Changing times, changing gardens?

The following was written in November 2011 for a newsletter published by a local landholder group, the year we had the Kelmscott Roleystone Bushfire. An inquiry was conducted by former AFP head, Mick Keelty, to investigate the causes and what could be done in the future. The event alluded to is the Festival of Country Gardens.

It would appear that although since 2011 we have had several more major bushfires and several reviews we may not have advanced all that much.

See what you think. Are gardeners any more aware of how they can make their gardens fire-safe?

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Beyonderup Garden on the Balingup Nannup Road that overlooks the Blackwood River has opened for the Festival of Country Gardens.

Since 1999 Blackwood Country Gardens has staged Festivals in spring, and in most years autumn, that have as their principal feature the opening of a representative sample of gardens located in and around the central South West region.  This area is known for its lengthy horticultural history with orchards dating from the 1860s in Bridgetown and Balingup.  The purpose is to show garden visitors what it is to have a garden in the country in this region of the South West, to build more understanding between city and country dwellers, to educate gardeners and to encourage people from that great place called “Elsewhere” to stay for several days in our region to boost the tourism industry.

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Ruins of historic Southampton Homestead, destroyed by fire in February 2013.

For some years now gardeners, orchardists and farmers – who all share in varying degrees the activity of growing plants – have had to contend with lower rainfall, reduced runoff into dams and streams and the consequent restrictions or constraints on water use.  Coupled with the prominence of destructive bushfires, especially to housing stock in fire-prone areas, there has been pressures placed on what and how plants can be grown.  The reduced rainfall has produced measures to conserve water and the pervading message has been to grow “waterwise” plants.

Currently there is not an equivalent marketing of the concept of building “firewise” gardens, though there is certainly much instruction about the “building protection zone”, ie a 20 metre circle of safety around the house.  This circle of safety is to be cleared of all inflammable material, shrubs and small trees are to be removed under and between larger trees and larger trees are to be pruned up by 2 m to stop a ground fire from spreading into the canopy of the tree.  These instructions seem to be predicated on the assumption that most of the trees and shrubs in the garden close to the house will be flammable.  

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A Balingup garden with deciduous trees not far from the house, providing shade in summer and colour in Autumn whilst not adding to the fire hazard.

In research carried out in our area, especially after the fires in Bridgetown and Balingup in summer of 2009, there is evidence of the important part that less inflammable trees and shrubs can play in gardens, in particular, the role that deciduous trees, such as oaks, liquidambers or stone fruit trees, have in shielding the house from radiant heat and blocking embers from reaching the house.  Andrew Thamo and Christine Sharp from the Small Tree Farm in Balingup have produced relevant papers on Planting Trees for Living Firebreaks and Case Studies based on local fires which are available from their website – Small Tree Farm. See this article also Take the Eucalypt out of the Incendiary Debate

The featured image at the top shows two types of deciduous trees. On the left is a quince tree with some fruit showing and the colourful, yellow-leaved trees are Lombardy Poplars. Both species will scorch and ultimately burn if exposed to flames for long enough, but will not act as accelerants and feed the fire – unlike the eucalypt in the photo below.

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The long peeling bark of the Flooded Gum, Eucalyptus rudens, common in gullies throughout the South West, makes great embers and adds to the fire hazard.

Gardening, as with many other human activities, has fashions and fads, styles and gurus which with hindsight may seem a little foolish or at odds with the evidence as to what really is safe or not so safe. There is much to be said for rethinking the way we plan and plant our gardens taking into account the need for being economical with water and yet safer from bushfires.  These two factors need not be mutually exclusive.  There is plenty of scope for developing interesting landscape solutions for our gardens that takes into account our changing world.

Excursion: Aftermath of a bushfire

Residents of Balingup were invited by the local Balingup Volunteer Bushfire Brigade to see for themselves the aftermath of a bushfire that threatened Balingup just five weeks before on Friday 13 January 2017. The excursion is part of a developing program to encourage residents to learn more about bushfires and how they can go about helping themselves to be safer from bushfire – to become firewise.

The event, held at Alistair Faulkner’s property in Delisle Street which adjoined the fire ground, attracted 17 people.

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The morning after the fire the local Balingup Volunteer Bushfire Brigade checks out the fireground in case more mopping up is needed.

Brigade member Peta Townsing noted that the excursion group was standing directly up the hill from where the fire started about 200 m away. She introduced John Bailey, the Fire Control Officer of the Brigade.

John described how the fire had started at the base of the hillside on the southern end of town as a result of a car crash. The fire had raced up the hill fuelled by weeds, especially blackberries, and dry grass. It was heading straight for Alistair’s home.

The good news was that Alistair had set up his property so it was accessible to fire trucks and had little flammable vegetation. It had few ground covers and very few shrubs. It was landscaped to be at low risk of bushfire attack.

Much of the fire fighting was based from here. As a result the Brigade managed to contain the fire that evening without it reaching nearby houses. It was a close call for Balingup.

