An extraordinary number of fires with catastrophic ferocity have been raging on the East Coast of Australia all through New South Wales and Queensland.

This is the first time since new fire danger ratings were introduced in 2009 that catastrophic fire danger has been forecast for Sydney. Rural fire chief Shane Fitzsimmons explained this as the situation, “where people die” and has predicted “the most dangerous bushfire week this nation has ever seen”. On 11 Nov, Premier Gladys Berejiklian  declared a seven-day state of emergency for NSW.

The Insurance Council of Australia (ICA) has declared a Catastrophe for the bushfires blazing in northern New South Wales. The Australian Financial Complaints Authority (AFCA) has activated its significant event response plan following the events being declared a catastrophe by the ICA. The significant event response plan is activated for events that can potentially result in significant numbers of related complaints coming to AFCA. It provides for early communication with relevant stakeholders and a more streamlined, expedited process for the resolution of related complaints.

Insurance Council Head of Risk and Operations Karl Sullivan said insurers were initiating their disaster response by mobilising teams of assessors and claims specialists.

“Insurers will be poised to move into these communities once emergency services declare it safe to do so,” he said. “I urge property owners to do the same — do not return to your home until you are told it is safe. These fires are still raging in many areas and have already caused the loss of life. The safety of people is paramount.”

“The Catastrophe declaration means claims from these bushfires will be prioritised by all insurers, and they will be focusing on reducing the immense emotional and financial stress experienced by residents and businesses,” Sullivan said.

Under the Catastrophe declaration the ICA has:

  • Activated its disaster hotline – 1800 734 621 to assist policyholders if they are uncertain of their insurance details, or have general inquiries about the claims process. Community members can also make inquiries via www.disasters.org.au
  • Mobilised Insurance Council disaster recovery specialists to support affected property owners and local community groups
  • Established an industry taskforce to identify and address issues that arise

Worsening bushfire conditions are expected over the coming week, including anticipated catastrophic conditions in the Greater Sydney and Greater Hunter areas, and the potential for significant existing bushfire activity to be exacerbated in Northern NSW, and the North and Mid North Coast.

The State of Emergency declaration, the first since October 2013, allows powers to be transferred from the NSW Government to the RFS Commissioner. These powers include the ability to:

  • Direct any government agency to conduct or refrain from conducting its functions;
  • Control and coordinate the allocation of government resources;
  • Evacuate people from property within the declared area;
  • Close roads and thoroughfares to traffic;
  • Pull down or shore up infrastructure at risk of collapse;
  • Order the shutdown of essential utilities in the declared area including electricity, gas, oil and water; and
  • Enter or take possession of property in the course of the emergency response.

This is the fourth bushfire Catastrophe declared this year.

In October, the Rappville bushfire resulted in 200 claims with insured losses estimated at $25 million. In September, insurers received 300 claims from fires in northern NSW and south-east Queensland, with $20 million in insured losses. In March, the Bunyip bushfires in eastern Victoria caused losses of $31.9 million, with 432 claims received.

The first Catastrophe for the year was declared in February for damage to Townsville and surrounding regions following a monsoonal downpour. Insurers received more than 30,000 claims with losses of $1.3 billion.