Western Australia: Improving mitigation

How prescribed burning is making its (successful) mark

There’s been much debate in the news lately following the extensive bushfires in NSW and Victoria this summer of 2019/2020.

It would appear from examining the context of the fires that prescribed burning and other mitigation actions are not used to the same extent as has been happening in Western Australia for the past several decades or so.

Fire scientists have been very active in researching the causes and the management of bushfires and have published the results. Whilst the forests in south west WA are endemic to the area, the general principles discovered in the WA research can, with adjustments for different fire regimes, be applied in other bushfire prone areas of Australia.

Two of these bushfire researchers recently wrote the following essay which explains why we need to carry out prescribed burning wherever we have forests and woodlands. The authors are Neil Burrows and Rick Sneeuwjagt and here is their essay. A must-read.

Neil Burrows makes the keynote presentation at the AFAC Conference held in Perth in September 2018.

Out of frustration Rick and I have written the piece below to counter some of the nonsense that is circulating from people who have no understanding or practical experience with fire behaviour, prescribed burning and bushfire suppression. Between us, Rick and I have more than 80 years experience in bushfire science, policy, planning, prescribed burning and fire suppression. The piece is lengthy but its a complex issue.

How and why prescribed burning mitigates bushfire losses

Neil Burrows and Rick Sneeuwjagt

The piece by Byron Lamont and Tianhua He titled “Why prescribed burns don’t stop wildfires” (WAToday 22 January 2020) is complete fiction. It reveals that these authors have no experience or operational understanding of fire behaviour, prescribed burning and bushfire suppression. Their baseless and inhumane opinions, if given any credibility, will give rise to very dangerous fire management policies, a continuation of a cycle of devastating bushfires and further losses of lives and beautiful forests.
The title of their article is a clue to their lack of understanding. Prescribed burning is not designed to stop bushfires. It is designed to make them easier, safer and cheaper to suppress. Experienced land managers, fire fighters, and the bushfire scientists who work closely with them, are in no doubt that the scientific, experiential and historical evidence demonstrates that prescribed burning, done properly, is highly effective at mitigating the bushfire threat, even under severe weather conditions. This is based on the following evidence.
Firstly, fire science. Reducing fuel loads and simplifying fuel structures by regular burning reduces the speed of a bushfire, its intensity (heat energy output), the size of the flames and its ember and spotting potential. All of this makes bushfires less damaging and easier to put out. In mature forests, crown fires cannot be sustained if the surface and near surface fuels are at low levels as a result of regular fuel reduction burning.

Lamont and He make the extraordinary assertion that long unburnt forest fuels are of low flammability and therefore of no significant threat to communities. This is not only demonstrably untrue, it is dangerously wrong. For example, in long unburnt karri forest, much of the live, green understorey dies and becomes dead, dry fuel on the forest floor after about 25-30 years. Bushfires are most likely to occur well before that time. Dead scrub, together with accumulated dead leaves, twigs and bark, the surface and aerated near-surface fuels can be a meter or more deep with total fuel loads of up to 50 tonnes per hectare. In dryer stringybark forests, the sparser, lower understorey vegetation comprises a small component of the total fuel complex. It is the accumulation of dead fuels (leaves, twigs, branchlets, bark) that drives forest fires. This is because it is at the base of the ‘fuel ladder’, it is dry, and it reaches very high loadings if left unburnt.

Second, real-world experience. We know of hundreds of examples where prescribed burning has ‘saved the day’

. Hot fires ran into areas of low fuel, and the resulting reduced fire behaviour enabled fire fighters to gain the upper hand. Conversely, we can cite numerous recent examples where a lack of prescribed burning has resulted in unstoppable fires and considerable losses. Ask any fire fighter whether they would rather fight a bushfire in 4 year old fuels or in 40 year old fuels? We know what the answer will be. Academics like Lamont and He disdain the experience of bushmen and experienced firefighters, preferring computer models developed on a green, leafy campus. In doing so they reject the experience of real-world Australians and their experience over the last 200 years.

Third, history. There are almost 60 years of historical data from the forests of south west WA, and these data unequivocally show that when the area of prescribed burning trends down, the area burnt by bushfire trends up. There is a simple explanation: bushfires are more difficult to put out in heavy fuels. The area burnt by wildfire escalates rapidly when the area of prescribed burning in a region falls below about 8% per annum. Burning about 8% per annum results in about 40% of the bushland carrying fuels 0-5 years old.

