A private bushfire shelter that meets rigorous safety standards can provide a temporary place of refuge for people from the immediate life threatening effects of bushfire.
You may decide to install a private bushfire shelter on your property for your family’s safety or as part of your decision to build a new home in a high bushfire risk area. However, extreme caution should be taken when considering including a private shelter in your bushfire plans.
Using a private shelter is not without risk; there is no guarantee it will save your life. It is not an alternative to leaving early and it should never be a stand-alone solution. It needs to form part of an overall bushfire plan.
What is a private bushfire shelter?
- Purpose built structure, for private use intended to provide temporary shelter for people from a bushfire event; protection from flames, radiant heat and smoke.
- These structures may be above or below ground, but are separate from a house.
- A private shelter may form part of a household’s ‘back up’ plan if the household’s primary bushfire plan has failed or is unable to be implemented.
- It may be too late to safely leave the area, or
- It is unlikely that you will be able to safely protect your home from a bushfire.
- A private bushfire bunker should not be used for purposes other than shelter – for instance, a store room, wine cellar or the like – as this may render the shelter unusable in the event of an emergency.
Design and construction
In Victoria there are design, siting and construction regulations for private bushfire shelters:
- They must comply with the Victorian Building Regulations 2006 (Regulations) and the National Construction Code (NCC) performance requirements.
- The Australian Building Codes Board (ABCB) Performance Standard for Private Bushfire Shelters provides guidance for shelter designers and builders to meet the NCC performance requirements. The Performance Standard can be viewed on the ABCB website.
The Performance Standard provides objectives around what needs to be considered and achieved when designing a shelter, but is not a guide for how to build one.
If planning to construct a non-accredited shelter, do not rely solely on information within the Performance Standard. You must seek professional advice from a registered building practitioner, such as a fire safety engineer or a structural engineer.
- You must obtain a building permit prior to construction as a part of the Regulations. Installation of a shelter without a valid building permit is illegal. Building permits can be obtained from your local council building department or from a private building surveyor.
- To comply with building permit requirements, the homeowner must either:
- buy a shelter which has been accredited by the Building Regulations Advisory Committee (BRAC) as meeting the Regulations. Accredited products include both in-ground and above-ground shelters
- apply to the Building Appeals Board (BAB) for a determination that the design of a non-accredited shelter complies with the Regulations, or
- obtain a certificate of compliance from a registered fire safety engineer who did not design the shelter, to satisfy a building surveyor that the non-accredited shelter meets the Regulations.
- In some instances, councils may also require a planning permit. It is important to check with your local council for permit requirements.
Siting, landscaping and use of your shelter
Technical standards for shelter construction are only one measure of a need for a comprehensive set of measures to counteract the effects of a bushfire. You must also ensure that:
- the shelter is sited (installation location) appropriately
- the shelter is properly equipped and maintained to ensure it is in optimal condition. An accredited shelter will come with a product manual including specifications around siting, operation and maintenance
- the surrounding space is managed to provide appropriate separation distance from fire hazards to improve safety when entering and exiting the shelter, before and after the passage of a fire front
- you are physically and mentally prepared to use a shelter during a fire.
Using a private bushfire shelter during a fire event must be considered and planned.
For further information, see the Private bushfire shelters in Victoria: A guide for siting, landscaping and use (pdf 691k) | Word version (doc 577k) to help you with planning and preparation around this shelter option for improved bushfire safety.
Physical and emotional preparation
Bushfires are frightening and stressful. Understanding what to expect and being well-planned and confident about what you will do can help you to cope.
Preparing yourself mentally is very important. In a bushfire you will need to stay focused and make critical decisions under stress. Understand how you can prepare yourself psychologically for an emergency situation.
The first and vitally important part of psychological preparation for a bushfire event is to be physically prepared with a bushfire plan that everyone in your household understands.
Leaving early is always the safest option
On hot, dry windy days, especially on Code Red Fire Danger Rating days, leaving the area early before there is any chance of fire activity, including along your travel path is always the safest option. Do not wait and see.
Know your trigger to leave - make a decision about when you will leave, where you will go, how you will get there, when you will return and what you will do if you cannot leave.
- Children, the elderly, people with respiratory or cardiovascular illness, or those with special needs should be well away from the threat, where possible. Leaving the area at risk early is always the safest option.
- Everyone should have a Bushfire Plan and should practise it.
- A private shelter should only be incorporated within your bushfire plan, as a backup plan, if it is no longer safe to leave the area and you are faced with imminent impact from fire.