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Evaluating Australia's Fire-Zone Experiment


Australia is still recovering from bushfires that destroyed more than 2,000 homes. Some of those homes may not be rebuilt. The government of one Australian state has historically offered to purchase empty lots where fire has destroyed homes. The goal was to help people move to safer places. But NPR's Rebecca Hersher reports that there was this crucial flaw in how that policy was rolled out.

REBECCA HERSHER, BYLINE: Donna Wilson lights a cigarette and pulls her truck out of the parking lot at the real estate firm she manages in Kinglake, Victoria.

DONNA WILSON: Just give you a bit of a basic idea. From here down, all the houses went.

HERSHER: The houses went, as in went up in flames. On February 7, 2009, a bushfire destroyed a huge chunk of this town.

WILSON: This whole street pretty much went.

HERSHER: The flames moved so quickly that many people couldn't escape. One hundred seventy-three people died in a matter of hours, most of them in and around Kinglake. Thousands of homes were destroyed. Three days later, then then-Prime Minister Kevin Rudd addressed the Australian Parliament.


KEVIN RUDD: The 7 of February will become etched in our national memory as a day of disaster, of death and of mourning.

HERSHER: Black Saturday, as it came to be called, was Australia's most devastating modern bushfire event, five times more deadly than the country's most recent fires. And one of the questions that emerged afterward was whether all the houses that burned should be rebuilt. Maybe it was too dangerous. The solution was to try a set of policies that would give people a choice. You could either build a new house that was more fire-resistant or sell your land to the government and move somewhere else. Once land was sold to the government, a home could never be built on it again. It was an experiment. The assumption among policymakers was that the more traumatized the homeowner was by the fires, the more likely they would be to sell and relocate. And Donna Wilson says to some extent, that was true.

WILSON: It was a godsend for a lot of people.

HERSHER: Kinglake is a small town, so Wilson knew a lot of the people who were coming into her real estate office after the fires. And many of them were really struggling. Everything they owned was gone. Many of them had lost family or neighbors in the fire. So selling their land to the government and preventing anyone from living there again was both simple and reassuring.

WILSON: It was all emotional. They couldn't deal with it. You know, or they disliked that idea that no one would ever build on that block.

HERSHER: But as the so-called buyback scheme unfolded, it became clear that it wasn't working for everyone. A key problem was that it had taken almost two years for the government to commit to it. And in the meantime, a lot of people had already decided what to do, even people who had nearly died in the fires.

COMPUTER-GENERATED VOICE: Turn left on to Kookaburra Court. Then you will arrive at your destination.

HERSHER: On a 105-degree day in February of this year, NPR producer Meredith Rizzo and I drove the half hour from Kinglake down to Flowerdale, a town of about 600 people surrounded by tree-covered ridges. It's almost 11 years to the day since Black Saturday.


JOE MILBOURNE: G'day, ladies. How are you?

HERSHER: Hello. How are you?

MILBOURNE: Come in out of the heat.

HERSHER: I'm Rebecca.

RIZZO: Oh, thank you.

HERSHER: Seventy-year-old Joe Milbourne takes us into his new living room, which is right where his old living room used to be. In fact, on Black Saturday, Joe was sitting right here, reading when the power went out.

MILBOURNE: It was evening. And I looked over there to the window between the curtains. And it was a red stripe. And I thought, too early for a sunset. So I went out the front. And the sky was red.

HERSHER: Within an hour, his entire neighborhood was on fire. He remembers trying to get to his neighbor's house for help.

MILBOURNE: And I looked up. And this is the only time I thought I was going to die. The fire was about 8 feet away. And I thought, (vocalizing).

HERSHER: He and his neighbors and their grandchildren piled into two cars and drove through the smoke and flames to an empty field that had already burned. They watched as the fire devoured the ridges. Joe's house was gone. His fire insurance policy provided enough to build a new house. And he thought that was the only option available to him. So less than a year after the fire, he went for it.

MILBOURNE: I'd started building by the time they announced they're going to do the buyback. I missed out again. Story of my life.

HERSHER: By the time the government was ready to pay people like Joe for their land, he was already living in his new house.

MILBOURNE: If I'd known, I wouldn't have built this.

HERSHER: And in the decades since, the forest has regrown. The fire danger is high. Officials recognize that the delays in rolling out the buyback offer made it difficult for many people to use it. Craig Lapsley was Victoria's fire services commissioner after the 2009 blazes.

CRAIG LAPSLEY: The execution took forever, and it was extremely frustrating. People had to make decisions. So what do they do?

HERSHER: In the end, most people who had lost their homes on Black Saturday did not sell to the government. And many people rebuilt houses in places with very high fire risk. But Lapsley says he thinks that offering buybacks was a good idea, especially when that option was coupled with more stringent building standards. Those are lessons that other parts of Australia and the U.S. are looking to as they grapple with how to help people make safer decisions about where and how to live.

Rebecca Hersher, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF ABSOFACTO SONG, "PAPER CRANE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rebecca Hersher (she/her) is a reporter on NPR's Science Desk, where she reports on outbreaks, natural disasters, and environmental and health research. Since coming to NPR in 2011, she has covered the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, embedded with the Afghan army after the American combat mission ended, and reported on floods and hurricanes in the U.S. She's also reported on research about puppies. Before her work on the Science Desk, she was a producer for NPR's Weekend All Things Considered in Los Angeles.