A very powerful factor in the recent bushfire tragedies in NSW is the fact that prescribed burning in NSW has amounted to less than 2% per annum. This means only 10% of the bushland is carrying fuels 0-5 years old and 80% is carrying fuels older than 10 years. This is well below the threshold for effective bushfire mitigation because a high proportion of the region is carrying very old, heavy, flammable fuels. Fires in these fuels rapidly become unstoppable, especially when they have been dried out by years of drought.

Finally, strategic planning. To be effective, prescribed burning must also be strategic – that is, done in the right places to protect communities by intercepting fire runs under the worst fire weather conditions. The fire management cells need to be large enough to ensure a sufficient area for the spread of a bushfire to be slowed and controlled. Burns must be bounded by roads or tracks to enable rapid access by fire fighters. Burning must be done to appropriate standards of fuel removal and fire intensity. Prescribed burns that are too patchy may not slow a bushfire, and in some forests, burns that are too hot can stimulate the regeneration of dense scrub.

Prescribed burning – how and why it works
The purpose of a fuel reduction burning program is not to stop bushfires, but to assist with their safe suppression. The process of bushfire suppression is complex and dynamic. There are a variety of suppression strategies and tactics that can be used in space and time, depending on weather conditions, fuels, topography, fire behaviour, fire shape and fire position in the landscape, and fire intensity around the fire’s perimeter.
Fire fighters rarely make a direct attack on the head fire – it’s usually too ‘hot’. Instead, they implement other strategies including a variety of direct, indirect and parallel attacks – the options, and likelihood of early success, are greater if the fire is burning slower and at a lower intensity because it’s burning in young, light fuels. Appliances such as water bombers will be more effective on slower moving, lower intensity fires. Fire intensity varies around the fire’s perimeter, affording suppression opportunities – there will almost always be a place on the fire’s perimeter that can be attacked – even under severe fire weather conditions – and if fuel loads are low, this opportunity widens significantly.
The most trying bushfire situation occurs when there is wind shift and the long flank of the fire becomes a wide head fire. Therefore, containment work on the ‘pressure flank’ is critical and is more likely to succeed in young, low fuel situations when flank fire intensity is relatively low, even under severe weather conditions.

If part of the fire is burning in very light fuels as a result of prescribed burning, then if resources are stretched, it can be ignored and resources deployed to higher priority areas around the fire perimeter, or to defending properties, or dispatched to other fires in a multiple fire situation.

Prescribed burning provides ‘anchor points’ and ‘tie in’ points for fire fighters. These low fuel areas are very important for indirect suppression strategies including back burning. Attempting to back burn in old, heavy fuels against old, heavy fuels is a slow, resources demanding, dangerous and risky process. Back burning in young, light fuels surrounded by young, light fuels is much safer, more likely to be successful and requires less resources. Low fuel areas are also very important for ‘tying in’ containment lines, enabling faster, more efficient suppression. The speed of construction of containment lines is crucial in the battle against a growing fire. Fire suppression is a race in terms of rate of fireline construction and containment verses rate of perimeter growth of the bushfire. Fires burn slower in younger, lighter fuels, not only improving the likelihood of early detection and suppression, but increasing the odds of fire fighters getting the upper hand.

Severe fire weather fire weather conditions don’t last very long in the life cycle of a bushfire – when diurnal fire weather conditions ease (and they always do at some point), and if the fire is burning in young, light fuels, there is a larger window of opportunity for safe suppression, than if it’s burning in old, heavy fuels.

There are two other critical ways in which fuel reduction programs assist with bushcontrol. The first is that it allows fires to be suppressed in the lead-up days to extreme conditions. Firefighters are nearly always overwhelmed when ‘catastrophic’ conditions (i.e.hot, dry, windy weather) strike fires that are already burning in the landscape. The presence of low fuel areas makes it more likely that these fires can be controlled before the catastrophic conditions occur.

The second is that when there are multiple fires on the same day, as occurred during the Cyclone Alby crisis in WA in 1978, fire controllers can set up a “triage” response. Fires burning in 1 or 2 year old fuel can be temporarily ignored, while all the focus is placed on the most threatening fires. This allows the best use to be made of resources.

Regardless of fire weather conditions, to firefighters, fuel load matters. It directly affects fire intensity (heat energy output) around the fire’s perimeter, and the size of the suppression windows in space and time. Also, containment line break outs such as hop overs and spot fires, are much easier to control in light fuels than in heavy fuels.

