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Fire victims face rebuilding dilemma -

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Fire victims face rebuilding dilemma

The World Today - Wednesday, 11 February , 2009 12:14:00

Reporter: Oscar McLaren

BRENDAN TREMBATH: Survivors from previous bush fires say maintaining community ties is essential,
and victims must be allowed to choose for themselves whether to rebuild or move elsewhere.

But at the same time, architects are starting to wonder whether any building could be safe in the
sort of fires seen over the weekend.

Oscar McLaren reports.

OSCAR MCLAREN: Reconstruction after the Canberra Bushfires in 2003 was long and difficult.

Many people found themselves underinsured, and less than half of the families who lost everything
ended up rebuilding.

Richard Arthur is a spokesman for the Phoenix Association which represents victims of the Canberra

He says it's crucial that people affected by fires are given genuine choices.

RICHARD ARTHUR: It's very important that people recovering from the process or from the trauma that
they've experienced, feel that they have their own destiny in their own hands.

The experience has totally disoriented them, and they need to feel that they are able to control
their lives.

OSCAR MCLAREN: Dr David Nichols from the University of Melbourne's faculty of architecture building
and planning says there's a real chance that some communities may never be rebuilt.

DAVID NICHOLS: It has happened in the past, I mean there have been places that have been wiped out
by bushfire, but are now just a little clearing in the bush, that just don't exist anymore, and
people have made that decision in the past. And in one sense you can see it would be
understandable, particularly if it's associated with trauma.

I think that these are things that bring communities together and people might well decide that
they, and understandably and justifiably, decide that they want to go ahead and re-establish the
place that they lived in.

OSCAR MCLAREN: The decision of whether to rebuild will have to be made in a new context. The fires
over the weekend were of an intensity not seen before in Australia, and climatologists say climate
change will make these sorts of extreme events more common.

The Architect Lindsay Johnston has built a number of houses to withstand bushfires.

His current house has a safe room especially built for that purpose, but even that may not be

LINDSAY JOHNSTON: I've been asked, having seen what's happened over the last weekend - would you be
confident about going into that safe haven and surviving, having seen what's happened, I've said
I'm really not sure I would be confident.

OSCAR MCLAREN: Lindsay Johnston says many communities are at risk, and the process of urban sprawl
which is pushing housing developments further and further into bushland is exacerbating the

LINDSAY JOHNSTON: Yeah one has to look at many suburbs of our cities that are in very risky
situations. When you see a situation like this, these towns have been there since white settlement
almost, and have survived, wooden buildings, and old buildings, and here we have an extreme weather
event which has been so destructive that it really rewrites the rules.

OSCAR MCLAREN: He says the houses at the greatest risk are those which are raised off the ground,
have tiled roofs and have flammable external surfaces.

LINDSAY JOHNSTON: And probably the most significant is the weakness, is the windows and the glazed
doors, because the intense heat, flying debris with strong winds, breaks windows and glass and then
the fire enters the inside of the house and the house ignites.

OSCAR MCLAREN: The Victorian Premier John Brumby has told Radio National Breakfast that building
codes will need to be revised.

JOHN BRUMBY: There will need to be higher fire standards that are built into building codes, it may
need, as I said last night on Lateline, there may need to be things that we look at like bunkers,
like they have in the United States.

All of these things I think have to be considered, and the experts and the families affected will
have their say at the Royal Commission. But all of this has got to be on the table as we come to
grips with much more extreme climatic conditions.

OSCAR MCLAREN: For Dr David Nichols from Melbourne University, the devastation in Victoria presents
a sombre opportunity.

DAVID NICHOLS: I think we tend to find I think throughout history, we look back at when these
conflagrations come through, then people will often just scramble to recreate the same thing again,
in the aftermath of a fire. But perhaps it can be, maybe something valuable can come out of this in
the planning and building sense.

OSCAR MCLAREN: As debate continues about how to weigh up the risks of fire, Richard Arthur from the
Phoenix Association believes the most important thing the Government can do is make an early and
clear decision on what path it will take.

RICHARD ARTHUR: The social cost of people being unsupported after going through a life-changing
experience like this is something that we need to understand, and translate into dollar terms, and
I'd like to think at the end of the day that governments recognise that keeping a community
together may well be worth the many millions of dollars it might cost to bring that about.

BRENDAN TREMBATH: Richard Arthur from the Canberra bushfire victims support group the Phoenix
Association, ending that report from Oscar McLaren.