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Hellish predictions come to pass

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“Spring blazes promise a summer from hell”, warned the headline on the cover of December’s Insurance News magazine.

Sadly, so it turned out to be – and the bushfire season has months still to run.

The fires that have so far ripped through more than 11 million hectares, killed more than 30 people, destroyed more than 2400 homes and devastated wildlife populations shocked the country and the world.

Insurance Council of Australia (ICA) statistics show the catastrophe declared on November 8, which incorporates losses in NSW, Victoria, SA and Queensland, has now seen 20,000 claims totalling $1.65 billion.

Add to that earlier bushfire catastrophes in northern NSW and southern Queensland, and hail-related losses, and the loss figure for the catastrophe season passes $2.3 billion.

While the fires raged, so did debate over whether they are “unprecedented”, the impact of climate change and whether it’s really all arsonists’ fault.

Governments – most notably Canberra and NSW – moved from refusing to talk about climate change to accepting its effect on extreme weather in Australia.

But despite the modified rhetoric, there’s still reluctance to do more to mitigate the threat – and still conservative columnists cast doubts on climate change science.

Former prime minister Tony Abbott penned a piece in The Australian asserting that it’s “a mistake” to overplay the role of global warming in these fires. After all, more hectares burnt in 1974, and more people died in 2009.

All of that is true. But nevertheless the experts – emergency services leaders and a bewilderingly long list of scientists – say many aspects of this bushfire season are indeed unprecedented, and that climate change is playing a key role.

“What has been different this time to previous fire seasons is the geographical extent of the fires – multiple states affected severely at a similar time, and vast areas of land burned,” Bushfire & Natural Hazards Co-operative Research Centre CEO Richard Thornton tells insuranceNEWS.com.au.

“In some parts, particularly in spring, the severity of the fires we saw for that time for the year was unusual.”

Dr Thornton says it’s hard to attribute any single event to climate change, but the rise in base temperature makes extreme conditions more likely and stretches fire seasons.

“Australia is now one degree Celsius warmer than average compared to the long-term average, which means that the variability of ‘normal’ events sits on top of that. This means our extremes are more extreme.”

One aspect that worries the experts is the fact that this season’s disasters came in the absence of an El Nino event.

The severe fires of the past have almost always occurred in an El Nino year – 1983’s Ash Wednesday and 2009’s Black Saturday being the most recent examples.

“Traditionally Australia’s very worst fire seasons have occurred in El Nino years, so it is extremely concerning that we’ve had the fires we’ve had this season without the El Nino driver,” Dr Thornton says.

And arsonists? Dr Thornton says accidental human ignition is a greater problem, and widespread dry lightning has been to blame for many of this season’s fires.

“There have been many false and misleading comments regarding the role of arson in these fires,” he says.

The insurance industry hasn’t got too involved in the debate. Insurers accept the role of climate change in the current crisis, and understand the bushfire threat could worsen in years to come.

But right now the focus of brokers and insurers is on customers in desperate need of help.

ICA has set up insurance hubs in affected regions, where customers can seek guidance from disaster recovery specialists.

Access to some areas has been challenging, and ICA arranged to fly a team of assessors into Mallacoota, in eastern Victoria, on an RAAF transport plane.

ICA also set up a trades register to help local businesses get involved in the recovery, and it is keeping governments updated by supplying claims data.

The major insurers have deployed significant resources to the fire-hit areas, including support teams, assessors and builders.

But the industry hasn’t stopped there, with volunteer initiatives and charity donations flooding in.

The National Insurance Brokers Association launched a bushfire community support initiative, and industry donations so far add up to millions of dollars, with the likes of Suncorp, QBE and Zurich pledging significant sums.

Smaller companies have also come to the fore, with Sportscover announcing a series of grants and TravelCard launching its #business4thebush initiative. TravelCard provides dollar matching for employee travel to fire-impacted areas of up to $1000.

Overall, it’s all hands to the pump as the industry works to respond decisively and compassionately to the crisis – and all this while dealing with a significant hailstorm catastrophe at the same time.

The response appears to be tracking well – but that’s not to say there won’t be issues further down the line.

It’s likely the issue of underinsurance will raise its head at some point as claimants who have lost everything realise they need to rebuild to strict new bushfire standards that significantly increase building costs, and there is confusion about the extent of business interruption cover under some policies.

Underinsurance concerns have been eased to some extent by the NSW and Victorian governments confirming that they will fund debris clean-up for all affected properties, following an ICA campaign pointing to a similar initiative taken by Victoria after the 2009 disaster.

The industry continues to pressure the NSW Government over the emergency services levy on insurance and other insurance taxes like stamp duty, which, extensive research has shown, contribute significantly to underinsurance.

Such issues may be addressed during the wash-up of this year’s fire season.

NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian last week announced a six-month independent inquiry, following Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews’ earlier announcement of a similar investigation.

It’s worth recalling that the Victorian royal commission into the 2009 disaster was the catalyst behind the state changing its rigid stance on funding fire services through insurance premiums and adopting a far more equitable system based on property rates.

A royal commission has also been floated by Prime Minister Scott Morrison, but it remains to be seen whether this will eventuate.

Royal commission or not, debates over this bushfire season will continue for months to come, and the insurance industry’s performance will remain well and truly under the spotlight, as it always does after major catastrophes.

In coming weeks and months there will be instances where claimants grow impatient for resolution of their claims or protest their underinsurance is their insurers’ fault, leading to political grandstanding, coupled with prejudiced and emotive media stories. They will do little more than undermine people’s faith in insurance, which benefits no one.

For the insurance industry, such unfair attacks are an unwelcome and damaging distraction from the massive task of putting peoples’ lives and businesses back together. The summer from hell is far from over.