The fuel load burning behind the flame zone, which is greater in older fuels, is critical for suppression difficulty because total heat output acts in a number of ways. It is an input to convection which increases wind speeds in the flame zone, boosting spotting and fire behaviour. It increases the likelihood of high energy release rates and deep flaming, conditions that can trigger a transition to a dangerous and unpredictable plume-driven fire. It increases the likelihood of re-ignition and breaching of the containment line by burning across it or by blown embers or by hop-overs. Radiation from glowing combustion adds to the heat load on firefighters and increases the time that the burnt ground can be used for safe refuge. It substantially decreases the effectiveness of water and other suppressants /retardants applied from the ground or from the air. Heavy fuel also hinders fire line construction and in some fuels make it impractical.

Of the elements that make up the bushfire triangle – fuel, weather and topography – only fuel can be managed. But this must be done the right way – underpinned by good science, well planned and well executed by trained, experienced people who are well resourced. Prescribed burning is costly and comes with an element of risk, but the alternative, a cycle of bushfires, is far more costly to communities and the environment.

Conclusion:

The article by Lamont and He in WAToday is not only factually incorrect, it is dangerous and inhumane. If the authorities were to take any notice of their assertions, and curtail the fuel reduction program, the result in WA would be identical to that currently occurring in NSW: death, destruction, heartbreak. Our advice to Lamont and He is to get some actual fire experience in the bush, get on the back of a fire truck, and then lets see what they think about the value of fuel reduction in assisting with bushfire control.

Neil Burrows sums up the pros and cons of prescribed burning at the 2018 AFAC Conference.

Make a difference

Little things count as to whether your house burns or not

With the hot weather coming in a few short weeks it is time to check over the house and our surrounds, including our gardens (if we have them), to ensure they are at low risk of catching alight.

In view of the need for helping residents to be at lower risk from bushfires, back in March 2019, a group of us with the support of Senator Linda Reynolds and Member for Forrest MP, Nola Marino, decided to conduct an event that would help residents in bushfire-prone areas making themselves and their properties safer.

On Sunday 1 May 2019 we had a morning Firewise Excursion. We were delighted that Mrs Nola Marino was able to attend and contribute to the discussion. We started with a scene-setting exercise of exploring the differing facets of bushfire in the South West: its high frequency, how to prevent embers from entering into roof spaces, etc. We used a series of seven posters each of which highlighted an aspect of the problem.  Here is a link to the Gardens0fFire_series Poster exhibition which drew on the rather sombre book by Robert Kenny who had his house destroyed in the Victorian Bushfires of 2009.

The Excursion was named as being “Firewise“. This is derived from a program of this name developed in the US by the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA).  House and garden design that aims to reduce bushfire risk is crucial as is re-engineering existing houses and gardens to protect against ember attack and, occasionally, direct flame contact.

The Firewise concept was developed out of the research work of wildfire scientist, Dr Jack Cohen, who studied the aftermath of many wildfires and in particular the way a house will burn down. Contrary to popular belief it is not a great wall of flame, rather it is the embers getting into nooks and crannies around a house, including vents, and smouldering then erupting into flames and burning the house down from the inside. He stresses the need for defensible space near the house which is kept at very low fuel levels to ensure embers are not created there, there is nothing to burn and there is little chance of direct flame attack.

The scene setting exercise was useful as it stimulated a lively discussion about the many different aspect of what can be done by residents and fire authorities to make everyone safer.

We had short summary papers which contain online links to further information.  These are: Firewise excursion Intro and Firewise excursion Parkland.

We then had a break in the weather and were able to see Yarri Park as an example of Parkland Cleared.  See the “before” image, below.

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Yarri Park.The large trees are a eucalypt, Eucalyptus patens, or Yarri which grow only in favoured spots in the South West – high rainfall and deep soils – such as here in Balingup. This is the “before picture” showing high buildup of understory which when dried out becomes a bushfire risk. 

Here is the Park after a full week of activity to clean out much of the understory, make the Park easier to walk through and to maintain as well as being at a lower risk of bushfire to surrounding neighbours.

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The “after picture” showing Parkland Cleared result.

