About peta2015

Living in an area with an eight-month bushfire season sharpens one's interest in looking at ways to reduce the risk of bushfire attack. Implementing the necessary changes is an ongoing challenge to make living here a whole lot safer, not just for ourselves but also for others. Reducing fuel loads, mostly in the form of understory, ie shrubs and grasses, especially those with volatile oils, within 100m of houses is critical.

Waterwise Verge Problems in Bushfire areas

Last week I saw promotion of an initiative to implement waterwise verges, waterwise verge – best practice guidelines throughout the Perth Metropolitan area including in those areas now recognised as being bushfire prone. Unfortunately, this program is likely to have unintended consequences for large parts of the metropolitan area in that it will create a real and ongoing threat of increased fuel load near homes, thus leading to a greater chance of bushfire attack*.

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South Western Highway at Kirup. Whilst not in the metropolitan area the image shows an example of a verge that is both waterwise and does not constitute a fire hazard. It is firewise!  It  is quite bare apart from the row of deciduous, decorative pears which give shade in summer, colour in autumn and let the sun through in winter. They are also covered in blossom in spring. 

 

Paradoxically this initiative was promoted in the same week as the release of the Report of the Special Inquiry into the January 2016 Waroona Fire (the Ferguson Report waroona_fires_2016_-_volume_1_-_report_final) which in its findings places a strong emphasis on fuel management.

In this Waterwise program incentives will be offered to householders who will be subsidised to change their verges by a combination of Council and Water Corporation funding waterwise-verge-information-sheet. Thus we see one arm of the State Government, the Water Corporation, offering incentives to change verges to increase the fuel load, i.e. create a fire hazard and another, the Public Sector Commission, in the Ferguson Report, advocating fuel management processes to reduce the fire risk.

For some time I have been concerned about the effects that bushfires may have on communities in Bushfire Prone Areas including in the Metropolitan area. These areas have now been mapped and these BPA maps were released a few months back. They are disturbing in that they show much of the South West Land Division including the outer areas of the Perth Metropolitan area being at risk of bushfire attack.  Even areas near the City are shown to be at bushfire risk. I have friends in Glengariff Drive, Floreat who have Bold Park at the rear of their property and they are classified as being in a BPA. See the link for the BPA maps. Developing a verge as described in the Water Corp initiative would add to their fire hazard. http://www.dfes.wa.gov.au/regulationandcompliance/bushfireproneareas/Pages/default.aspx

Thus the release of this verge initiative is concerning for those areas that are quite clearly in areas of bushfire risk. Here is the link to the Page.

http://www.watercorporation.com.au/home/business/saving-water/water-efficiency-programs/waterwise-council-program/waterwise-verges

The program recommends that in order to save water, householders remove their street lawn and replace it with waterwise plants – the preference is for native plants. These plants are to be kept below a height of 70 cm and preferably are to be non-irrigated.

This treatment of a verge will result in a strip of flammable plant material that is likely to catch on fire and carry a fire toward the house.  Embers can be carried hundreds of metres or even more from the main fire. The use of mulch is recommended and its type is not specified – apart from being described as needing to be of coarse consistency. If the mulch is shredded plant material it will act as fuel in a bushfire and add to the risk caused by using fairly dry native plants.

Water conservation is essential, but if water is to be saved, verges in Bushfire Prone Areas, would be best covered, at least partially, by non organic materials including some paving. A small bed of succulents, eg pig face could be added or a small clump of drought-tolerant plants such as geraniums. A shady deciduous tree, such as a Chinese Tallow or Chinese Pistachio, even Prunus  or decorative pears (which are quite drought tolerant once established) would be preferable than planting eucalypts or any conifer in BPA. Keeping the verge clear of vegetation apart from some well placed deciduous trees is a viable option. The image of the pears in Kirup is a good example of a practical solution showing a verge at low risk of fire and waterwise.

The select-the-right-tree document referred to by Water Corp includes eucalypts and wattles which are not suitable not only because they are flammable but because they have undesirable habits such as weediness or they are brittle and likely to drop branches or fall over entirely. Flinders Range Wattle is a definite weed and flammable as well. In fact any of the Eastern States wattles are poor subjects for the South West gardens and verges (including the metropolitan area). Balingup, where I Iive, has too many of these trees and they are a real nuisance as they can become large and dangerous. It can cost thousands of dollars to remove them as friends and I have found to our cost.

