Guest blogger Hayley Stone, co-ordinator of the Eastern Area Tenants' Service and volunteer with the Rural Fire Service in the Blue Mountains, gives us some general guidance on getting your rental property prepared for bushfires.
As a renter, it’s easy to feel very overwhelmed when you live in a bushfire prone area. While you might read and hear about ways to reduce bushfire risk to your home, the information is usually aimed at property owners who can do things like install gutter guards, put sprinklers on roofs and other types of housing improvement to minimise the risk of fire damage. Hell, as a tenant, you can often struggle to get even basic maintenance done like trimming overhanging branches. Some landlords are proactive about bushfire safety, but many aren’t. So what can you do?
There is no explicit reference in the Residential Tenancies Act 2010 (the Act) to bushfire safety, however the landlord does have a general responsibility to provide the premises in a state that is fit for habitation and to repair and maintain a premises, and to comply with statutory obligations relating to the safety of the premises. In theory (because it’s yet to be tested) some elements of bushfire safety may fall under these categories.
For instance, if the landlord has piles of flammable debris in the backyard or allows trees to grow over the premises and their leaves constantly block the gutter, it may be possible to argue that the landlord is failing to maintain the yard and require they remove or prune trees. You can also request they repair damaged or missing tiles on the roof, and repair or cover gaps in external walls. This is maintenance recommended by the NSW Rural Fire Service to prepare your home to survive a bushfire. If they refuse to take act to address these issues you can seek orders at the NSW Civil and Administrative Tribunal.
When considering a landlord’s obligations under the Act, a key element in providing and maintaining the property is that the landlord take “reasonable” steps. It is not unreasonable to suppose a landlord might be held to a high standard in a bushfire prone area, and certainly, if a tenant knew they were in a high risk area and there were repairs or maintenance that needed to be done this could be something they could highlight. However it’s doubtful this would extend to major improvements to the premises such as sprinkler systems on the roof or static water tanks. You should check with your local Council if there are any requirements for property owners (including your landlord) in high risk areas to do more to protect homes from bushfires under the Planning for Bushfire Protection (PBP) 2019.
Even with an uncooperative landlord, there are a number of things that you can do immediately that will help to reduce risk. Keeping lawns mowed, raking up leaves and debris and disposing of it in your green waste bin are a few small things you can do. You can make sure you have sufficient hoses to cover the entire yard - front and back- and can remove items that are flammable from around the outside of your house: think door mats, plastic plant pots and outdoor furniture. Gas bottles should be stored as far away from the house as possible with the outlet pointing away from the house, same as woodpiles and other flammable materials. Make sure you keep all gutters clear if you have easy access to them. If it’s not safe, then you could ask your landlord to have someone clear them for you as part of the maintenance of the property. If your premises has an open underfloor area ensure that it is clear and not filled with flammable debris.
You can find out plenty of information about ways to better protect properties against bushfire in the Plan and Prepare section of the RFS website - https://www.rfs.nsw.gov.au/plan-and-prepare. The website also can help you to identify your risk level -https://www.rfs.nsw.gov.au/plan-and-prepare/know-your-risk. You can also do your bushfire survival plan here - https://www.rfs.nsw.gov.au/plan-and-prepare/bush-fire-survival-plan.
You should not rely on your landlord to ensure that your goods are protected. Seriously consider getting tenants’ insurance- there is even insurance specifically for fire and theft. Chances are if the worst happens, and your premises does get damaged by fire, it will be considered frustration of the agreement, and you will not be able to claim compensation from your landlord for any goods you lose (though you should stop being liable for rent – have a look at the Tenants’ Union’s factsheet on disaster damage for more info about your rights in this situation).
As it’s still early on in what has been a very dry and hot summer so far, it’s hard to believe that there will not be more instances of fire impacting properties over the coming weeks. Tenants have less options, admittedly, in terms of protecting the properties they live in (and most importantly their goods within them) but maybe landlords are thinking more about these things. Now might be a good time to raise any concerns you may have as a tenant with your rental property and getting it bushfire ready.
Some good sources of information about evacuations and fire safety planning: