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Thursday, 12 March 2009
Page: 2561

Mr BILLSON (4:54 PM) —Tonight I rise to reassure those people in fire affected communities in Victoria that our thoughts continue to be with them, and we note some announcements in recent hours about the extraordinary generosity of Australians and Australian companies to help with the rebuilding process for those who have lost their homes.

The urgency of rebuilding these homes and re-establishing these fire affected areas does highlight an area of considerable interest but also of a considerable lack of clarity—that is, fire bunkers. We saw reports at the time of the fires and heard some quite remarkable stories about families who had endured that apocalyptic experience by retreating to fire bunkers, some of which seemed rather improvised and others which were built with the very clear purpose in mind of acting as a final retreat when the fight or flee options were not available and that bunkering down was all that was left for them.

In that rebuilding process, with the vigour and urgency that we are faced with right now, there is a lack of clarity around fire bunker building regulations or, indeed, the lack of a national standard as to the performance of these structures. Premier Brumby in Victoria did note the interest in fire bunkers, and we have seen reports in the paper about Andrew and Nicole Berry and their baby, Rafael, who survived in a fire bunker in their home near Kinglake. We have learnt about the experience of Steven Van Roy, a Latrobe Valley resident who also survived by taking shelter in a concrete bunker on his property.

This debate led Premier Brumby to say that fire bunkers need to be considered as part of the forward program but that there is considerable work to be done to establish what those bunkers should look like, how they should be constructed and what standards should be enforced to make sure they actually perform. Premier Brumby said:

I’m sure people will look at things like bunkers as well.

He was referring back to some of the lessons that came out of Cyclone Tracy and also drawing on insights from the United States, where twisters and the like are a part of everyday life and bunkers are part of their protection armoury. Premier Brumby went on, at the time of releasing the revised Australian building standards, which will be introduced earlier in Victoria with particular requirements for fire-risk areas, to say that the question of bunkers still needed to be answered. He said:

… it would be appropriate for the Federal Government to look at a standard in relation to a bunker.

He went on to say that he was writing to the Prime Minister to see that this received some attention.

Tonight, though, I urge the government to make examination of fire bunkers a priority, to set in place a rapid task force to provide some early guidance to those families who are rebuilding their homes, rebuilding their lives. People in fire affected areas who have seen the media coverage about families who have survived because of fire bunkers are looking for some guidance about what bunkers actually need to do, how they need to be designed and constructed, and what standards they need to meet. In the absence of such clear building regulations and performance standards, I fear that there are some in the community who may invest several thousands of dollars on what they feel is the ultimate fire protection, only to be concerned that that structure has not been verified as fit for purpose and no-one can guarantee that it actually achieves the levels of performance that people feel they are buying.

I refer to some of the published advertisements that you can find anywhere on the web and in fact in some newspapers in which local firms are offering fire bunkers. Some of the firms have experience in certain kinds of materials that have fire resistant properties and that know-how is being extrapolated into the construction of fire bunkers. But still a building standard does not exist and an Australian standard to ensure that those structures meet performance requirements is not in place. This is why we need some rapid, urgent action by the government to set in place a task force to examine this matter very quickly. Even in my own electorate a very reputable engineering firm are making these fire bunkers available, and they are putting their experience into that work. But unlike, say, a door between a garage and a home that needs a particular fire rating to make sure that if the fuel can for the lawn mower goes up then the house does not go up, there is no such clarity for fire bunkers.

I urge the government to pick up this issue, to bring together the Australian Building Codes Board, the Archicentre, the Master Builders Association, the emergency service representative bodies, Standards Australia and the like to get some action happening to provide clarity for people contemplating spending thousands of dollars on what they feel is the ultimate fire protection measure but where there is no building standard; there is no regulation on their maintenance and their use; and there is no understanding about other things, such as access to oxygen, what may or may not be stored there and what is required to actually consider the use of a bunker when faced with the dangers of a fire. I think that is an area for urgent action and I look forward to—

The SPEAKER —Order! It being 5.00 pm, the debate is interrupted.