I have both academic, gardening and first hand experience of many of the trees listed. For some years I did a gardening spot on ABC Local Radio SW. At times I have learnt the hard way when I thought a type of tree was attractive until I discovered it increased bushfire risk, had bad habits and it cost a fortune to remove it.

*There has been an extra section included in the document Waterwise verge – Best Practice Guidelines,  Page 6 Additional Section 1.2.8 Bushfire Prone Areas. See waterwise-verge-best-practice-guidelines1

Fixed Wireless Broadband and AM Radio

There is still interference from the NBN Fixed Wireless Broadband when we try to listen on 1044 AM from the Bridgetown transmitter. Changes to the Outdoor Unit and the Indoor Unit have made an improvement, but for most of the time the radio has too much static to be able to listen to it properly.

Here is an image of an item on page 11 of The Weekend Australian of November 14-15, 2015.

Weekend_Aust_14-15Nov15

The latest is that NBN Co is suggesting an indoor and outdoor antenna set up to boost the AM Radio signal. Here’s hoping that something will restore the radio signal to what it was before and provide us with local news and emergency alerts from the station in Bunbury which is the home of ABC South West Regional Radio.

Other residents of our area will also be similarly affected because they are also in a fringe area for radio signals, but are in areas that do have storms and bushfires.

Here is a handy link to the reception status of many places in Western Australia. Very instructive. At the moment we are tuning into the powerful Wagin transmitter.  We get a very good signal from Wagin on 558. However, it is broadcast out of the Great Southern Region with the station at Albany.

http://reception.abc.net.au/Reception.aspx

I have checked with ABC South West and for Emergency Warning Broadcasts they will normally broadcast beyond the immediate South West, i.e., to adjoining regions such as the Great Southern. This is reassuring although by listening to Wagin we miss out on the local news and weather from the South West region.

We are still trying to achieve good reception of ABC Local Radio South West as we used to have before NBN Fixed Wireless Broadband.

 

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Older AM radio on left, tradies radio on right.

Retrofitting the garden around the home

The area near the house is very important when it comes to reducing the risk of bushfire attack.

A garden with a low risk of bushfire attack.

A garden with a low risk of bushfire attack.

The type of plant, its position and its condition can make a big positive difference to how well the house survives a bushfire.

Shrubs kept small, deciduous trees, grassed areas, use of rocks as border, not wood, all help in reducing the risk of bushfire attack.

There is more information with links to useful sites from a note that I have just updated about Firewise Gardening.

Firewise_gardening_Oct15

Communications, social media and radio

Sometimes in the upgrade to a new technology, such as the NBN, not all goes as planned. Offered an upgrade to the way high speed broadband would be delivered I jumped at having Fixed Wireless Broadband. Only snag – more like a large log really – was that my AM Radio was overwhelmed by interference.

Despite using Telstra’s Crowdsupport and beginning to let others know by social media I still don’t have the issue resolved.

Here is a letter I’ve written to a couple of newspapers.

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Fixed Wireless Broadband antenna on veranda roof next to kitchen about 4 m from radio set.

To the Editor,

NBN stole my radio

As good as. Since I had NBN Fixed Wireless Broadband installed over a month ago I have had massive interference on my radio. Having NBN is fantastic and it is way cheaper than mobile wireless broadband. But …

We usually listen to Local ABC Radio South West broadcasting from Bunbury. We receive this via transmitters at 1044 from Bridgetown or 684 from Busselton. The radio in the house is best heard from Bridgetown as the signal for us in a Balingup valley is not strong.  We live in a bushfire-prone area. As ABC Local Radio South West is the designated station for receiving emergency alerts we need to have this working at all times. As per the Department of Emergency Services advice we have a radio that operates either with mains power or with batteries.

Despite alerting NBN and Telstra, our telco provider, to the problem within hours of the installation of the NBN, weeks later we are still waiting for a remedy. We’ve had reference numbers, complaint registrations and numerous phone calls, but nothing has been implemented to fix the problem.

What is worse, is the fact that a near identical problem was identified on Telstra’s Crowdsupport which was resolved in May last year. Search on “NBN radio” and you will find my posts and the resolved interference problem.

I’ve contacted the office of the Minister for Communication – they were quite helpful, my local MHR who was sympathetic, and the local installation company. So far to no avail.