We then headed out to an attractive property which used to be Birdwood Park near Balingup townsite which is a good example of a property being made to be at low risk of bushfire attack. Considerable quantities of vegetation were removed and any trees near the house were usually deciduous or were at the low end of the flammability scale, eg Indian Hawthorn, Raphiolepis indica, and Coprosma or Mirror Bush.

Then the next front came through and we dashed back to the Fire Shed or headed home.

Some more ideas about Firewise_Property_Design_Sep19 are contained in this document. There are links to further material in this to follow up should you want to know more.

Even removing the layer of mulch that you spread carefully in that garden bed next to the house could make you safer. It would mean that embers would fall on bare ground instead of potential fuel. A few small changes like this could make the difference.

Wattles are worse*

Wattles are often added to a property to provide shade and possibly firewood for later. Whilst the smaller shrubby ones are easy to remove when they become scraggly and start to die back, the larger trees such as Cedar Wattles, Black Wattles and Blackwood Wattles cause a whole lot of problems as they age.

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Overall scene showing the fallen trunk of a Cedar Wattle which fell across the path to the hillside. It damaged the fence, pushed a strainer post and crushed a young Tupelo tree near the stream. In the centre of the image to the rear is a wattle in flower that shows a scar on its trunk where a large lateral branch fell off and struck the Cedar Wattle some months ago. This has subsequently fallen on Tuesday 28 August 2018

After perhaps twenty or thirty years of growth they become large trees which then will drop limbs, split or fall over entirely, damaging everything in their path.  By this time they are large trees and are costly to remove. Thus many owners are stuck in a dilemma; the ageing wattles will become more dangerous, but it is very expensive to remove them.

Here is a video taken earlier this year before the Cedar Wattle came down.

The trunk of the Cedar Wattle that fell is just behind the large post in the fence shown at the beginning.

The Cedar Wattle becomes brittle with age and branches split, but may not come away entirely.

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The remaining trunk of the Cedar Wattle has side branches which have split (see example near top of image). The tree has become dangerous as branches or the whole tree have become unsound. Note to the left a dead branch from another tree is suspended in the branches which could fall at any time.

The following video shows more of the ageing wattles and what can happen to them and anything in the way.

One less wattle, several more to go though hopefully in a more controlled way.

The moral of the story is not to plant them in the first place or only as quick screening to be taken out when small because they are not only a hazard with falling branches or the like, they also drop litter – leaves, twigs, pods – which add to the litter layer, being highly flammable, and will aid the spreading of bushfire in summer.

*The title has a little to do with alliteration, but it sums up some of the features of the larger wattles (acacias) which do not suit them for being near structures, not just homes but also near fences or bridges, etc.

 

Stream tales

Midsummer blues (or browns)

Since October last year I have been concerned about the new dams built upstream from us in Grimwade Road, Balingup. It was apparent that there were changes to the way the stream flowed as it left the property on which the dams were built and made its way to the properties below, including mine which I call Montaza.

The rate of flow in the watercourse at my place was considerably less than in previous years at the same time of year and there was a lower response to the smaller rainfall events probably because the dam water levels would need to reach a certain height before the water spilled over.

I decided to document the changes with that useful tool, the iPhone. The resolution is better than the digital camera I bought several years ago and the images transfer automatically to my computer.  Easy!

Here are a couple of sample records of the health of the watercourse in January this year, 2018.

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This image taken on 10 January 2018 shows part of the lower pond at my place, Montaza. It’s of a bay in the stream not quite on the main channel. Here the water has become stagnant because of the very low rate of flow. Leaves are almost stationary on the surface, scum has formed and bubbles suggesting lack of oxygen are on the surface. It looks very  off-putting. This is unprecedented since I bought the property in 2006.

The video of the lower pond was taken on the same day and shows just how unattractive the stream had become with its stagnant, slow moving current that allows debris to build up. A faster rate of flow would improve oxygenation and carry away surface material.

Over the entire warmer weather months we experienced the side-effects of the lower rates of flow, ie scum build up, high sediment levels and other forms of pollution.

Heavy rain brought some relief. There were several occasions when water was released suddenly because heavy rain was forecast and there were possibly concerns about the dam walls breaching. Some of this water may have been from the bottom of the dams which would be low in oxygen with rotting vegetation.

In the early hours of 25 May we received heavy rain and with the cooler weather the rate of flow increased. Cooler water temperatures also meant that algal blooms were reduced and the clarity of the water improved. Will there be an improvement in water conditions by next October when the warmer conditions return? We don’t know.

