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.

From_Balingup_S_1627

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.