Make a difference

Little things count as to whether your house burns or not

With the hot weather coming in a few short weeks it is time to check over the house and our surrounds, including our gardens (if we have them), to ensure they are at low risk of catching alight.

In view of the need for helping residents to be at lower risk from bushfires, back in March 2019, a group of us with the support of Senator Linda Reynolds and Member for Forrest MP, Nola Marino, decided to conduct an event that would help residents in bushfire-prone areas making themselves and their properties safer.

On Sunday 1 May 2019 we had a morning Firewise Excursion. We were delighted that Mrs Nola Marino was able to attend and contribute to the discussion. We started with a scene-setting exercise of exploring the differing facets of bushfire in the South West: its high frequency, how to prevent embers from entering into roof spaces, etc. We used a series of seven posters each of which highlighted an aspect of the problem.  Here is a link to the Gardens0fFire_series Poster exhibition which drew on the rather sombre book by Robert Kenny who had his house destroyed in the Victorian Bushfires of 2009.

The Excursion was named as being “Firewise“. This is derived from a program of this name developed in the US by the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA).  House and garden design that aims to reduce bushfire risk is crucial as is re-engineering existing houses and gardens to protect against ember attack and, occasionally, direct flame contact.

The Firewise concept was developed out of the research work of wildfire scientist, Dr Jack Cohen, who studied the aftermath of many wildfires and in particular the way a house will burn down. Contrary to popular belief it is not a great wall of flame, rather it is the embers getting into nooks and crannies around a house, including vents, and smouldering then erupting into flames and burning the house down from the inside. He stresses the need for defensible space near the house which is kept at very low fuel levels to ensure embers are not created there, there is nothing to burn and there is little chance of direct flame attack.

The scene setting exercise was useful as it stimulated a lively discussion about the many different aspect of what can be done by residents and fire authorities to make everyone safer.

We had short summary papers which contain online links to further information.  These are: Firewise excursion Intro and Firewise excursion Parkland.

We then had a break in the weather and were able to see Yarri Park as an example of Parkland Cleared.  See the “before” image, below.

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Yarri Park.The large trees are a eucalypt, Eucalyptus patens, or Yarri which grow only in favoured spots in the South West – high rainfall and deep soils – such as here in Balingup. This is the “before picture” showing high buildup of understory which when dried out becomes a bushfire risk. 

Here is the Park after a full week of activity to clean out much of the understory, make the Park easier to walk through and to maintain as well as being at a lower risk of bushfire to surrounding neighbours.

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The “after picture” showing Parkland Cleared result.

We then headed out to an attractive property which used to be Birdwood Park near Balingup townsite which is a good example of a property being made to be at low risk of bushfire attack. Considerable quantities of vegetation were removed and any trees near the house were usually deciduous or were at the low end of the flammability scale, eg Indian Hawthorn, Raphiolepis indica, and Coprosma or Mirror Bush.

Then the next front came through and we dashed back to the Fire Shed or headed home.

Some more ideas about Firewise_Property_Design_Sep19 are contained in this document. There are links to further material in this to follow up should you want to know more.

Even removing the layer of mulch that you spread carefully in that garden bed next to the house could make you safer. It would mean that embers would fall on bare ground instead of potential fuel. A few small changes like this could make the difference.

House for sale – location, location

Retro-styled house in town with views.

The house is for sale from Ray White in Balingup, 9764 1139 or 0429 976 412.

Ray White Balingup

The price is $375,000. The house has been fully renovated to high quality standards. It was intended that it be the eventual home for the owners, but who have now decided not to move from their current property, a little out of town.

The house is ready to move into. There is scope for a wing, perhaps a pavilion, to be added.

The location is excellent. A place in the country but with up to date amenities, walking distance of the coffee shops, a quiet spot and magnificent views to the hills.

North-facing it is sited to be sheltered from the cold, winter winds from the south east and to make the most of the winter sun.

It is handy to the South Western Highway which from here is a two and a half hour drive to Perth.

It has two bedrooms and a compact ‘den’ that could be an office or study. There is a garage and the opportunity and space to build an additional garage or shed.

The house has a new roof, gutters, exterior walls with insulation, new bathroom and laundry wing, polished jarrah boards, new lights, painted throughout.  Fine furniture maker of Bridgetown, Glen Holst, has made the benches for the kitchen, laundry and bathroom.

Extensive outside hard landscaping with back courtyard created and a terraced back area west of the house. New septic tanks and long leach drains that look as though they could service a small hotel. New air conditioning and wood heater in lounge plus a Metters stove in the kitchen, and a new gas stove and dish washer.

All on a block of 2431sqm i.e. over half an acre in the old language. The block goes down a slope to the winter creek that enters the Balingup Brook.

There is excellent Mobile coverage as the tower is in sight about 1.5 km away. NBN can be readily connected via Fixed Wireless Broadband which would receive signals from the same tower.

Here is the house in the context of its surroundings.

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The house at 8 Roberts Street in Balingup was originally built for the Town Clerk of the Balingup Roads Board in the mid-20th Century. It is of fibro-timber construction with high ceilings and jarrah floors.

The town centre with its coffee shops is only some 200m away. The Balingup General Store is literally around the corner. Whilst the South Western Highway is only about 100m away, the house is well screened from view and the sound of traffic is muted.

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A large Mediterranean Oak on the verge provides summer shade to the back courtyard in the morning. The tree loses its leaves in winter.

