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.