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One man’s fight against fires turns into building better homes

22 July 2022

One man’s fight against fires turns into building better homes

The Black Summer bushfires swept across the nation from 2019 until 2020. It may have destroyed homes and livelihoods, but it didn’t destroy one man’s fight to help build a better future for his community.

It was one New Year’s Eve Greg Webb would never forget. The end of the year 2019 also marked the end of Greg’s home in Lake Conjola. It was the same home that’s been in his family for generations and a haven he helped build as a 9-year-old kid in 1964. Although it only took less than 20 minutes for the Black Summer bushfires to reach his house from across the lake, for Greg it was a long-lasting fight to rescue his house against the flames.

After it was all over, what was once a humble two-bedroom home was now a pile of rubble and ash. But despite the overwhelming experience, Greg is keen to rebuild a new place to call home – a house that experts say will have more than a 90 per cent chance of surviving future fires.

Backed by NRMA Insurance and in partnership with the Shoalhaven City Council, the FORTIS House project led by the Bushfire Building Council of Australia (BBCA) is helping Australians like Greg rebuild their homes based on new resilience principles, guidelines and architectural drawings.

The free resources developed by the BBCA aims to assist disaster affected community members, helping them to construct more resilient homes that can withstand any extreme weather events such as bushfires, floods, storms, heatwaves, cyclones, mould and pests.

1. What was the catalyst that influenced you to build a disaster-proof home and get involved with the FORTIS House initiative?

After our home was destroyed, it took me about two months to process and heal from the loss. When I accessed the mental health support group at the Shoalhaven City Council, I found out about FORTIS House. I also made a video about the journey of the rebuild on my YouTube channel – The Webby Walks – and spoke about the destruction, the fires, and how we are we going to rebuild our lives. Since I had already done most of the research about rebuilding, I then realised the FORTIS House initiative had the same concepts and guidelines I was following, and then I got involved in the community consultation.

2. What are the benefits of the FORTIS House project, backed by NRMA Insurance?

The benefit is that it takes out all the hard work and research for you – saving you some time and money. The free architectural drawings, specifications and handbooks make it easier and more affordable for Australians to build not only resilient homes against bushfires, floods, storms, heatwaves, cyclones and other natural disasters or threats, but it also helps build sustainable houses using materials that most likely will not end up in landfill like others do.

It will make the re-building process much easier. The construction manual and consumer handbook guides builders, designers and trades people on how to adapt the design to a homeowner’s site requirements, style and required Bushfire Attack Level (BAL) rating. 

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3. How can this initiative help Australians future-proof their homes against fires and help community members who live in high-risk areas?

It will help them protect their homes against Mother Nature’s events, but it’s also such a great thing because these re-builds give homeowners the ability to lock up and leave as soon as they’re notified of a natural disaster and the house can basically take care of itself because of the materials used.

I said to myself during my own experience with bushfires: ‘If I want to rebuild this house, I’ve got to make sure I use materials that are resilient and sustainable’ – I’m very much about sustainability. I’m very big on buying Australian, and because I’ve worked in the construction industry for decades, Australian made is very important to me. The FORTIS House project incorporates Australian products and sturdy materials like steel. I’ve got a fitting, machining and tool making background so steel to me is a wonderful product. Among these non-combustible materials are other materials that don't burn as easily as current building supplies such as timber, which will provide a wonderful guide for architects, engineers, builders and planners to use to re-build in high-risk bushfire areas.

4. How do you think this is going to change any future experiences and help you stay safe?

I am 97 per cent more confident that the house I’m building will not burn down. And it means two things. One: I can protect myself and my loved ones who are with me by locking the house up and leaving, knowing that I’ve got insurance for replacement value, and it will survive. And two: whichever way the fire front was to attack, it means I don’t have to stress about my home, and I can go and help other people.

5. Having experienced a bushfire firsthand, what’s some advice you’d like to give to others to help them if they ever find themselves in a similar situation?

Any sort of house you build – even if it’s in suburbia – I believe, you should consider building it to protect it from a fire. Because once a house starts burning, the intensity of the heat is part of what fuels the fire. It’s all the stuff inside where the heat comes from – it’s all the carpet, the lounges, all the doors, the skirtings and the architraves that combust and just cause such an intense heat.

The other advice I suggest is getting a BAL Assessment, which is a Bush Fire Attack Level assessment. Your BAL level is a formula that looks at where your house is located and determines your fire risk based on a very complicated checking system. This will not only help you understand your fire risk, but it will also help you insure your home to an accurate replacement value.

And of course, you can’t forget to always be bushfire prepared. It’s vital to have an emergency bag packed and ready to go in case you need to flee unexpectedly.

To find out more about the FORTIS House initiative, or to download your free FORTIS resources, click here.


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