Western Australia: Improving mitigation

How prescribed burning is making its (successful) mark

There’s been much debate in the news lately following the extensive bushfires in NSW and Victoria this summer of 2019/2020.

It would appear from examining the context of the fires that prescribed burning and other mitigation actions are not used to the same extent as has been happening in Western Australia for the past several decades or so.

Fire scientists have been very active in researching the causes and the management of bushfires and have published the results. Whilst the forests in south west WA are endemic to the area, the general principles discovered in the WA research can, with adjustments for different fire regimes, be applied in other bushfire prone areas of Australia.

Two of these bushfire researchers recently wrote the following essay which explains why we need to carry out prescribed burning wherever we have forests and woodlands. The authors are Neil Burrows and Rick Sneeuwjagt and here is their essay. A must-read.

Neil Burrows makes the keynote presentation at the AFAC Conference held in Perth in September 2018.

Out of frustration Rick and I have written the piece below to counter some of the nonsense that is circulating from people who have no understanding or practical experience with fire behaviour, prescribed burning and bushfire suppression. Between us, Rick and I have more than 80 years experience in bushfire science, policy, planning, prescribed burning and fire suppression. The piece is lengthy but its a complex issue.

How and why prescribed burning mitigates bushfire losses

Neil Burrows and Rick Sneeuwjagt

The piece by Byron Lamont and Tianhua He titled “Why prescribed burns don’t stop wildfires” (WAToday 22 January 2020) is complete fiction. It reveals that these authors have no experience or operational understanding of fire behaviour, prescribed burning and bushfire suppression. Their baseless and inhumane opinions, if given any credibility, will give rise to very dangerous fire management policies, a continuation of a cycle of devastating bushfires and further losses of lives and beautiful forests.
The title of their article is a clue to their lack of understanding. Prescribed burning is not designed to stop bushfires. It is designed to make them easier, safer and cheaper to suppress. Experienced land managers, fire fighters, and the bushfire scientists who work closely with them, are in no doubt that the scientific, experiential and historical evidence demonstrates that prescribed burning, done properly, is highly effective at mitigating the bushfire threat, even under severe weather conditions. This is based on the following evidence.
Firstly, fire science. Reducing fuel loads and simplifying fuel structures by regular burning reduces the speed of a bushfire, its intensity (heat energy output), the size of the flames and its ember and spotting potential. All of this makes bushfires less damaging and easier to put out. In mature forests, crown fires cannot be sustained if the surface and near surface fuels are at low levels as a result of regular fuel reduction burning.

Lamont and He make the extraordinary assertion that long unburnt forest fuels are of low flammability and therefore of no significant threat to communities. This is not only demonstrably untrue, it is dangerously wrong. For example, in long unburnt karri forest, much of the live, green understorey dies and becomes dead, dry fuel on the forest floor after about 25-30 years. Bushfires are most likely to occur well before that time. Dead scrub, together with accumulated dead leaves, twigs and bark, the surface and aerated near-surface fuels can be a meter or more deep with total fuel loads of up to 50 tonnes per hectare. In dryer stringybark forests, the sparser, lower understorey vegetation comprises a small component of the total fuel complex. It is the accumulation of dead fuels (leaves, twigs, branchlets, bark) that drives forest fires. This is because it is at the base of the ‘fuel ladder’, it is dry, and it reaches very high loadings if left unburnt.

Second, real-world experience. We know of hundreds of examples where prescribed burning has ‘saved the day’

. Hot fires ran into areas of low fuel, and the resulting reduced fire behaviour enabled fire fighters to gain the upper hand. Conversely, we can cite numerous recent examples where a lack of prescribed burning has resulted in unstoppable fires and considerable losses. Ask any fire fighter whether they would rather fight a bushfire in 4 year old fuels or in 40 year old fuels? We know what the answer will be. Academics like Lamont and He disdain the experience of bushmen and experienced firefighters, preferring computer models developed on a green, leafy campus. In doing so they reject the experience of real-world Australians and their experience over the last 200 years.