Most of the powers-that-be seem unable or unwilling to assist. Shire, state government agencies, politicians and other bodies have all been approached, but we’re still short of a solution.

All in all an unsatisfactory situation especially as there seems to be no way of achieving a round-table discussion with all parties, nor having anything like a management plan in place between us downstream landowners and the owners of the dams property.

Footnote: The banner photo at top is of the stream at Montaza taken in July 2006. I call the area near the handrail and steps up the hill The Knoll. Rhododendrons are now planted there. It had been very cold that year and some plants were damaged by frost. The steps are still in place and the handrail is about to be restored. Although we had very late rains that year, the stream was still flowing, clear and healthy.

House for sale – location, location

Retro-styled house in town with views.

The house is for sale from Ray White in Balingup, 9764 1139 or 0429 976 412.

Ray White Balingup

The price is $375,000. The house has been fully renovated to high quality standards. It was intended that it be the eventual home for the owners, but who have now decided not to move from their current property, a little out of town.

The house is ready to move into. There is scope for a wing, perhaps a pavilion, to be added.

The location is excellent. A place in the country but with up to date amenities, walking distance of the coffee shops, a quiet spot and magnificent views to the hills.

North-facing it is sited to be sheltered from the cold, winter winds from the south east and to make the most of the winter sun.

It is handy to the South Western Highway which from here is a two and a half hour drive to Perth.

It has two bedrooms and a compact ‘den’ that could be an office or study. There is a garage and the opportunity and space to build an additional garage or shed.

The house has a new roof, gutters, exterior walls with insulation, new bathroom and laundry wing, polished jarrah boards, new lights, painted throughout.  Fine furniture maker of Bridgetown, Glen Holst, has made the benches for the kitchen, laundry and bathroom.

Extensive outside hard landscaping with back courtyard created and a terraced back area west of the house. New septic tanks and long leach drains that look as though they could service a small hotel. New air conditioning and wood heater in lounge plus a Metters stove in the kitchen, and a new gas stove and dish washer.

All on a block of 2431sqm i.e. over half an acre in the old language. The block goes down a slope to the winter creek that enters the Balingup Brook.

There is excellent Mobile coverage as the tower is in sight about 1.5 km away. NBN can be readily connected via Fixed Wireless Broadband which would receive signals from the same tower.

Here is the house in the context of its surroundings.

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The house at 8 Roberts Street in Balingup was originally built for the Town Clerk of the Balingup Roads Board in the mid-20th Century. It is of fibro-timber construction with high ceilings and jarrah floors.

The town centre with its coffee shops is only some 200m away. The Balingup General Store is literally around the corner. Whilst the South Western Highway is only about 100m away, the house is well screened from view and the sound of traffic is muted.

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A large Mediterranean Oak on the verge provides summer shade to the back courtyard in the morning. The tree loses its leaves in winter.

 

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St Peter’s is a charming old church that is still being used by a small congregation. In the foreground is a Western Power pillar. Power was put underground from across the road a few years ago.

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Here are the front steps up to the veranda which has jarrah floorboards. It has magnificent views to the countryside. The veranda is well-positioned to catch the winter sun.

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From the front there is another path to the back courtyard.

Here are scenes from the interior of the house: the lounge, bedrooms, kitchen and bathroom.

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The bathroom and laundry are new having been built as a new wing. The heat exchange type of HWS is shown here next to the bathroom. There are two toilets, one in the bathroom and another separate one off the laundry.

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The veranda has views to the Park and to the north and west.

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From the veranda looking to the north.

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North of the house and down the hill is the Balingup Town Hall. There are sweeping views from the house to the hills north and west of the town. Note the mobile tower toward the top left on the horizon.

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From the front lawn looking west taken in late May 2018 with a pear tree in full autumn colour. Behind the small sheds there is a 23,000l tank set up to collect rainwater and provide water for a reticulation system. A controller and solenoids are in place. There is power to the pump at the tank which also has a standpipe for firefighting purposes. The sheds have seen better days but handy for storing wood or could be replaced with something more substantial.

A dam story in pictures

(Two dams in actuality)

On a 4.4Ha block alongside a country road this wetland and watercourse was changed to construct two dams.

There is a certain amount of consternation from downstream residents as to the effects that these dams may have on the watercourse that used to flow freely through the block. It has now been dammed across with water now being released from the dams to be fed downstream through this culvert pipe.

