Why did the Yarloop School survive?

Many in Australia and overseas would be familiar with the bushfire that occurred in early January this year that burnt through thousands of hectares in the Waroona and Harvey Shires and caused a significant proportion of Yarloop to be destroyed.

Two people died in the Yarloop fire and over 160 houses were destroyed. The Government instigated a Special Inquiry into the January 2016 Waroona Fire. The Inquiry was undertaken by Mr Euan Ferguson AFSM. The Report titled “Reframing Rural Fire Management” was tabled in Parliament on Thursday 23 June 2016.

The Report is available on line at:
https://publicsector.wa.gov.au/waroona-bushfire-special-inquiry

This same web page provides links to the submissions made to the Inquiry. One of these submissions written by a member of the public, No 39, described why the Yarloop Primary School came out relatively unscathed despite being close to areas of the town that burnt intensely. There is an extract from this submission on Page 101 of the Report, which reads:

The Primary School remained standing throughout the fire. Although unattended as the fire passed, the school survived this was due to the fire Protection Plan developed by local fire experts – this plan included fuel reduction and separation of buildings from vegetation.37

The full submission is here and is from an experienced forester which sums up much of what needs to happen in advance of the heat of summer.

Submission of member of public No 39

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In the grounds of the Yarloop Primary School a solitary flowering stem emerges from the base of a rose bush, scorched but still alive. 

If only we could develop robust systems as described in this submission to reduce the bushfire risk largely due to the build up of flammable vegetation across forests, grasslands and in towns, we could have a less stressful fire season. And no mass destruction of homes and farms.

The fire that threatened Bridgetown

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In late 2003, the day after Boxing Day, on Saturday 27 December I tried to ring some friends at Maranup Ford about 15 km to the west of us in Bridgetown. It was around lunchtime on a warm day with a hot northerly wind blowing.

The wind kept blowing all day. Despite several attempts the calls just rang out. About this time I noticed a little bit of smoke out to the west. During the afternoon the smoke became more obvious and appeared to be getting closer.

It was the holiday season with many people visiting friends and relatives elsewhere. The Shire of Bridgetown Greenbushes was closed between Christmas and New Year as was the custom. I tried searching the internet and there was nothing on there to provide information as to the fire.

I rang the police during the afternoon and asked them what we should do as we had elderly neighbours next door and I was worried for their and our safety. The Sergeant said that if it looked like we would need to evacuate they would cruise the streets with a loud hailer and let everyone know to evacuate and (presumably) where to go.

The best thing I thought I could do was water everything. We had a good reticulation system and tanks so I put concerns of waterwise aside and watered both my place and the next doors. Later in the afternoon I recorded the following sequence of photos which does indicate that we came very close to the fire burning through the town.

It was early days for water bombing, but I understand that we had most of the State’s water bombing planes helping. Possibly two to four fixed wing aircraft.

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Taken at 4.36pm on 27 December 2003 from Brockman St. Note the strong wind blowing the trees on the left. It was from the north.

All photos are taken looking west from either Brockman Street or from the rear of a house that I owned in Roe Street.

 

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From Roe St at 4.49pm, 27 December. The fire is moving closer

In just 13 minutes the fire has come closer to Bridgetown. The paddock to the left on the horizon is next to the Brockman Highway near the intersection with Mokerdillup Rd.

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At 4.50pm the fire is intensifying. The wind is still blowing strongly.

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At 4.51pm the fire comes closer. Wind still strong.

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At 4.51pm fire is still approaching.

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At 4.55pm notice the red glow on the left. It would have been better if we had removed the dry grass in the foreground. Wind still blowing.

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At 4.57pm, wind still blowing strongly. Note the fireball many times higher than the tall Marri and Jarrah on the hilltop near Mokerdillup Rd and Brockman Highway intersection.

