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Interim observations

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1. These are our interim observations from the Royal Commission into National Natural Disaster Arrangements. Our observations relate to some, but not all, of the more pressing issues that we expect to address in our report, which we will present to His Excellency, the Governor-General of the Commonwealth of Australia, and Their Excellencies the Governors of New South Wales, Victoria, Queensland, Western Australia, South Australia and Tasmania, by 28 October 2020.
2. This extended reporting date recognises the impact of the global COVID-19 pandemic, as a result of which, interested parties have prioritised their response to the global health emergency.
3. This is not our final report, nor does it contain draft recommendations. We set out preliminary views to guide those interested in the Commission’s work as we approach the final stages of our inquiry including receiving submissions from parties with leave to appear. We continue to consider the extensive evidence before us, including from 290 witness appearances and in well over 2,000 documents, comprising over 50,000 pages, which have been provided to the Commission. We have received over 1,700 submissions, many of which provided invaluable insights into the lived experience of Australians directly affected by the devastating 2019 2020 bushfires.
4. We are also considering the valuable work of past and current inquiries related to natural disasters, while seeking not to duplicate their efforts. A number of reports of state and territory operational inquiries into the recent bushfires have been released this year, and others are expected shortly. Many agencies are also conducting internal reviews of their own response to these bushfires, and appropriately making changes now to better prepare themselves for the next disaster season. We also acknowledge the work of other Royal Commissions now considering the suitability of emergency management arrangements for people in aged care and people with disability.

2019-20 bushfires

5. The 2019-2020 bushfires are still fresh in the minds of many Australians, and were the focus of most submissions to our inquiry. We launched the Bushfire History Project to encourage people to record their personal experience, and to share their photos and videos from the bushfires and the ongoing recovery, so that these stories are not forgotten.
6. The 2019-2020 bushfires and the conditions leading up to them were unprecedented. They are no longer unprecedented.
7. The bushfires started in Australia’s hottest and driest year on record. Much of the country that later burned had been in drought since January 2018. The Forest Fire Danger Index in 2019 was the highest since national records began. The first of the season’s deadly bushfires started in July. Over the following months, fire burned through millions of hectares of land, variously reported as between 24 and 40 million hectares, threatening and displacing hundreds of communities. While there have been large fire seasons in the past, the 2019-2020 season set a new benchmark for an extreme fire season in Australia’s temperate forests. Many communities also suffered hailstorms or flooding.
8. Tragically, 33 people died, and smoke may well have caused many other deaths. Others suffered serious physical and emotional/psychological injuries. It is estimated that nearly 3 billion animals were killed or displaced by the bushfires, and many threatened species and other ecological communities were extensively damaged. Over 3,000 homes and many other buildings were destroyed. For many people, it will take years to recover and rebuild.
9. Estimates suggest the bushfires caused over $2 billion in insured losses alone. The economic impact on tourism, hospitality, agriculture and forestry has been estimated to be around $3.6 billion. There may have been a further $2 billion in health costs, arising, in part, from respiratory illnesses caused by the smoke. These figures are likely to underestimate the true cost of the bushfires.
10. 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.

Natural disaster risk

11. Our inquiry is not only about bushfires, but also about natural disasters more generally—that is, naturally occurring, rapid onset events that cause serious disruption to a community or region, such as floods, bushfires, earthquakes, storms, cyclones, storm surges, tornados, landslides and tsunami. [Productivity Commission, Natural Disaster Funding Arrangements (Inquiry Report No 74, 17 December 2014) xiv.]
12. Australia has a long history of natural disasters. The causes of natural disasters have been shown to be many and complex. Australia’s weather and climate agencies have told us that changes to the climate are projected to increase the frequency and intensity of natural disasters in Australia. Further warming over the next 20 years appears to be inevitable. Sea-levels are projected to continue to rise. Tropical cyclones are projected to decrease in number, but increase in intensity. Floods and bushfires are expected to become more frequent and more intense.
13. Additionally, as the 2019-2020 bushfire season demonstrated, bushfire behaviour has become more extreme and less predictable. Catastrophic fire conditions may become more common, rendering traditional bushfire prediction models and firefighting techniques less effective.
14. Natural disaster risk is complex and dynamic, as it is a product of the nature of the relevant hazard, the extent to which communities and other assets are exposed, and the ability of the relevant communities and other systems to cope with and recover from impacts—often referred to as vulnerability. The extent of the damage and harm caused by natural disasters depends on a wide range of factors—such as the intensity and severity of the disaster, where people choose to live, how they build their homes, how both public and private land is managed, and how well people and communities are prepared, supported and cared for during and after disasters. We have heard of the importance of an inclusive, integrated, risk-based national approach to managing natural disasters.