 

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St Peter’s is a charming old church that is still being used by a small congregation. In the foreground is a Western Power pillar. Power was put underground from across the road a few years ago.

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Here are the front steps up to the veranda which has jarrah floorboards. It has magnificent views to the countryside. The veranda is well-positioned to catch the winter sun.

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From the front there is another path to the back courtyard.

Here are scenes from the interior of the house: the lounge, bedrooms, kitchen and bathroom.

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The bathroom and laundry are new having been built as a new wing. The heat exchange type of HWS is shown here next to the bathroom. There are two toilets, one in the bathroom and another separate one off the laundry.

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The veranda has views to the Park and to the north and west.

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From the veranda looking to the north.

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North of the house and down the hill is the Balingup Town Hall. There are sweeping views from the house to the hills north and west of the town. Note the mobile tower toward the top left on the horizon.

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From the front lawn looking west taken in late May 2018 with a pear tree in full autumn colour. Behind the small sheds there is a 23,000l tank set up to collect rainwater and provide water for a reticulation system. A controller and solenoids are in place. There is power to the pump at the tank which also has a standpipe for firefighting purposes. The sheds have seen better days but handy for storing wood or could be replaced with something more substantial.

What’s in a name?

An accurate title can help comprehension

In the US in the past few years it has been realised that towns, settlements, outer suburbs  and other areas in which people live that are close to bush, are likely to have close encounters with bushfires.

In the SW of Western Australia with our hot, dry summers we, too, will experience bushfires. They come with the territory.

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This fire in 2013 burnt out an historic homestead and a timber bridge across the Blackwood River. The bridge cost $4 million to replace, the homestead may not be rebuilt. The fire was only 8 km away from us in Balingup when this photo was taken.

Currently much of the effort and considerable cost goes into the fighting of the fire and the recovery afterwards.

Thus we talk often of firefighters and not so much of fire managers or fire controllers who could be carrying out planned burns rather than fighting unplanned bushfires.

There are, encouragingly, moves toward greater concentration on and resources applied to preemptive actions to reduce fuel loads both on public and private lands. This is commonly described as carrying out bushfire mitigation.

If fuel loads are reduced, i.e. by decreasing the amount of overgrown vegetation and litter around towns and on properties, there is less to burn and a lower chance that the fire will become so fierce that it causes mass destruction.

Up till recently we’ve heard much about firefighters and brigades, but there is little attention on homeowners and how they can be brought on board to do more for themselves.

Much of the problem of bushfires lies with their being located near people, their homes, towns and other infrastructure. This has been an ongoing problem developing over the past thirty years or so when the idea of having a place in the country, a tree change, or simply cheaper accommodation on the outer edges of the metropolitan area has gained momentum.

The problem of fires occurring near people points to where the solution lies. It is imperative that the various landowners, residents and businesses (including agricultural ones) be part of the solution. They have the most to lose if a bushfire breaks out and the most to gain, in the form of increased safety, if they are active upfront to take steps to reduce the risk.

Each householder or business owner/farmer can be involved and can help reduce the volume and mass of vegetation, i.e. remove fuel and cut bushfire risk not only on their own property but they can coordinate with their neighbours as well.

Fundamentally they need to be seen as the key stakeholders and intrinsically involved in the deliberations as to how better, we as a society, can improve our management of bushfires. We need to move from recognising and mopping up disasters to being aware of disaster risk and acting to reduce those risks.

Over the past year there has been several officers working for groups of rural and semi-rural Shires in compiling Bushfire Risk Management Plans or BRMPs. To all intents and purposes this process has been conducted in secret.

Properties and various parcels of land that have been identified as being in Bushfire Prone Areas (BPAs) have been examined more closely using high definition satellite images and other sources. The results are entered into an application to aid correlation and to standardise the results. A check is made with the Office of Bushfire Risk Management (OBRM) which can suggest changes or improvements. Once the Plans conform to the requisite standard a report is prepared for the Shire concerned and presented to the Council.

Once accepted this report becomes a public document, but from what I can understand, the details of individual properties are not being released. Apparently a Freedom of Information request may mean that an owner can discover more details about the bushfire risk on his or her property.

The National Fire Protection Association of the US has developed its Firewise USA program to facilitate the development of aware and active residents in fire-prone areas all over the US. Its byline is “Residents reducing wildfire risks”.

To cater for the wider landscape as well as at the Wildland Urban Interface (WUI) the Americans have developed Fire Adapted Communities. It has Firewise USA as one of its components as well as supporting mitigation activities such as prescribed burning. Federal and State governments are contributors as are insurance companies.

We can use aspects of these American programs to influence how we make ourselves safer from bushfires here in Western Australia and possible Australia-wide.

We could set up a similar organisation called Bushfire Adapted Communities, or more descriptively, Bushfire Risk Reduced Communities. These names seem a little clumsy.

A better way to describe the organisation might be to call it Firewise Western Australia with the subtitle: “Residents reducing bushfire risks”.

Whatever we do, we need to apply hard-headed practicalities to the problem. Only residents are in the position to do something about their own property. A professionally designed program delivered with the similar skills and expertise that the Water Corporation brings to its Waterwise program could bring about positive action to reduce bushfire risk on homeowner’s properties.

With a carefully crafted initiative the onus can be put on to homeowners to make their properties at lower risk. Government, once the program was implemented could save on costs and the users or customers would not have the heartache and disruption of losing their home to bushfire.

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.