The bushfire crisis infrastructure recovery

The Federal Government has announced immediate $1 million payouts to 42 of the worst-affected councils.

Please note this story was published in the March magazine and some circumstances may have changed since publication.

Plans to rebuild areas affected by the Australian bushfires are taking place to get communities back on their feet. Infrastructure and fire safety experts detail what will be required for the country-wide recovery effort.The 2019-20 season of bushfires in Australia, while still not over, has seen some of the worst destruction and loss of life ever recorded for fires across the country.

The BBC reported on 31 January that 33 people had been killed, four of whom were firefighters. Media reports suggest around one billion animals have also been killed as a result of the fires.

Aside from the mental anguish of one of the worst fire seasons in Australia’s history, infrastructural assets such as roads, rail, bridges and community buildings have also been destroyed in many jurisdictions across the country.

With a major focus on supporting the ongoing consequences of the fires, the country is beginning to address the recovery process in which engineers, asset managers and construction contractors will play an important role.

As the peak body for public works engineering, the Institute of Public Works Engineering Australia (IPWEA) released a statement recognising the effect the fires have had on many of its members and their colleagues. The organisation also acknowledged its role to take the lead during the recovery process.

In a statement in January CEO David Jenkins spoke about the role asset managers will play in rebuilding Australia.

“IPWEA’s network has a wealth of planning, engineering and technical experience in supporting communities affected by natural disasters. Many of our members will be making significant contributions, for example by keeping critical roads, water supplies and buildings operational throughout the crisis,” he said.

He said IPWEA will work with the authorities and agencies and collaborate with its eight divisions on the most effective use of the organisation’s resources to aid practical recovery and rehabilitation of the affected regions.

Speaking to Roads & Infrastructure, Mr. Jenkins says the assessment of fire damage and the decision for a recovery plan will start with reconnecting and providing essential services to affected communities. These services will enable them to start the rebuild.

“Another stage that will emerge is recovery funding applications. Organisations with complete asset registers showing reliable valuations will be better placed to receive appropriate compensation,” Mr. Jenkins says.

Mr. Jenkins says the IPWEA technical practice notes, such as the ‘Useful Life of Infrastructure’, will assist with rebuilding. However, he also adds many building standards will guide the process more specifically.

“Our ‘Ask Your Mates’ online community is another way for organisations to reach out to members of the profession for practical advice and to share experiences during bushfire recovery,” he said.

IPWEA publications also encourage a risk management approach and are expected to indirectly influence new infrastructure construction to protect against fire risks.

“This is now seen as a significant driver that should be an underlying emphasis in all our ongoing works,” Mr. Jenkins says.

He says there is an important discussion to be carried forward on better protecting communities from extreme weather events, which are triggered by differing circumstances.

“We are being reminded of that volatility as we shift from fire to flood. IPWEA will lead in advocating for a more resilient future.”

Jonathan Barnett, a fellow in the Society of Fire Safety Engineers and director of Basic Expert, says changes to better protect assets need to be discussed when replacing infrastructure.

“I think that we have to be careful not to replace infrastructure with like for like. If it fails once, then it will fail at the next round of fires,” Mr. Barnett says. He predicts, due to climate change, the next round of fires will happen in the next five years.

Mr. Barnett believes engineers need a seat at the table for the decision-making process when rebuilding infrastructure, as they bring a different perspective.

“The decisions to make are very broad and that is a balance that politicians will need to consider, but they need to do so with input from engineers and, in the case of fire, that will be a fire safety engineer,” he says.

Mr. Barnett says fire safety engineers can play many roles during a bushfire recovery phase. This could be helping individuals and communities build emergency shelters, or implementing construction and building standards in bushfire affected areas.

“Preventative options were looked at after the Black Saturday fires and we developed some very good bushfire standards that were relatively simple to apply and some fire safety engineers were involved,” he says.

One example of standard development following the Black Saturday fires was the elimination of combustible cladding in buildings in bushfire zones.

“We have a bushfire standard that says depending where you are and the higher risk, you have to make your building increasingly fire resistant as it gets closer to the flame zone,” Mr. Barnett says.

“As fire safety engineers, we don’t eliminate fire risk in any building. We reduce it to what is an acceptable level.”

Mr. Barnett says money will be a challenge when rebuilding, and it will be important to make the right decisions with the resources available.

He says, for example, if building bridges is more expensive than paving a road, it would be logical to ensure bridges are toughened to resist the effects of fire instead of the road.

“It’s that kind of thing engineers will certainly know how to do,” he says.

He says it’s up to the decision makers to allocate the money and engineers will build infrastructure to the level of risk that is required.

Mr. Barnett says individuals in the association of fire safety engineers will be working with governments and councils to solve some of the challenges presented in the rebuild.

To rebuild bushfire-impacted communities the NSW Government has announced $1 billion in funding over the next two years.

This funding will help to ensure key infrastructure is restored so communities can get back on their feet quickly.

The Federal Government has also announced immediate payouts of $1 million to 42 of the worst-affected councils across the country including 33 in NSW, five in QLD and two in SA.

Transport Minister Andrew Constance, who is also the Minister for one of the worst-hit communities Bega, spoke out in parliament about his own experiences fighting for his family home.

Mr. Constance recognised that his community will be counting the cost of the fires for a long time to come.

Working together, the Federal and NSW Governments have agreed to fund the clean-up of residential and commercial properties destroyed in the NSW bushfires on a 50:50 basis.

This approach is similar to the one adopted by the Federal and Victorian Governments following the Black Saturday bushfires.

In addition, the South Australian, Victorian and NSW Governments have all announced independent inquiries into the 2019-20 bushfire season to learn from this season and prepare for the next.

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