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Is there a better (and fairer) way to prepare for fire?

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As bushfires once again cause destruction and threaten Australian lives, with more than 85 homes lost to an out-of-control blaze north of Perth last week, one expert is proposing that a Medicare-like system subsidise the cost of fire prevention measures via the public purse.

And other academics warn that a trend for personalised private insurance products only heightens underinsurance issues, deepening inequality and favouring those with higher incomes and marginalising those most likely to need cover.

David Bowman, Professor of Pyrogeography and Fire Science at the University of Tasmania, says authorities have for years recommended a “very formidable and expensive” checklist of fire-preventative actions, from cleaning gutters through to the retrofitting of houses to be compliant with modern building standards, which are significant time and financial investments.

“There are many reasons people don’t prepare and a key one is affordability,” Professor Bowman says in an article published by The Conversation, which is running a series exploring underinsurance and what it calls the “the nexus between disaster, disadvantage and resilience”.

“If you’re not physically able to get up a ladder to clean your gutters or mow around your property and remove fuel load — and you can’t afford to pay someone to do it — what are you supposed to do?”

“Radical change is what’s needed — and it’s possible,” says Professor Bowman, who has also recommended re-arranging the Australian school calendar around fire seasons.

While the “Pyrocare” idea would be expensive, so was last year’s bushfire royal commission and scores of other formal inquiries related to fire management, the article says. Last year’s fire costs ran into the billions, and aerial fire suppression aircraft, lengthy firefighting campaigns and economic disruption are all onerous too.

Credit Suisse calculates Australia is the second wealthiest nation in terms of median wealth per adult, after Switzerland. It has the world’s 10th highest GDP per capita, according to the International Monetary Fund.

Yet the unthinkable nightmare of having a mortgaged property destroyed, and having no insurance to recover your losses, is a tragic reality in Australia. Up to one in ten homeowners or mortgagees are without home insurance, while about 40% of renters are without contents insurance.

The Conversation series says underinsurance is entrenching poverty, disadvantage and hardship as Australia’s vulnerable are hit hardest by natural disasters.

“This dynamic will worsen as the consequences of unmitigated climate change unfold,” says an article published on Thursday by University of Tasmania academics Kate Booth and Chloe Lucas.

The trend toward individualisation of insurance products – made easier by new technology and data tracking mechanisms – favours those with higher incomes and lower levels of risk and marginalises disadvantaged populations living with higher risk, they argue.

“It puts insurance out of reach for those most likely to need it. We must resist the trend towards insurance products that are tailored in response to individual characteristics and risks.”

National research by the academics indicates that simply telling people to get more insurance is not necessarily the answer. It provides anecdotes showcasing a range of reasons for underinsurance.

One Victorian woman inaccurately calculated rebuilding costs after bushfire, and ended up with a $700,000 mortgage. A Hobart man without contents insurance when his rented home was flooded found himself not covered for temporary accommodation.

Another woman insured her contents for just $20,000 hoping that would “be enough to replace just the essential items” while someone else chose not to insure at all, saying that if she were to need to claim “I have a feeling that they’ll go, ‘oh no, you’ve got a dingle on your dangle and it’s just not included’.”

Ms Booth says governments must not rely on individuals to manage their own risks with insurance and instead step up to achieve building code reform, effective land-use planning, and a well-funded social safety net.

“Telling people ‘well, you should have been insured’ … allows governments to shirk their responsibilities,” she says.

Professor Bowman says local fire authorities, councils or governments are passing the problem along to the next person without considering whether they’re able to actually take up that advice due to factors such as poverty, old age and health issues.

“It’s time to look at preventative fire measures the same way we look at preventative healthcare … because Australian society recognises it’s cheaper in the long run,” he says.

“These ideas are expensive. So is Medicare. So is the pension system. So is the public health response that helped Australia drive the COVID-19 epidemic into submission. But they’re worth it, aren’t they?” Professor Bowman asks. “And do you know what else is expensive? Doing the same thing every year, even though it doesn’t work.”

Click here to access The Conversation’s series of articles.