Moments after this picture was taken the wind dropped, the fire came over the hill to the west, there was less fuel to burn as it hit the paddock, firefighting was being conducted in this area, the valley filled with smoke and the fire lost its intensity. By 5pm the danger had diminished significantly and Bridgetown could breathe a sigh of relief.

And my friends at Maranup Ford. They were in the thick of it so that phone communications had ceased which is why I could not reach them. Their house was fine and so was the garden close to the house. The outer edges of the garden about 30m away were burnt. They had roses and some deciduous trees near the house. Native plants, which are mostly highly flammable were some distance from the house. Many of these natives did burn in the fire.

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Cleaning up after the fire on 9 January 2004. Friends helped. Some of the roses did survive.

This was no fluke. The garden close to the house was well watered, there was a watered lawn. They had water and were busy defending the house and its immediate surrounds. They had created defensible space also known as a Building Protection Zone which provided a low fuel buffer to give protection to the house and to firefighters.

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The Maranup Ford homestead was fine though the fire came very close.

 

LAW (Locals Against Wildfire) AGM

After a quiet period LAW is moving again with its AGM coming up on Saturday, 17 September at Boyup Brook in the South West of WA. Starting at 9.30 am it will be held in the Boyup Brook Fire Brigade Station on Abel Street.

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At the Yarloop Primary School a rose sends up a shoot after being burnt in the massive fires of 7 January 2016. 

We would like to see far fewer losses due to bushfires. The Waroona Fire Complex had extensive property losses and damage including many homes and infrastructure being burnt at the small town of Yarloop.

LAW aims to bring together people who have a common interest in developing ways of reducing the risk of bushfire attack onto communities and towns of the South West and Perth Hills.

Here is a copy of the minutes of the last AGM held in September, 2014.

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Here is notice of the upcoming meeting as a small poster.

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Note the contact numbers for John Guest and Peta Townsing.

Below is a cutting from the Manjimup Bridgetown Times about the upcoming meeting.

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Doing our (gardening) homework

I wrote this for a local Bridgetown, Western Australia, magazine in February, 2012. It is still entirely relevant and the risk of bushfire attack is, unfortunately just as high. 

During this summer we have experienced, either directly, or – fortunately for most of us – indirectly, bushfires coming all too close to properties and, in the case of the Margaret River fires in November 2011, destroying many.  It catches our attention and we wonder whether this could happen to us.

For many of us, we have chosen to live at the edge of the forest or in a small subdivision carved out of an old farm that in its development removed much of the original vegetation.  The types of vegetation on the property that we purchased can vary immensely; ranging from remnant forest denizens such as gnarled old Marri and Blackbutt giants and their numerous offspring of differing ages and sizes, to the last vestiges of old orchard specimens – a venerable pear tree or a sprawling plum that has seen better days, but still bears exquisite fruit.  Ah … Sun-ripened plums picked warm from the tree.

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Plum blossom mid-September 2016. Plums are some of the earliest of the spring blossoms and are a low flammability small tree.

For most of these properties summer starts with a liberal smattering of annual grasses either amongst the trees, in garden beds (in all but the most conscientious of gardeners), or spread across open areas.  Derived originally from pasture grasses, these grasses dry out rapidly with the warm weather, and with their fine foliage, become the ideal material to catch a spark and to be set alight, thus starting a fire which can be carried to nearby shrubs or to low-hanging branches of trees.  Especially if these trees or shrubs have low moisture in their leaves and contain volatile oils, the fire can take hold and spread.  If the fire comes towards our house, then we are in trouble.

This is where the homework comes in both literally and figuratively.  It makes a great deal of sense to remove dry grass from anywhere near our home and to choose the types of plants that we will have near the home from the low inflammability plant palette.  Their size, shape and condition is also important because a freshly-growing, young, small lavender can be innocuous one day and a year later a fire hazard if dry, much larger and full of dead, twiggy growth.