A shared responsibility

15. The central task of our Commission is to inquire into, and report on, national natural disaster arrangements. 'National' arrangements are not confined to arrangements involving the Australian Government; it encompasses all levels of government, the private and not-for-profit sectors, communities, families, and individuals.
16. Even the most well-resourced government agencies cannot entirely protect the public from the risks of natural disasters. Some bushfires, for example, will be too large and too widespread; some Australians will live too remotely; and there are only so many firefighters, aircraft and trucks that can be deployed at the same time.
17. All Australians, and particularly those in high-risk areas, must take steps to prepare themselves and their families for natural disasters. It is for this reason that preparation for, response to, and recovery from, natural disasters has been called a 'shared responsibility'— shared between individuals, private enterprise, not-for-profit organisations, and all levels of government.
18. Providing clear and compelling information about the risks people face is one important way in which governments can help individuals protect themselves and their families. We have heard impressive accounts of the diligence and hard work of people preparing well in advance for disasters, and benefiting from their efforts. Others have not been well prepared, and some in the recent bushfires thought they were prepared, but were soon surprised and overwhelmed by the severity of the bushfires. Educating the community about how best to prepare for, and respond to, natural disasters (for example, about how to prepare their homes and land, how and where to evacuate and how to understand emergency warnings) is crucial, and could save lives, livelihoods, and homes.
19. State and territory governments have primary responsibility for managing natural disasters—that is, for preparation, mitigation, response and recovery—for their respective jurisdictions. 'Combat agencies', such as rural fire services and state emergency services, lead the response to natural disasters. It is for state and territory governments to request Australian Government assistance in support of these responsibilities. State and territory governments also have a number of other responsibilities, including managing most public lands within their jurisdictions, such as national parks and state forests.
20. All states have delegated to local governments significant responsibilities for aspects of managing natural disasters. However, the capability and capacity of local governments to do this work appears to depend on their relative size and the resources available to them and varies across Australia. Notwithstanding this delegation, we would expect state governments to ensure that they retain oversight and understanding of the capabilities and capacity of local government to perform these responsibilities, and to provide support as necessary.
21. Coordination and resource sharing between local governments often rely on regional arrangements and, in some cases, informal understandings. Current processes to facilitate sharing resources between local governments during natural disasters appear beneficial, and warrant greater support.
22. The Australian Government has an important role to play. For example, while state and territory governments can, and do, cooperate among themselves, the Australian Government can play an important national coordination role. We have conducted our inquiry during the COVID-19 pandemic, which has highlighted to us the importance and feasibility of, and public expectation for, national coordination in response to a national crisis.
23. The Australian Government also has capability and capacity not available to the states and territories. Disasters too great for one state or territory to manage alone may become more common. Existing disaster plans, including the National Catastrophic Natural Disaster Plan (NATCATDISPLAN) and the Australian Government Disaster Response Plan (COMDISPLAN), recognise that the Australian Government can assist when a state or territory government becomes significantly incapacitated or its resources are exhausted. Nonetheless, there is clearly an opportunity to refresh and strengthen national disaster planning.
24. The Australian Government can also encourage and facilitate consistency across jurisdictions—for example, by leading the development of national standards. The Australian Government plays an important role in providing information through agencies such as the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), the Bureau of Meteorology, Geoscience Australia and research bodies.