Black Summer: a bushfire season like no other

The year 2020 is being described around the world as ‘a year like no other’, marked by crisis and unprecedented change, uncertainty and challenge. But we could say Australia’s 2020 started in 2019.

This time last year, we were already months into what would become known as ‘Black Summer’ and prove to be one of Australia’s most devastating bushfire seasons on record.

The loss of life and properties, and the impact on our communities across the country is heartbreaking.

Between September 2019 and January 2020, IAG’s businesses received more than 12,700 claims nationally, across all our brands. Our Major Event team is dedicated to supporting customers impacted by severe storms and natural disasters all year round and the team immediately swung into action. Given the scale of the bushfires, we had all hands-on-deck immediately, doing everything we could to ensure our customers were safe and help them begin their recovery. We have now finalised 95% of the bushfire claims, including 100% of all agreed total loss claims.

IAG Executive General Manager, Short Tail Claims, Luke Gallagher, who has been at IAG for more than 25 years and seen many bushfire seasons, said: “When we visited some of the bushfire affected communities in November last year and January this year, hearing the stories of what our customers had been through was humbling, devastating and often overwhelming.

“But I was reassured by the knowledge that we had incredibly dedicated people working hard to ensure our customers in communities all over Australia were safe, supported and could get back on their feet as quickly as possible.”

Supporting our customers on (and off) the ground

IAG has a dedicated Major Event team, which means we’re ready to respond and be where our customers need us when disasters strike. So, when the fires started last year, our assessors were on the ground as soon as it was safe to do so and we had teams deployed to recovery centres across all the affected states, working alongside our local teams.

In the hard-hit town of Cobargo on the New South Wales (NSW) South Coast, we deployed our Major Event Rapid Response Vehicle (MERRV) to provide emergency assistance and help people lodge claims.

“I know many of our people were brought to tears hearing the experiences customers shared with them, people who were lucky to escape the fires, but also put their own lives in danger to rescue their neighbours. I was just continually amazed at the resilience and empathy our teams on the frontline showed towards our customers during a very difficult time,” Luke said.

In the South Coast region alone, our people were on the ground supporting customers for seven consecutive weeks.

In January 2020 – in an Australian first – the NRMA Insurance helicopter sprayed Fire Limit fire retardant directly onto homes and buildings in the line of fire, saving three homes on the NSW South Coast that were considered undefendable given how severe the conditions were on the day.

The NRMA Insurance helicopter flew 410 hours in just over three months, fighting bushfires in Turramurra, Cessnock, Gospers Mountain, the South Coast and the Snowy Mountains. And it will be back in the air for the 2020/21 season.

Ensuring continued support during the pandemic

When the impacts of COVID-19 escalated in January, we quickly established a dedicated team empowered with a high degree of discretion to help our customers who were experiencing financial stress. We allocated extra resources to ensure the crisis did not delay the processing of claims for our bushfire-affected customers.

Our partner builders continued to repair the homes of our bushfire-affected customers throughout the pandemic, implementing processes to ensure they complied with measures to protect against COVID-19 without disrupting building and repairs.

Understanding the severe weather behind Black Summer

Australia is no stranger to catastrophic bushfires. But the sheer scale, longevity and devastation caused by the Black Summer fires set these apart from past disasters.

The fires destroyed more than 24 million hectares of bushland, claimed 33 lives and killed or displaced nearly three billion animals. The thick smoke that blanketed eastern Australia for months and turned the sky red and orange with haze, contributed to further deaths.

Over just two months, from November to December 2019, there were seven separate bushfires across Queensland, NSW, Victoria and South Australia, that were each large enough for the Insurance Council of Australia (ICA) to declare them a catastrophe. According to our data and the ICA’s records, that’s an unprecedented number of bushfire related catastrophes in such a short time span.

Our Natural Perils team believe the extreme weather conditions that led to the fires were truly unprecedented. For more than six months before the fires started, large parts of Australia had experienced prolonged, severe drought combined with record high temperatures. Before last year, the two most damaging and deadly bushfire seasons were the Ash Wednesday fires (in south-eastern Australia in February 1983) and the Black Saturday fires (in Victoria in February 2009). Not only were the Black Summer weather conditions more extreme than those recorded before Ash Wednesday and Black Saturday, they were the most extreme weather conditions recorded for any bushfire season for which weather records are available.

Helping Australians prepare for future bushfires

The latest scientific data and analysis indicates that bushfire seasons are getting longer and the number of catastrophic bushfire events is increasing. So, we recently released two fact sheets to help Australians understand the bushfire risks they face and how they can prepare for future bushfire seasons.

Now it’s summer and we’re all on alert for bushfires, it’s particularly important that residents in bushfire zones create a Fire Plan that outlines how they will prepare their home for bushfires and their strategy for when a fire hits, including when and how to evacuate.

We have also teamed up with NSW Rural Fire Service, NSW State Emergency Service and The Australian Red Cross to launch the NRMA Insurance First Saturday campaign. Through the campaign, we encourage Australians to set aside one weekend a month to complete small tasks to make their homes safer and help protect against natural disasters, including bushfires.


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