Third, history. There are almost 60 years of historical data from the forests of south west WA, and these data unequivocally show that when the area of prescribed burning trends down, the area burnt by bushfire trends up. There is a simple explanation: bushfires are more difficult to put out in heavy fuels. The area burnt by wildfire escalates rapidly when the area of prescribed burning in a region falls below about 8% per annum. Burning about 8% per annum results in about 40% of the bushland carrying fuels 0-5 years old.

A very powerful factor in the recent bushfire tragedies in NSW is the fact that prescribed burning in NSW has amounted to less than 2% per annum. This means only 10% of the bushland is carrying fuels 0-5 years old and 80% is carrying fuels older than 10 years. This is well below the threshold for effective bushfire mitigation because a high proportion of the region is carrying very old, heavy, flammable fuels. Fires in these fuels rapidly become unstoppable, especially when they have been dried out by years of drought.

Finally, strategic planning. To be effective, prescribed burning must also be strategic – that is, done in the right places to protect communities by intercepting fire runs under the worst fire weather conditions. The fire management cells need to be large enough to ensure a sufficient area for the spread of a bushfire to be slowed and controlled. Burns must be bounded by roads or tracks to enable rapid access by fire fighters. Burning must be done to appropriate standards of fuel removal and fire intensity. Prescribed burns that are too patchy may not slow a bushfire, and in some forests, burns that are too hot can stimulate the regeneration of dense scrub.

Prescribed burning – how and why it works
The purpose of a fuel reduction burning program is not to stop bushfires, but to assist with their safe suppression. The process of bushfire suppression is complex and dynamic. There are a variety of suppression strategies and tactics that can be used in space and time, depending on weather conditions, fuels, topography, fire behaviour, fire shape and fire position in the landscape, and fire intensity around the fire’s perimeter.
Fire fighters rarely make a direct attack on the head fire – it’s usually too ‘hot’. Instead, they implement other strategies including a variety of direct, indirect and parallel attacks – the options, and likelihood of early success, are greater if the fire is burning slower and at a lower intensity because it’s burning in young, light fuels. Appliances such as water bombers will be more effective on slower moving, lower intensity fires. Fire intensity varies around the fire’s perimeter, affording suppression opportunities – there will almost always be a place on the fire’s perimeter that can be attacked – even under severe fire weather conditions – and if fuel loads are low, this opportunity widens significantly.
The most trying bushfire situation occurs when there is wind shift and the long flank of the fire becomes a wide head fire. Therefore, containment work on the ‘pressure flank’ is critical and is more likely to succeed in young, low fuel situations when flank fire intensity is relatively low, even under severe weather conditions.

If part of the fire is burning in very light fuels as a result of prescribed burning, then if resources are stretched, it can be ignored and resources deployed to higher priority areas around the fire perimeter, or to defending properties, or dispatched to other fires in a multiple fire situation.

Prescribed burning provides ‘anchor points’ and ‘tie in’ points for fire fighters. These low fuel areas are very important for indirect suppression strategies including back burning. Attempting to back burn in old, heavy fuels against old, heavy fuels is a slow, resources demanding, dangerous and risky process. Back burning in young, light fuels surrounded by young, light fuels is much safer, more likely to be successful and requires less resources. Low fuel areas are also very important for ‘tying in’ containment lines, enabling faster, more efficient suppression. The speed of construction of containment lines is crucial in the battle against a growing fire. Fire suppression is a race in terms of rate of fireline construction and containment verses rate of perimeter growth of the bushfire. Fires burn slower in younger, lighter fuels, not only improving the likelihood of early detection and suppression, but increasing the odds of fire fighters getting the upper hand.

Severe fire weather fire weather conditions don’t last very long in the life cycle of a bushfire – when diurnal fire weather conditions ease (and they always do at some point), and if the fire is burning in young, light fuels, there is a larger window of opportunity for safe suppression, than if it’s burning in old, heavy fuels.

There are two other critical ways in which fuel reduction programs assist with bushcontrol. The first is that it allows fires to be suppressed in the lead-up days to extreme conditions. Firefighters are nearly always overwhelmed when ‘catastrophic’ conditions (i.e.hot, dry, windy weather) strike fires that are already burning in the landscape. The presence of low fuel areas makes it more likely that these fires can be controlled before the catastrophic conditions occur.