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The main culvert pipe (outside the property with the dams) that delivers most of the water into the watercourse that runs through residents’ properties downstream.

The series of images following were taken from outside the property about this time last year or a little later as the dams were being constructed. The first sequence was taken from the road adjoining the property to the east and then went onto a private road thus semi-circling the property.

The second sequence was taken the next morning from slightly different vantage points.

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Here are the first ten images taken from along the main road.

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This second sequence starts from the road (first two images of this group) and then the images are taken from a private roadway.

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These eight images are the last taken on the first day. This one shows the donga opposite a Rural Residential area with new houses.

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These two images are the start of a group of photos taken the next day. The first is taken from a sealed road from an adjoining property showing its dam built many years back.  The second shows the main road (note the power lines) across to the hills looking approximately east.

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These photos show more of the northern end of the property looking from the western side. There is a dam wall visible in the centre of the image to the left, probably it is the upper dam wall.

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The crepe myrtle in full flower on an adjoining property indicates the pictures were taken around a year ago, i.e. in mid-late February or March. The water shown near the blackboys is likely to be from an upstream neighbour. The final photo in this series looks across a dam in the neighbour’s property which is to the west of the property of interest.

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This aerial photo was taken on 19 February 2017 which is around the time that the ground photos were taken, probably prior because there is little sign of dam walls. There appear to be two pieces of yellow earth-moving equipment near top. The block is triangular with the long side parallel to the road.

All in all there have been dramatic changes made to this piece of land that was once a wetland with a stream flowing through.

Sudden heavy rain and flooding

Not only bushfire, but another threat to safety

Late in November 2017 I had been doing research about rainfall events and the effects on water flow of the stream at our place. I’ve been recording rainfall most days in a garden diary since buying here in early 2006 as well as temperatures. Sometimes heavy rains have coincided with photos of the stream and the flows.
Generally we have noticed over the 12 years we’ve been here that the catchment is very responsive. Some heavy rain will be followed within a few hours by a rise in the level of the stream. A real cloudburst, say of 20 mm in an hour will show up within a short time of a few hours. This is not the effect of spring water, it is surface water flowing down hillsides and into the stream.
On Saturday, 7 September 2013, the day of a Federal election, I spent the morning at the Balingup Primary School handing out electoral material. Late morning large clouds gathered and we had a torrential downpour that lasted maybe an hour or so. When I returned home by about 1 pm I checked out the stream once the rain had stopped. It was running at the highest I have seen it, with water being almost over the bridge.

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In this flash flood after heavy rain, the level was about 1m above the usual level. It was lapping up to the bridge. A few minutes before it was even higher.

See first photo, taken at 1.23 pm. The second photo shows water roaring out of two medium sized pipes.

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Water was also pouring out from two other points, namely via the spillway under the bridge, and a channel nearer the hillside that goes under the track to the hill. See third and fourth photos for the latter. See how gravel has started to be washed off the track and down its sides. Water can be very destructive when it floods.

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Then from near the bridge I videod the scene, taken at 1.26 pm. The level had been even higher, it had gone over the track leading up the hill. Note the rather worried-looking dog, Joanna, who wasn’t very happy about the flood.

With the video, note the sheer volume of water going through, it pushed a wooden platform/deck into the stream, so it has power.


I checked today with one of our farming neighbours as to whether this sudden rise of at least a metre within an hour or so of the downpour might be due to a dam release. She was adamant that upstream from them the owners did not do dam releases to any extent, the flow was due to water streaming down off the hillsides of surrounding farms and hurtling down to the course of the stream and the wetland now known as 155 Grimwade Road.My 2013 diary tells me that at 9 am the next day 28 mm had fallen in the previous 24 hours. From memory nearly all the rain fell over the short period about noon on Saturday.

Are short, heavy showers frequent here in Balingup that could cause this sort of stream rise? On 10 February this year 24 mm was in the gauge at 9 am, followed by 14 mm the next day. On 20 July there was 29.5 mm in the gauge at 9 am. This small sample shows we can get heavy showers in a short timeframe.

Conclusion: with a heavy downpour now and only the overflow pipes in the dams newly built upstream from us, with a pipe needing to be manually opened by opening a valve to let water come out from the bottom of the dam and the small side pipe to cope with the flow, the water could potentially go over the top of the dam. The water in the dams is quite near the crests, much higher than that recommended by dam experts which is to have a gap (the freeboard) of at least 600mm, better 1 m, from the water level to the crest. If water does go over the crest, erosion can bring about a breach to the dam.
It may also be too much for the new culvert pipe under the track to the farming neighbours and cut off the two farms west of the new dams.

