How to prepare for bushfire season

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We're sweltering in the heat and fighting over the air-con, but trying to stay cool could be the least of your concerns. In some areas, preparing for the extreme weather of the hotter months also means having a bushfire plan in place.

In the midst of back-to-school shopping and the start of the new year, prepping for a bushfire may not be at the top of your to-do list.

In fact, it's not a priority for most of us: a Finder survey of 1062 Australians - 566 of whom live within a 10km radius of bushland - revealed that more than half (59%) don't have a bushfire survival plan in place.

how to prepare for bushfire season

This comes as more than two in five (46%) of Australians say they are worried about the risk of bushfires or floods this season.

Leave early or stay and defend?

Gary Hunter, Finder's insurance expert, has been covering bushfire season for half a decade. He says it really boils down to making one of two choices: in the event of a fire emergency, will you leave early or stay and defend?

You can refer to your state's bushfire survival plan guide for next steps. For instance, if you feel like your best course of action would be to leave early, ‚Äč‚Äčthen you'll want to create a Bushfire Evacuation Kit with your family's important items and equipment you'll need to relocate. Queensland Fire and Emergency Services suggests your kit might include things like:

  • Long sleeve shirt (made of natural fibres - synthetic fibres like polyester could melt)
  • Jeans or long pants (again - natural fibres)
  • Boots
  • Hats
  • Safety glasses
  • Plenty of drinking water
  • Battery-operated radio with spare batteries
  • Mobile phone charger 
  • Blankets (natural fibres)
  • Important documents such as insurance and home ownership papers (unless you have easy access to these on email)
  • Family photos, valuables and documents
  • Certified copies of drivers licenses, passports and birth certificates
  • Pet supplies and children's toys, if relevant
  • A list of things you need to grab and go on the day: wallets and purses, mobile phone, medications and prescriptions, snacks.

Your other option is to 'stay and defend'. If this is your preference, you can check in with your local state or territory's bushfire authority to get guidance on a survival plan, so you can run through all the suggested planning steps in advance.

This may include things like: have you bought the right equipment, and do you know how to use it? Have you prepared your property to withstand the impact of bushfire, by doing things like cleaning your gutters of leaves and twigs; installing metal gutter guards; and repairing damaged or missing tiles on the roof?

Once you're clear on your plan, Hunter says it's crucial to consider the risks well in advance of any potential threats approaching you and yours.

"If you're yet to take out home and contents insurance, it's worth getting sorted now ahead of bushfire season, because you won't be covered if you take out a policy after the bushfire has started," he told me.

"You also won't be covered for claims in the first 72 hours of a bushfire."

How to get home insurance that covers bushfires

We researched over 20 home and contents insurance policies that covered loss or damage as a result of a bushfire. This coverage includes repairing or rebuilding your property and replacing your belongings.

"Some policies, including Youi and QBE, can cover you for temporary accommodation if you're told to evacuate, but others don't," Hunter says.

Most policies also cover:

  • Demolition and debris removal if your property is destroyed by a bushfire.
  • Surveying and architecture, including redesign work.
  • Storing your belongings in a safe place while you rebuild.

In our research, we also found that some insurers may also cover you for temporary accommodation if you're forced to evacuate by a government authority.

Understanding Bushfire Attack Level ratings

One important thing to note is that the national building code was amended in 2010, following the Black Saturday fires. So, depending on where you live, you may need to factor this in when comparing insurers.

In a nutshell: properties in at-risk areas are now assessed using Bushfire Attack Level (BAL) ratings, which requires BAL-rated homes be built using specific designs and materials. This can include things like gutter guards to reject leaves, window shutters and non-combustible decks.

These changes can add significant costs to the rebuilding process, and insurers may have policy conditions related to this. For example, AAMI offers Complete Replacement Cover on a standard home insurance policy - but if your property is BAL rated, they do not cover:

  • upgrading undamaged parts of the building to comply with current home building regulations and laws; or
  • making the building comply with home building regulations and laws that existed but were not complied with when the building was originally built or altered.

As a guide: a typical four-bedroom home in a high-risk bushfire area (BAL code FZ) could cost $100,000 or more to rebuild in accordance with new building regulations, according to AAMI, and a standard policy may not cover these additional costs.

When choosing a home insurance policy that offers protection against bushfires, the devil is in the detail. Make sure you ask any questions and get clear on your policy inclusions, and arrange insurance as soon as possible, so you can get the best level of protection on offer.

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Sarah Megginson is a personal finance expert at Finder and regular media commentator, with over 20 years' experience in property and finance journalism. She holds ASIC RG146-compliant Tier 1 Generic Knowledge certification and as a mother of three, Sarah is passionate about helping the next generation understand how to earn, invest and manage money.