The second is that when there are multiple fires on the same day, as occurred during the Cyclone Alby crisis in WA in 1978, fire controllers can set up a “triage” response. Fires burning in 1 or 2 year old fuel can be temporarily ignored, while all the focus is placed on the most threatening fires. This allows the best use to be made of resources.

Regardless of fire weather conditions, to firefighters, fuel load matters. It directly affects fire intensity (heat energy output) around the fire’s perimeter, and the size of the suppression windows in space and time. Also, containment line break outs such as hop overs and spot fires, are much easier to control in light fuels than in heavy fuels.

The fuel load burning behind the flame zone, which is greater in older fuels, is critical for suppression difficulty because total heat output acts in a number of ways. It is an input to convection which increases wind speeds in the flame zone, boosting spotting and fire behaviour. It increases the likelihood of high energy release rates and deep flaming, conditions that can trigger a transition to a dangerous and unpredictable plume-driven fire. It increases the likelihood of re-ignition and breaching of the containment line by burning across it or by blown embers or by hop-overs. Radiation from glowing combustion adds to the heat load on firefighters and increases the time that the burnt ground can be used for safe refuge. It substantially decreases the effectiveness of water and other suppressants /retardants applied from the ground or from the air. Heavy fuel also hinders fire line construction and in some fuels make it impractical.

Of the elements that make up the bushfire triangle – fuel, weather and topography – only fuel can be managed. But this must be done the right way – underpinned by good science, well planned and well executed by trained, experienced people who are well resourced. Prescribed burning is costly and comes with an element of risk, but the alternative, a cycle of bushfires, is far more costly to communities and the environment.

Conclusion:

The article by Lamont and He in WAToday is not only factually incorrect, it is dangerous and inhumane. If the authorities were to take any notice of their assertions, and curtail the fuel reduction program, the result in WA would be identical to that currently occurring in NSW: death, destruction, heartbreak. Our advice to Lamont and He is to get some actual fire experience in the bush, get on the back of a fire truck, and then lets see what they think about the value of fuel reduction in assisting with bushfire control.

Neil Burrows sums up the pros and cons of prescribed burning at the 2018 AFAC Conference.

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.

Wattles are worse*

Wattles are often added to a property to provide shade and possibly firewood for later. Whilst the smaller shrubby ones are easy to remove when they become scraggly and start to die back, the larger trees such as Cedar Wattles, Black Wattles and Blackwood Wattles cause a whole lot of problems as they age.

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Overall scene showing the fallen trunk of a Cedar Wattle which fell across the path to the hillside. It damaged the fence, pushed a strainer post and crushed a young Tupelo tree near the stream. In the centre of the image to the rear is a wattle in flower that shows a scar on its trunk where a large lateral branch fell off and struck the Cedar Wattle some months ago. This has subsequently fallen on Tuesday 28 August 2018

After perhaps twenty or thirty years of growth they become large trees which then will drop limbs, split or fall over entirely, damaging everything in their path.  By this time they are large trees and are costly to remove. Thus many owners are stuck in a dilemma; the ageing wattles will become more dangerous, but it is very expensive to remove them.

Here is a video taken earlier this year before the Cedar Wattle came down.

The trunk of the Cedar Wattle that fell is just behind the large post in the fence shown at the beginning.

The Cedar Wattle becomes brittle with age and branches split, but may not come away entirely.

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The remaining trunk of the Cedar Wattle has side branches which have split (see example near top of image). The tree has become dangerous as branches or the whole tree have become unsound. Note to the left a dead branch from another tree is suspended in the branches which could fall at any time.

The following video shows more of the ageing wattles and what can happen to them and anything in the way.

One less wattle, several more to go though hopefully in a more controlled way.

The moral of the story is not to plant them in the first place or only as quick screening to be taken out when small because they are not only a hazard with falling branches or the like, they also drop litter – leaves, twigs, pods – which add to the litter layer, being highly flammable, and will aid the spreading of bushfire in summer.

*The title has a little to do with alliteration, but it sums up some of the features of the larger wattles (acacias) which do not suit them for being near structures, not just homes but also near fences or bridges, etc.

 

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.

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.