I would be interested to know if any one else in the inland South West of Western Australia has experienced similar problems. To date I have found that many do not have access to NBN or that they cannot receive ABC Local Radio at the best of times.

Despite all the technological marvels of the 21 st Century I have the sneaking suspicion that the whole telecommunications set up in the rural areas is held together by bits of wire and pieces of string.  As for the bureaucracy surrounding the NBN; it would do the ABC TV series “Utopia” proud.

Yours sincerely,

Peta Townsing

Their home is their castle

Or Why homeowners are central to bushfire risk management

I recently put together a poster for the Australasian Fire and Emergency Services Authorities Council (AFAC) Conference coming up this September in Adelaide.

There were a number of themes chosen for the Conference amongst being “A Shared Responsibility”. I am not particularly happy about the use of the term as it is often taken to mean that a homeowner in, say, a bushfire-prone area should or should not do certain things according to some law or regulation, rather than do something because they see the reason for doing so. To me it sounds authoritarian rather than subtly persuasive; the latter being the preferred technique of marketeers when selling products or ideas.

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A Silver Birch was removed as it was only 3 m from veranda and for months dropped tiny seeds from its numerous tassels that went into the roof space and gutters.

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Tassels of the Silver Birch which will dry out and become fuel in the gutters and roof space.

On the other hand if the term is used to ensure that local Shires, Main Roads WA and other government bodies have a commitment to reduce fuel loads on land for which they are responsible then it makes more sense.

Additionally Government does have a role in facilitating the education of landowners who dwell in the Rural Urban Interface areas about bushfire risk management. In particular they can help encourage a sense of pride in homeowners to become more self-reliant and reward them for so becoming.

The Water Corporation has an excellent record in encouraging customers to become waterwise. The aim needs to be for homeowners to become firewise.

The poster was designed to be A1 size and attempts to look at bushfire risk management from a homeowner’s perspective.

Enlightened self-interest is a good motivator. People who live in the RUI areas will come from a range of backgrounds and for many their home and their lifestyle is precious. If they can be more self-reliant in looking after themselves, they are also helping their neighbours.  Here is the poster: Shared_Resp_PetaTownsing_Poster_sm 02-5

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Example of a firewise garden at low risk of bushfire attack. Wide lawns, gravel paths, deciduous trees. low shrubs, perennials such as agapanthus, all make for a garden that is of low flammability.

Prescribed burning – a hot topic

Here in the South West of Western Australia, where we have just survived a fire season with many bushfires, the topic of prescribed burning has been debated.

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Jarrah forest just 4 kms away from the town of Balingup in the inland SW which has had a recent prescribed burn. Note the blackened trunks and relatively small amount of understory.

To many of us who live near forests and farmlands prescribed burning is not at all problematic – it is a potent way to reduce the fuel built up in forests and woodlands. Without this controlled burning of forest litter and other dead or dry material we know that the build up of flammable material will lead to huge, intense bushfires that can travel for kilometres.

In one of these intense fires, the recent Northcliffe bushfires, embers were spotting up to five kms ahead and starting more fires.

The area near the small town of Northcliffe not far from the south coast of WA has coastal heathlands and further inland large stands of Karri forest, some of it in National Parks. Much of the  area is difficult to burn because of its mild climate where it is well into summer before it is dry enough to burn. It can quickly become very dry and dangerous to burn. As a consequence and with limited resources there were some areas that had not been burnt for thirty years or more and there was significant fuel build up.

A series of lightning strikes over summer started many fires and most were contained quickly, but not all. With hot, strong winds fires took off and merged to create one of the biggest fires in the State’s history.

After the fire there was a community meeting called by the authorities: the Northcliffe Bushfire Debrief. Here are the Minutes Operational 2015 3 10 of this meeting which gives some idea of the enormity and cost of this fire (or these fires).

Two days later another meeting was called by a residents’ group to call for more prescribed burning.

Poster for Meeting advocating prescribed burning.

Poster for Meeting advocating prescribed burning.

Here is the poster:

The newspaper account of the meeting was sent to me as pdfs.

Here they are: MBT18MAR15MAN1STA001 MBT18MAR15MAN1STA005 MBT18MAR15MAN1STA009

One of the speakers was retired forester, Roger Underwood who spoke at the meeting. Here are the notes of his speech. Bushfire management in the karri country

There is much to be said about prescribed burning, but the best thing to do is to take action and conduct these controlled burns. The rains have come to the South West in the past few weeks, quite early for the season, in the form of remnants of two cyclones. Not dangerous to us here but bringing gentle, soaking rains. The bushfire risk has passed, it is safe to burn, if a little damp to get the fire started!

