into account many aspects of their homes, including cladding and roofing material, what the window frames are made of, if there are gaps between the frame and window, if they have decking, the type and proximity of vegetation, how close they are to other homes, the slope of the nearby land—it’s quite detailed. We then measure how well that site and the building—plus the landscaping, plus the people—will collectively perform compared to the level of bushfire risk inherent at the site. Then we say, for instance, “OK, your current rating is one star, but here’s a series of measures you can take to obtain each additional star rating level.”

How did you create the model?

It is complex, and that's what’s taken so long. But we started with the risk and evidence base. We look at how many houses are lost and in what circumstances. Australia has a lot of really good post-bushfire building survey data; we started getting excellent data after the 1983 Ash Wednesday Bush fires, and a couple of my experts were actually the people conducting that research. So there’s a long history of understanding how houses are destroyed. Once we can determine the causes of house and life loss, we can start looking at what can be done and how effective it is. That’s where we incorporate the testing analysis and fire performance of materials. That gives us all the data we need to start building the response.

Are people using it?

We’re in a pilot phase, helping people do the self-assessment. Part of our research is seeing how usable it is. We’re gathering information about how difficult or easy it might be for people to self-assess, and what level of detail people can cope with. We have a grant proposal in to the government to fund the development of an app that will allow everyone in the country to do it. If they want to advertise the star ratings for insurance or property value reasons, we will inspect and certify the assessment.

Do you think people will do this on their own when the app comes out? What’s their motivation?

There are two sides of it: We hope people will be motivated to self-assess in order to better understand how houses burn down and reduce their risk. There’s certainly a massive increase in people asking for that type of help after these bushfires. Then there are the economic drivers where people want to maybe sell their house, or get a break on fire insurance. We’ve got two of our largest insurers and one of our four big banks supporting the pilot program to offer people incentives. If you do get a high star rating or you undertake these mitigation measures to get the high star rating, the insurers and banks are looking at products they can offer to incentivize those actions. Reducing insurance premiums, offering cheaper mortgage finance rates—they all incentivize action. That’s the whole trick to this—we can put out the app and we could put out really great information from our scientists, but will it translate into action?

What’s in it for banks, insurers, and government agencies?

Lowering risk has a lot of value. It certainly has a benefit for insurers in reducing loss payments. It’s beneficial to banks because they essentially own the asset. And for governments, the rating system matters because it reduces taxpayer funded recovery costs, which is rising at an unaffordable rate. And because the star ratings are measurable, we hope that governments can provide grants and incentives in much the same way they already do here for energy efficiency and solar panel installations.

Could this rating system be replicated elsewhere if it works?

Absolutely. It’s replicable because the model uses local data like topography, vegetation type, and site-specific structural elements, so it doesn’t matter where in the world it is. Buildings burn down in the same way everywhere. As soon as we get something moving here in Australia, we’ll try to get some pilots running around the world, probably first in California. There’s no time to waste. It’s not a problem that’s going away.

JESSE ROMAN is associate editor for NFPA Journal. Top photograph: GETTY IMAGES