Dams need to be engineered for purpose, taking into account likely weather events, eg heavy showers in a short time-frame. Expert advice is needed to build dams that are structurally sound and will not risk the safety of neighbours either up- or down-stream. Perhaps more standardised rules and regulations are needed in this area to reduce risk of dam failure.

As for us downstream, how would we fare if the new dams breached after heavy rain??

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Lower Dam showing water level near the top of the dam walls. It is recommended that freeboard (the distance between the water level and the top of the dam walls) be at a minimum of 600 mm, better, 1 m.

 

 

Fire-Prone Areas – Established Homes

Differing views in this piece from the US about the recent fires in California, but the retired Fire Chief Bob Roper and the scientist Max Moritz speak from experience and the evidence of years of observing wildfires in the WUI.

https://www.scpr.org/news/2017/12/19/79035/defensible-space-couldn-t-keep-thomas-fire-from-bu/

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Retired Fire Chief of Ventura County, California, Bob Roper

 

“California law requires all new houses in the highest-risk wildfire zones to be built using fire resistant materials. But there are many older homes in these areas that aren’t required to meet the code unless they’re renovated.

“Modern building codes are great for new construction,” said Roper. “But the majority of the homes in the wildfire prone area are already built.””

An additional factor is that a house may be built to the latest standards and have features that initially protect it from being susceptible to bushfire attack, including embers. However, if a few years later, the vegetation near the house has become overgrown and is largely native plant material that is highly flammable, then the property could be at risk. Granted, not so vulnerable as an older home but it could still be affected.

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Houses are all but hidden by overgrown vegetation, most of it flammable, in a street in Margaret River. Leaf litter and other debris has built up, making it easy for embers to ignite the ground cover.

Department of Planning, Lands and Heritage, and Western Australian Planning Commission have done considerable work in the area of new housing and have taken bushfire risk into account to make future subdivisions less at risk.However, the bulk of the problem is with existing housing as said by Roper and the Productivity Commission in its Inquiry into Natural Disaster Funding.

Thus for the majority of us living in the Rural Urban Interface areas we face another summer of uncertainty. Not nearly enough mitigation in the form of fuel reduction burns and other treatments has been done. Nor are those living in these areas been given sufficient advice about how to make themselves less at risk of bushfire attack.

The emphasis from the authorities is on getting out early, but if most leave then there are few are around to check for and put out embers. More focus on the Asset Protection Zone  (aka the Building Protection Zone, BPZ) and the Hazard Separation Zone (HSZ) would also be valuable with the result of lower fuels near the house and increased life and property safety.

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There is a real case for adopting the NFPA’s Wildfire and Firewise USA Programs or an Australian equivalent. If this came with enhanced fuel treatments of Shire and State lands plus large private landholdings we would not have the threat of major bushfires hanging over us each summer.

Summing up, we need to make a profound break in our mindset from relying on a response effort to that of mitigation (making the risk less) where we move to blocking embers entering our houses and managing the vegetation and other fuel on our lands both public and private.

We need to recognise we live in a fire-prone country; that fire can be our friend and not our enemy.

Raffle with a Mitigation Theme

The Balingup Bushfire Brigade, Mitigation Group, held a raffle outside the General Store yesterday, i.e. Saturday morning, 16 December 2017.

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The sign we made for the raffle which we placed nearby..

Many local people come to the store to buy the weekend papers and get petrol so it is a busy spot on Saturday mornings.

 

The prize included three low flammability trees, fire extinguisher for car, fire blanket, mop and steel bucket for putting out embers and gardening tools for pruning and/or removal of excess vegetation.

As soon as we mentioned the raffle was to raise funds for the local Bushfire Brigade, we got a very friendly response.

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Sue helped sell tickets and some of the prizes on show. A big thank you to Bell Fire of Bunbury who donated the fire blanket and the extinguisher. They can be called on 9725 6100.

Thus we had a mitigation theme which gave us a chance to explain to people how the items would help reduce risk from fire. It was a way of meeting people in an informal context and talking about a topical issue, with the bushfire season here.

It was $2 a ticket and some kind souls donated extra. In all we raised $265.40.

