In Buchan, frustration over the delays in bushfire-affected residents having their homes rebuilt is growing.
Six months on from the devastating bushfires, which destroyed lives, those who lost their homes in the inferno say bureaucratic red tape is hampering their efforts to re-establish their lives.
Jeff and Margie McCole’s timber house on farmland, just outside the Buchan township, was incinerated as the fires made their way through the rural community on December 30.
A Vietnam veteran, Mr McCole says trying to make their way through the hurdles in having their house rebuilt is taking a toll.
“Six months down the track we’re sort of pulling our hair out,” he said.
“It’s cost a fortune for all these demands to be met and we’re still not getting anywhere.”
The McColes say they’ve been told they can’t build their house on the same site where it stood for decades because of the proximity to bush and it now needs to be 75 metres away from their side boundary.
“It’s been there for 73 years and it’s never been burnt in a bushfire before, because we haven’t had a bushfire before because it was a one-off event,” a clearly frustrated Mr McCole said.
“This (bushfire) hasn’t been caused by us, this has been caused by lack of management by others who call themselves land managers.”
Mrs McCole said they don’t agree with the alternative positions that have been suggested for the rebuild.
“We feel it will be financially difficult and the location is just not appropriate. We just can’t see why we can’t have it where it was,” she said.
Mrs McCole said they engaged a builder several months ago to start the process of building a house before they were issued with a BAL (Bushfire Attack Level) rating.
The couple said their own builder had independently been in the midst of organising the planning permit and ascertaining the required BAL rating in order for the build to commence.
The McColes are now frustrated that they’ve just found out the East Gippsland Shire has engaged a concierge for them to go through the planning process.
“We were unaware of this,” Mrs McCole said.
“Our building company has engaged these people that are independent from the shire and now the shire is saying they’re going to do it, but no one knew about it.
“We have had no input from the shire, the whole town really, very little public input from the shire to give us this information. It’s been very, very poor,” Mrs McCole said.
The couple was planning to build a brick veneer house on a concrete slab. Grocon cleared the rubble from their former house site away a few weeks ago in readiness, leaving a workable, flat surface for the rebuild.
However, because the McColes are now being told they can’t rebuild on their old site, there are suggestions they won’t be able to build the house they want. Instead, they’ve been informed they may have to go up on stumps because of the slope of the block, adding yet more cost to the rebuild.
“We’re just upset about the fact we started the building process and now we’re going to be penalised because we got in early and we’re paying for that out of our own money, where now the shire, six months later, are stating they will cover the costs and we’ve already done it, so will they reimburse us?”
The McColes also remain concerned that their BAL rating, which they’re still waiting on, could “double” the cost of their rebuild.
They can’t receive a planning permit until the BAL rating is issued.
Mr McCole was bewildered when it was suggested that where his existing shed sits would be a good place to build a house.
“Well it would have been, but there’s a shed there,” he said.
Another suggestion to put it on top on the hill, where it’s “solid rock”, also had him shaking his head.
“The cost would be astronomical,” he said.
“We live off a war pension.”
The McColes, who are living in sheds and a portable building on their property, say the ongoing problems have kept them awake at night.
“I find myself coping less now than I did early on,” Mrs McCole said, in relation to the trauma following the bushfires.
“You’ve lost all your belongings that you’ll never replace again, then you’re confronted with this bureaucracy, it’s just overload.”
Mr McCole nodded his head in agreement as it became clear the summer bushfires and the ongoing impact they are having on communities is taking a toll.
“If you have to get rid of one tree, they want you to plant another 200,” Mrs McCole said.
“So, you wind up with another bloody forest that burnt you down in the first place,” Mr McCole added.
“Everyone has been through enough of this ordeal.”
A few kilometres out of town on the Bruthen-Buchan Road, Bob and Linda Carney, have upgraded to a caravan, after initially living in a horse float following the bushfires, while waiting for their house to be rebuilt.
Mr Carney, who is the treasurer of the Buchan CFA, says he’s still waiting for the property to be assessed for a BAL rating.
“We’re just waiting for the CFA to appear and assess our block to see what our BAL rating is,” Mr Carney told the Advertiser, admitting he was unsure of the required criteria.
While plans have already been drawn up for their new home the Carneys are hoping to build, they can’t receive a planning permit until the BAL rating has been determined.
The Carneys were home when the bushfires came through Buchan on that fateful day in December. They had prepared their 65-acre property well before the fires and were moving farm animals to safer pastures when a fireball tore up the nature strip, crept into the front entrance, and imploded the house in mere minutes.
Despite their efforts in preparing for the bushfire inside their property in the days beforehand, debris that hadn’t been cleared from the nature strip, by the authority responsible for its upkeep, helped fuel the fire.
While the house was located close to the front boundary, the Carneys remain hopeful of rebuilding their new 24-square brick and sandstone house in the same location.
