On the hot January day in 2013 when a catastrophic fire tore through the town of Dunalley, Carolyn Daly wasn't expecting to have to evacuate.
Her well-prepared two-acre family property was located in the centre of town, and it wasn't in a recognised fire zone. But, along with most of her community, Carolyn was forced to flee.
What was lost
While Carolyn's home survived, everything else on her property had been destroyed—six outbuildings (and everything they contained), fencing, vehicles, an apricot orchard, and mature trees and gardens that had provided important privacy and shelter for Carolyn's home. Without quick action by water bombing helicopters, the house would have been ashes as well.
What was covered
Thankfully, Carolyn was insured. Sheds, vehicles, and listed contents were covered, along with 50% of the replacement cost of fencing (with neighbouring properties liable for the remaining 50%). Some of the items covered surprised Carolyn—like cleaning her smoke-damaged curtains, and replacing damaged wiring that connected the water pump to the dam, including moving it underground.
What wasn't covered
While Carolyn had a positive experience with her insurer, not everything was covered under her policy—including a trailer parked in the yard that would actually have been covered if it had been in a shed or attached to a vehicle.
Listing all the items stored in the sheds was challenging, and months down the track, Carolyn was still remembering things she hadn't included in her claim. The water bombing that saved her home eventually caused rust in the roof and Carolyn is now investigating whether this is covered under her policy.
Some losses couldn't be replaced by insurance—such as the lost trees and hedges that meant her home was now completely exposed. When it came to fencing, Carolyn felt she couldn't approach neighbours who had lost everything, and ask them for 50% of the cost of her fencing, so she covered the shortfall herself.
Carolyn and her volunteer firefighter husband didn't think their property was at any particular risk of bushfire. Her experience has taught her not to assume that you're not at risk.
It also taught her how under-insured she was. Her advice to anyone taking out insurance is to think of every item in your home and imagine how much it would cost to replace—from soft furnishings to phones, computer equipment to jewellery. It's critical to include everything on your contents insurance policy.
Carolyn was deeply involved in the post-fire recovery process within her community, and she observed first-hand the impact of the fire on her neighbours. Some residents were uninsured, others had positive experiences with their insurers, and others found managing their insurance claim to be one of the most stressful parts of their experience.
Some people didn't understand what they were covered for, and others discovered their policy didn't cover everything they thought it would. For many people, understanding the technicalities of their insurance policy, trying to remember what they had and what they lost, and having to make important decisions in the aftermath of the fire added to the trauma they'd already experienced.
The impact of the Dunalley fire is still being felt, years down the track. Carolyn describes it as 'a six-year hiccup'. Because her own experience was positive, Carolyn has stayed with her insurance company—and has now increased her contents insurance.
Her advice for anyone who wants to make sure they're prepared for a natural disaster is:
- Make sure you have more than one plan—for example, if your plan is to evacuate, what's your Plan B if leaving becomes impossible?
- Think about the things you'll need after the disaster has happened—policy documents, paperwork, identification, banking information—and make sure they're accessible if you have to grab and run. Precious things are important, but practical things will make your life much easier down the track.
- Choose a reputable insurance company—cheaper premiums may not be worth it in the long run.
- List all your contents in detail and make sure they're included in your policy.
- Be proactive when taking out insurance. Make sure you understand your policy, and if you don't, ask specific questions, such as: 'If a bushfire happens, and I lose my house, what will my insurance cover? What won't it cover?'