Report says full devastation unknown

The full devastation wrought by Australia’s unprecedented summer bushfires is unclear because of inconsistencies in how data is collected and shared, a new report says.

The interim report from the Royal Commission into National Natural Disaster Arrangements said there were “real difficulties” in developing a clear national picture of the impact of the 2019-2020 fires across the nation.

Thirty-three people died in the blazes and smoke may have caused many other deaths, the report on Monday read.

Almost 3 billion animals were killed or displaced and many threatened species were extensively damaged.

The commission has heard of issues including limited availability of data, technical limitations and inconsistent and incomplete data collection.

Information across federal, state, territory and local governments also differed in quality and consistency, leading to “gaps and inefficiencies” in data collection and sharing.

“Government agencies and non-government organisations have struggled to provide a full and clear picture of the devastating impact of these bushfires, in part because of inconsistencies in how data about natural disasters are collected, collated and shared across the nation,” the interim report said.

Fire victims were also frustrated they had to repeat their story multiple times to relief and recovery agencies, causing them frustration and trauma.

The report said that although prescribed burning could play an important role in reducing fire behaviour, it would not eliminate bushfire risk.

More than 3000 homes and many other buildings were destroyed, and estimates suggest the bushfires caused more than $2 billion in insured losses alone.

More frequent and intense bushfires are expected over coming decades, however hundreds of thousands of Australians live in at-risk areas.

The insurance industry reported that in the 2019-2020 bushfire season, 99 per cent of destroyed and damaged residential buildings were on, or within 500m of land declared as ‘bushfire prone’, while 74 per cent were built before the introduction of the relevant standards.

The inquiry has heard from people who were not well prepared but soon overwhelmed by the severity of the fires.

The report said those in risk areas needed clear and compelling information about the risks they faced so they could make informed decisions about where they were willing to live and actions they could take to lessen the risk.

National disaster planning also needed to be strengthened, and all jurisdictions must work together and share resources, it found.

Current arrangements did not offer a clear way to send important matters to the Prime Minister and other state and territory governments.

The interim report suggests using the model of the national cabinet, created in response to the pandemic, to manage future national disasters to work closely with states.

Also, while the defence force is available during national disasters, some state agencies and local governments did not know what tasks they could do or how to get their help.

Federal Emergency Management Minister David Littleproud said the government had invested more than $2 billion to help communities recover and pledged funds to better prepare for future fires.

“We are reviewing disaster recovery funding arrangements to deliver a more equitable approach for all Australians,” he said.

The commission will release its final report by October 28.

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