“It (previous timber house) had been there for 40-odd years and we were happy with its location,” Mr Carney said.
He said the existing site with its driveway and amenities in place made it practicable to rebuild in the same position.
Mr Carney has recently undergone major surgery on his back and admits he would like to be in his new home as soon as possible, particularly now the coldness of winter has set in.
He says while living in the caravan hasn’t been unbearable, he misses his open fireplace and the usual comforts of home and looks forward to the day he can go to bed in his new house.
Mr Carney still has flashbacks from the fire, but despite losing his home in the bushfires, hasn’t lost his sense of humour.
When asked when he’d like to be in his new house, he responds: “I say to people I’d like to be in by Christmas, but I just don’t say which one,” he laughed.
LIVING IN A BUSH NURSING CENTRE
In the heart of Buchan, Anne Brewer, whose house was located just up from the main street, faced a similar battle to the McColes.
When the Advertiser spoke to her last week, Ms Brewer was upset at being told her original BAL rating of 12.5 had changed and she would be lucky to achieve Flame Zone (FZ).
Ms Brewer said she had also been told she would need to situate her new home 25 metres from the side boundary line because of grassland in the neighbouring property.
She said the additional costs of relocating the services, which are situated on the opposite side of the property, and the prospect of having to bulldoze her existing shed to achieve metreage had left her stressed.
“The shed is only two years old,” she told the Advertiser.
Ms Brewer’s anxiety was exacerbated because nobody had visited her property site to understand its unique layout but were providing feedback after “looking at it on Google earth”.
She had expected her new house would have been well underway by now but is still living at the bush nursing hospital where she works.
“We’ve spent $26,000 on reports and an architect and we haven’t even got a hole in the ground,” she said last Wednesday.
However, late last week, Ms Brewer told the Advertiser all outstanding issues have now been resolved and she has been given permission to rebuild her new four bedroom house in the same position where her previous home stood.
Her BAL rating issues have been resolved.
In a statement, the CFA said: “Following the 2009 Bushfires Royal Commission, the Planning Policy Framework for bushfire has been strengthened to ensure all planning decision and development in high bushfire risk areas prioritise the protection of human life above all other considerations.
“The Bushfire Management Overlay (BMO) maps the areas of highest risk in Victoria, including parts of the East Gippsland region.”
The statement says many of the properties lost to the fires over summer in East Gippsland are within the BMO and require appropriate bushfire protection measures are put in place.
When providing advice on a planning application, the CFA must consider “potential landscape fire behaviour, the distance of a building from vegetation – which determines the consequent BAL rating and the level of construction required, landscaping, access to water, and access for emergency service vehicles.”
The CFA says local councils are responsible for approving planning applications and ensuring adherence to the permit conditions.
East Gippsland Shire said bushfire planning applications remain a priority.
General manager of place and community, Jodie Pitkin, said it was anticipated that “with appropriate planning and provision of accurate information that rebuild applications should be able to be processed inside of six weeks”.
Ms Pitkin said “some applications will be straightforward and others more complex”.
East Gippsland Shire general manager of place and community, Jodie Pitkin, said bushfire planning applications are and will remain a priority for council as more residents impacted by the summer’s bushfires look to rebuild.
“As the clean-up program progresses, we are seeing an increase in planning permit applications,” she said.
“To provide some context on the status of planning applications, our planning team has to date received 42 bushfire permit applications. Of those 42, 24 have been approved, one permit was not required, three have been for temporary accommodation, and 14 applications are under assessment.
“It’s anticipated that with appropriate planning and provision of accurate information that rebuild applications should be able to be processed inside of six weeks.
“Some applications will be straightforward and others more complex. Our commitment is to carefully step through the process with each applicant to ensure applications meet the standards of today. We understand there can be frustrations as some people navigate the complexities of planning by themselves.”
Ms Pitkin said council’s bushfire planning support service is a valuable resource for anyone considering a rebuild.
“This new service – contact us for more information – provides the upfront assistance for people without the need to engage a consultant,” she said.
“The team can assist in ensuring all relevant information is submitted with the application in the first instance, reducing the likelihood for unnecessary delays.
“The Bushfire Rebuild Support Service has received 64 referrals since coming online, of which 35 have been referred to planning advisors, and 29 are still under assessment. It won’t be for everybody, but we have received some positive feedback about the service already.
“It is important that people understand that while rebuild permits are exempt from advertising, they are not exempt from referrals to other agencies (such as the CFA, East Gippsland Water or DELWP) and other planning scheme requirements. This is still a process council is legislated to work through and can take time.”
IMAGE: Buchan farmers, Jeff and Margie McCole, say bureaucratic red tape is holding them back from rebuilding their house which was burnt to the ground in the December bushfires. K342-6529