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