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Drawing of the winning ticket by one of the store owners with John who helped organise the raffle

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Roy, the winner who lives just around the corner, with his prize. He was delighted.

 

 

What’s in a name?

An accurate title can help comprehension

In the US in the past few years it has been realised that towns, settlements, outer suburbs  and other areas in which people live that are close to bush, are likely to have close encounters with bushfires.

In the SW of Western Australia with our hot, dry summers we, too, will experience bushfires. They come with the territory.

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This fire in 2013 burnt out an historic homestead and a timber bridge across the Blackwood River. The bridge cost $4 million to replace, the homestead may not be rebuilt. The fire was only 8 km away from us in Balingup when this photo was taken.

Currently much of the effort and considerable cost goes into the fighting of the fire and the recovery afterwards.

Thus we talk often of firefighters and not so much of fire managers or fire controllers who could be carrying out planned burns rather than fighting unplanned bushfires.

There are, encouragingly, moves toward greater concentration on and resources applied to preemptive actions to reduce fuel loads both on public and private lands. This is commonly described as carrying out bushfire mitigation.

If fuel loads are reduced, i.e. by decreasing the amount of overgrown vegetation and litter around towns and on properties, there is less to burn and a lower chance that the fire will become so fierce that it causes mass destruction.

Up till recently we’ve heard much about firefighters and brigades, but there is little attention on homeowners and how they can be brought on board to do more for themselves.

Much of the problem of bushfires lies with their being located near people, their homes, towns and other infrastructure. This has been an ongoing problem developing over the past thirty years or so when the idea of having a place in the country, a tree change, or simply cheaper accommodation on the outer edges of the metropolitan area has gained momentum.

The problem of fires occurring near people points to where the solution lies. It is imperative that the various landowners, residents and businesses (including agricultural ones) be part of the solution. They have the most to lose if a bushfire breaks out and the most to gain, in the form of increased safety, if they are active upfront to take steps to reduce the risk.

Each householder or business owner/farmer can be involved and can help reduce the volume and mass of vegetation, i.e. remove fuel and cut bushfire risk not only on their own property but they can coordinate with their neighbours as well.

Fundamentally they need to be seen as the key stakeholders and intrinsically involved in the deliberations as to how better, we as a society, can improve our management of bushfires. We need to move from recognising and mopping up disasters to being aware of disaster risk and acting to reduce those risks.

Over the past year there has been several officers working for groups of rural and semi-rural Shires in compiling Bushfire Risk Management Plans or BRMPs. To all intents and purposes this process has been conducted in secret.

Properties and various parcels of land that have been identified as being in Bushfire Prone Areas (BPAs) have been examined more closely using high definition satellite images and other sources. The results are entered into an application to aid correlation and to standardise the results. A check is made with the Office of Bushfire Risk Management (OBRM) which can suggest changes or improvements. Once the Plans conform to the requisite standard a report is prepared for the Shire concerned and presented to the Council.

Once accepted this report becomes a public document, but from what I can understand, the details of individual properties are not being released. Apparently a Freedom of Information request may mean that an owner can discover more details about the bushfire risk on his or her property.

The National Fire Protection Association of the US has developed its Firewise USA program to facilitate the development of aware and active residents in fire-prone areas all over the US. Its byline is “Residents reducing wildfire risks”.

To cater for the wider landscape as well as at the Wildland Urban Interface (WUI) the Americans have developed Fire Adapted Communities. It has Firewise USA as one of its components as well as supporting mitigation activities such as prescribed burning. Federal and State governments are contributors as are insurance companies.

We can use aspects of these American programs to influence how we make ourselves safer from bushfires here in Western Australia and possible Australia-wide.

We could set up a similar organisation called Bushfire Adapted Communities, or more descriptively, Bushfire Risk Reduced Communities. These names seem a little clumsy.

A better way to describe the organisation might be to call it Firewise Western Australia with the subtitle: “Residents reducing bushfire risks”.

Whatever we do, we need to apply hard-headed practicalities to the problem. Only residents are in the position to do something about their own property. A professionally designed program delivered with the similar skills and expertise that the Water Corporation brings to its Waterwise program could bring about positive action to reduce bushfire risk on homeowner’s properties.

With a carefully crafted initiative the onus can be put on to homeowners to make their properties at lower risk. Government, once the program was implemented could save on costs and the users or customers would not have the heartache and disruption of losing their home to bushfire.