To help choose plants and to learn more of what is critical in reducing the risk to your property in our fire-prone South West, the internet can offer some really handy tools.  The Country Fire Authority (CFA) has a useful paper on its web site which can be downloaded, called “Landscaping for Bushfire – Garden Design and Plant Selection”.  It contains a Plant Selection Key which can also be used interactively by going to: http://www.cfa.vic.gov.au/plan-prepare/landscaping/

Try a few sample plants through the Key.  Not only is it fun to use it is educative and helps sort out the desirable plants  – and how to keep them that way – from the firebrands.

In the past few years there has been a trend, a movement toward minimalism in home design.  There are books about how to declutter your home, even consultants to advise you.  “Rid your life of clutter” is a popular theme.  The same or similar concepts can be applied to the garden.  Southern California with a similar climate has some excellent material on the web – more homework for you!  A practical site is from the Napa Valley.  Its material about defensible space is first rate: http://www.napafirewise.org/defensable-space-live/index.html

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Removing Lily Pillies from near a small wooden shed in Summer 2013. The creeper, Native Bluebell, on the shed has since been removed entirely. Not a good idea in Bushfire Prone Areas to have creepers on buildings especially if the type of creeper is quite flammable as in this case. 

An example of this practical advice is in the section that deals with the three ‘Rs’ of defensible space: Remove, Reduce and Replace.  We have taken this to heart in our own garden with two Sydney Blue Gums being removed the other week and more to follow.  Previously we’d taken out a large pine tree and a dozen or so cypresses planted close to the house.  Fortunately there is a good green waste disposal system at the local tip – burning of the mass of branches and leaves is not an option at the moment.

The defensible space material provides the theory and good examples about adjusting a garden not only to be firewise, but also to be more readily maintained.

We have plenty of “homework” to keep us occupied for many months, but by next summer we’ll be considerably safer.

We are still pruning and removing trees and shrubs. The property looks “cleaner and greener” but not at all bare. Plants can grow quite quickly. It is a little like painting the Sydney Harbour Bridge, we have to keep at it. Removal is often better than merely pruning, because the plant doesn’t keep growing again. Obvious, I know, but it’s worth saying because removal reduces ongoing maintenance. 

Sharks, Native Plants and People

Are people less important than the environment?

Shark attacks appear to be increasing when compared with statistics of some decades ago when sharks were fished commercially. The article from The Australian newspaper discusses this issue.

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A quote from the article.
“Almost everywhere one looks — the CSIRO, universities and the various departments of primary industries or fishing — one sees a higher priority given to sharks than surfers, divers or swimmers. This misanthropism springs from the common perception that humans are a blight on our planet and that a few casualties from interactions with nature are an acceptable price in the quest to save the Earth from ­rapacious humans. Such a deliberate lack of ­humanity is usually assoc­iated only with religious ­delusions or witchcraft. But, then, you “believe” in “saving” the environment or you don’t.”

What is interesting is that a parallel can be drawn between this situation and bushfire attack on people who live at the Rural Urban Interface, typically where native plants are in close proximity

In the example above, a case is made that human lives are treated as of less importance than those of the sharks. In the instance of bushfires, for those who are living in bushfire prone areas, having native plants (which predominantly are of high flammability with volatile oils in their foliage) near the house is plain dangerous. It increases the risk of property destruction and inherently increases risk to life.

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Taken earlier this month in Margaret River, in Australia’s South West, noted for its wines, for surfing and unfortunately shark attacks, these homes have native bush close to them. Note the dry branches, much litter, many eucalypts – a fire hazard from November to April.

In gardening circles and throughout much of the popular media, residents are encouraged to “plant natives” or, indeed, are barred from removing native plants, to save water, to increase biodiversity or in other nebulous ways “to save the planet”.

Perhaps we should look at native plants like tigers in our garden, or sharks in our favourite ocean swimming spot. We need to recognise the dangers and make clear-eyed decisions to reduce the risk. And put people first.

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