The Yarloop Primary School survived

It was no accident that the school survived

The Report into the Special Inquiry into the January 2016 Waroona Fire made mention several times that work had been done in the months before the Fire to reduce the fuel loads in and around the school buildings.

See Post of October 30, 2016: https://firewisewa.me/2016/10/30/why-did-the-yarloop-school-survive/

Whilst the Report provided some information I wanted to know more of the details of the work done on the school and its grounds so contacted Phil Penny who was the Chief Fire Control Officer for the Harvey Shire. Mr Penny was also on the School P and C.

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In the front area of the school grounds two months after the fire. Note that large fig (possibly a Moreton Bay) is relatively unscathed whereas the trees in the background are burnt. To the west of the school (toward the left of the image), several houses in School Road were destroyed, yet apart from one or two small sheds in the school grounds the buildings were intact.

Mr Penny sent me the details of the works to be done on the school. It was a straightforward document with photos of the areas that needed to have fuel reduced with descriptions of the actions to be taken. Here is the Bushfire Risk Inspection for Yarloop PS.

Bushfire Risk Inspection Yarloop PS

It’s worth a read as an example of the types of work that needs to be done, eg removing truckloads of debris made up of litter, fallen branches, dry grass, etc from certain areas.

Here is a quote from Mr Penny about this work to make the school safer:

“This is the original document I did up for Yarloop Primary School. Simple yet proved to be very effective. Work was carried out over about two months prior to the Bush Fire season and as we know the school survived. It just goes to show that the simplest of actions can be very effective in reducing risk and enhancing survival.Let me know what you think.”

I asked Phil the burning question (sorry) of “how much did it cost?”

Here is his reply:

“In the case of the school the cost ended up around $6000 which seems expensive but considering that they carted away a huge amount of fuel and mulch like material and tree loppers were utilised to trim trees it was an inexpensive investment in longevity for the school. Also all of this work was carried out by contractors to the school and the cost was afforded by Building Management and Works (BMW ) who look after maintenance for Government Infrastructure.
The ongoing maintenance is looked after by the School Gardner as part of normal duties ( except for any tree lopping ) and therefore ongoing costs are minimised.
For the average home owner most of this could be done by themselves and if need be burnt onsite at right time of year and therefore cost is minimal. Most people think that they have clear everyting to make it safe and I have proven this is not the case. They just need some direction which I provide.”

So you there you have it, for a small sum of $6000, the school was made to be at much lower risk from bushfire attack.

It is worth noting, too, that the school was undefended as the fire swept through. Thus it had been made to be self-defensible. Indeed it came through so well that it became the on-site location for the management of the clean-up effort, the Recovery process.

Would the outcome have been any different if, say, similar plans had been drawn up for the community centre, the Railway Workshops, the fire station and groups of houses?

If something of the order of  $100,000 had been spent on Yarloop in the months before the fire, the result may have been very different. Two men may not have lost their lives. 160 houses may not have been destroyed. At least $60 million dollars has been spent in the clean up.

What price safety? Instead of so much emphasis on response and recovery a program that assessed the small towns of the South West and spent a $100,000 on, say 10 towns each year, could bring huge savings.

It’s not just the money, of course. Democratic governments in civilised countries have a duty to keep their people safe. Australian citizens should not have to go through the terror of a fire like the Waroona Fire nor come back to the horror of their house and sheds burnt to the ground, their pets killed, their farm animals injured and dying.

We can do better. The bushfire risk reduction process carried out on the Yarloop Primary School is a shining example of the benefits and the sheer cost-effectiveness of these steps.

Let’s look at implementing these pre-emptive actions throughout the Perth Hills and the South West.

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.

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.

 

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.