Vegetation can be fuel

A question often asked is what sort of plants should I have around my house if I live in a fire-prone area.

Whilst recent trends have been to save water and plant waterwise plants, these can often cause problems as they may also be quite flammable. Typically plants with volatile oils in the leaves, such as lavenders or eucalypts will burn intensely and quickly and need to be kept well away from the house. At least 20 m is a minimum spacing.

Artemisia_3935

Artemisia or Wormwood is a drought-tolerant shrub that grows up to 2m or more high if left unpruned. It has volatile oils in its leaves and accumulates dead leaves along the older stems. A useful, tough garden plant except that it catches alight very easily. Best kept well-watered and pruned hard each year or replaced with something less flammable.

If you have adequate water and areas which are protected from the hot afternoon sun in summer, then hydrangeas could be good candidates.

Hydrangea_1501

Hydrangeas do require watering over summer otherwise they will wilt and start to dry out thus becoming more flammable. If the plant is kept well watered, leaves remain moist and less likely to burn unless exposed to embers or flames until dried out.

A useful tip is to try the barbecue test where a gas barbecue is heated up and specimen plants of various sorts are placed on the griller part. Some plants will burst into flames immediately, others will burn after several minutes once they have dried out, and others, such as the hydrangea will take some time until they are all dried out and then will smoulder, rather than burst into flame. These tests are best treated as a guide only because any plant will burn if exposed to flames for a long period, but some plants will burn more readily than others and these are best kept away from the house.

Fine leaved plants with waxy leaves and oils in their leaves are best placed well away from the house. Plants such as coprosma and most deciduous trees which are of low flammability are potential candidates for gardens likely to experience bushfires and in order to provide shade can be planted closer to the house than 20 m but not so close that they overhang the roof.

Plant_flammable_testing_2649

Testing plants on a gas barbecue at the Fire Station in Balingup.

It was after 6pm and we placed the barbecue several metres out from the veranda on an open gravel-covered area. (Just to make sure we did not start a bushfire!). A useful exercise with most plants burning more than we would have predicted.

To be a safe as possible it is worth spacing low flammability plants at least 5m to 10 m out from the house and keeping them well maintained and watered. If they dry out or become very big they are just fuel for a fire by a different name.

Bushfires – not only a risk to lives and properties

Bushfires in SW Western Australia are a natural occurrence and to be expected from October to April. Of themselves if not hugely intense they have a role in the regeneration of the vegetation, they recycle nutrients and remove dead and dying plant material to make way for new growth.

Problems arise when bushfires meet people or property. In the past forty years or so many people from the cities and suburbs have sought a home in the country either as a holiday home or as a permanent place to live. The sea change concept applies to coastal living, the tree change to those who wish to live closer to forests or woodlands.

“Tree changers” will often have a romantic view of the bush. Unless they have had experience of living on a farm or near bushland they may be unprepared for living in a safe way in fire-prone areas. In fact if a bushfire comes close it may seem more like a war zone than a peaceful country home. See my recent letter to the West Australian, published on the 13 January 2015. The link is to a pdf version.

Letter published in The West Australian, the daily newspaper of the state of Western Australia.

Letter published in The West Australian, the daily newspaper of the state of Western Australia.

Letter_WA_13Jan15_3137_001

In any bushfire that comes close to settlements there will be some disruption of daily life. Power will often go off, sometimes for hours or even days as in the recent case of Northcliffe which is still being restored. Power is needed to operate pumps where there is no scheme water, so water supply can be affected just when you need it most.

Circumstances may indicate that it is better to evacuate to somewhere else whilst the bushfire is active. Then there are problems with respect to pets and to livestock including those half a dozen hens that are almost pets that scratch around the yard.

With no power for a day or more, the contents of freezers may well be not fit for consumption.

Who can you stay with?  There may be no likely candidates at short notice.  A plan can be useful but it does not disguise the fact that normal life has to be put on hold.  There is also the possibility that the house may be burnt down with most of your possessions destroyed.

Now that is disruptive!

After the bushfire

After the fire at Parkerville, Perth Hills, January 2014. 57 houses were destroyed by fire.