John made several points about how to be safer if a bushfire came close, including:

  • tidying up of grounds, eg, low branches from eucalypts and other flammable trees needed to be pruned up so that they were less likely to catch fire. See the burnt branch in the photo in the adjoining paddock.
  • important if residents can stay on their property as often there will not be firefighters available. If residents do stay it is essential that it be “prepared” for them to be safe, ie be kept at low fuel levels to reduce risk of catching fire. If property is prepared then by staying the inevitable embers can be easily put out. If grounds not patrolled after a fire has gone through embers can start a fire which if left unchecked could burn down a house or a shed. This nearly happened at the recent Argyle fire with spot fires occurring after main fire went through.
  • Mulch made from wood products is a fire hazard near houses. Better to have something like a gravel.
  • He reiterated that access to a property needs to be easy for firefighters. The entry point needs to be wide and high enough so that a fire truck can easily get in and that gates should not be padlocked.
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Some of the attendees with the hill in the background showing new grass growing after the recent rain and the burnt lower branch of a eucalypt.

Alistair Faulkner told how his neighbours had told him a fire was approaching. He found that having a survival plan helped him feel less stressed. However, he did decide to evacuate but was confident because of his tidying up and the firefighters’ presence.

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Several of the participants with the fireground in the background.

In the past week he had noticed that dry eucalyptus leaves were building up so to keep the fuel levels down he took five trailer-loads of leaves to the green waste disposal site.

Participants asked questions and had concerns about a number of issues including the state of verges and the need for their clearing up, about whether they would leave or stay and the high costs of taking overgrown trees out, such as weedy wattles and eastern states gums including the Tasmanian Blue Gum.

The excursion concluded with a drink at the Fruit Winery in the Packing Shed on the main street in time for the Balingup Markets.

For more information about the Balingup program of bushfire mitigation and a safer property contact me, Peta Townsing.

Plant natives? There are better options

There are many articles around at present along the lines of  “Plant native gardens to save water”. In bushfire prone areas this is not the best thing to do.

On the surface, planting natives on a property or leaving existing ones there, may appear to be a good idea, but in the quest for being waterwise, in this part of the South West, the result may be a hazardous environment susceptible to bushfire attack.  Why is this the case?  Let me explain.

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This garden in Margaret River has retained much of the native bush with both eucalypts and many shrubs. Note the litter on the ground made up of fallen eucalypt leaves and twigs. Any ember falling on the litter is likely to ignite the dry leaves and spread fire to the shrubs and trees and then to the house.

The plants native to the South West have evolved to cope with a mediterranean climate which has the characteristics of hot, dry summers and cool, wet winters.  These plants share with other plants of mediterranean regions certain features that help them survive the prolonged periods of summer drought, such as waxy leaves with volatile oils to prevent water loss and small leaves with a low surface area, again to reduce evaporation through the leaves.  Typically the countries with this climate, apart from ourselves, are those bordering the Mediterranean Sea, the Cape Province of South Africa, southern California and parts of Chile.  Thus many of the plants of our area have similarities to typical mediterranean climate plants, such as lavender, rosemary, cistus (rock rose), diosma and radiata pine.  All these examples are inflammable as are many of our plants here, including eucalypts, melaleucas and callistemons.

Wildfires, either caused through lightning strikes, human activity (either accidental or deliberate), are endemic in all these areas.  Native plants and animals have evolved within an ecosystem of frequent fire and are thus adapted to this fire-prone environment.  Indeed many plants rely on fire to recycle nutrients, to remove dead vegetation (that would otherwise hinder growth), and to aid in seed dispersal.  

Thus we can expect frequent fires through our forests and heathlands of the South West.  In itself this is no bad thing; the problem arises at the rural urban interface (RUI) when forest and house are in close proximity.  Having a space of a couple of hundred metres between bushland and a house with its garden is far safer than having a property in a tiny bush clearing with eucalypts towering over the house.  However, if that garden is a replica of a piece of bushland with many of its plants being inflammable then the inhabitants are at increased risk through ember attack.

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A garden in Bridgetown with deciduous trees, wide paths and sweeps of lawn make this garden at low risk of bushfire attack.

There are plants, both native and exotic, that are quite waterwise and, importantly, are of low flammability.  Take the grapevine, the mulberry, the carob and the fig – all come from a mediterranean climate and yet are slow to burn.  Thus selection of plants to ensure they are not going to support a fire and their placement in the garden with gaps between them and the house is important to minimize the risk of fire.  Many deciduous trees are good candidates for gardens in fire-prone areas.

In the aftermath of the Victorian bushfires of February 2009, the Country Fire Authority has produced a helpful online, interactive Plant Selection Key.  http://www.cfa.vic.gov.au/plan-prepare/landscaping/

The debate is not about natives versus exotics, it is rather about choosing appropriate plants and landscape styles that minimize the bushfire risk .

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.

 

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