Fire-Prone Areas – Established Homes

Differing views in this piece from the US about the recent fires in California, but the retired Fire Chief Bob Roper and the scientist Max Moritz speak from experience and the evidence of years of observing wildfires in the WUI.


Retired Fire Chief of Ventura County, California, Bob Roper


“California law requires all new houses in the highest-risk wildfire zones to be built using fire resistant materials. But there are many older homes in these areas that aren’t required to meet the code unless they’re renovated.

“Modern building codes are great for new construction,” said Roper. “But the majority of the homes in the wildfire prone area are already built.””

An additional factor is that a house may be built to the latest standards and have features that initially protect it from being susceptible to bushfire attack, including embers. However, if a few years later, the vegetation near the house has become overgrown and is largely native plant material that is highly flammable, then the property could be at risk. Granted, not so vulnerable as an older home but it could still be affected.


Houses are all but hidden by overgrown vegetation, most of it flammable, in a street in Margaret River. Leaf litter and other debris has built up, making it easy for embers to ignite the ground cover.

Department of Planning, Lands and Heritage, and Western Australian Planning Commission have done considerable work in the area of new housing and have taken bushfire risk into account to make future subdivisions less at risk.However, the bulk of the problem is with existing housing as said by Roper and the Productivity Commission in its Inquiry into Natural Disaster Funding.

Thus for the majority of us living in the Rural Urban Interface areas we face another summer of uncertainty. Not nearly enough mitigation in the form of fuel reduction burns and other treatments has been done. Nor are those living in these areas been given sufficient advice about how to make themselves less at risk of bushfire attack.

The emphasis from the authorities is on getting out early, but if most leave then there are few are around to check for and put out embers. More focus on the Asset Protection Zone  (aka the Building Protection Zone, BPZ) and the Hazard Separation Zone (HSZ) would also be valuable with the result of lower fuels near the house and increased life and property safety.


There is a real case for adopting the NFPA’s Wildfire and Firewise USA Programs or an Australian equivalent. If this came with enhanced fuel treatments of Shire and State lands plus large private landholdings we would not have the threat of major bushfires hanging over us each summer.

Summing up, we need to make a profound break in our mindset from relying on a response effort to that of mitigation (making the risk less) where we move to blocking embers entering our houses and managing the vegetation and other fuel on our lands both public and private.

We need to recognise we live in a fire-prone country; that fire can be our friend and not our enemy.

Ferguson Report: Full Media Statement


Rural scene looking south from Balingup where a prescribed burn to reduce fuels has developed enough heat to create a pyrocumulus cloud. Taken 17 October, 2015, the image shows the varied terrain and types of fuels – grasslands, forest and plantations – that in summer have the potential to burn fiercely as happened in the Waroona Fire a little over two months later.



Reframing Rural Fire Management: Report of the Special Inquiry into the January 2016 Waroona Fire

I note the tabling by Premier Colin Barnett today of my report Reframing Rural Fire Management: Report of the Special Inquiry into the January 2016 Waroona Fire. I am pleased the report and recommendations are in the public domain. I welcome and encourage robust discussion – particularly on a number of the more contentious recommendations. In formulating its response to my report, I ask Government to carefully consider the intent of each recommendation.

In recent years there has been considerable change in the delivery of fire and emergency services and emergency management in Western Australia. A lot has been achieved and there are many positives including:

  • The creation of the Department of Fire and Emergency Services (DFES) and the appointment of a Commissioner for Fire and Emergency Services with appropriate powers;
  • Significant improvements in the relationships between DFES and Parks and Wildlife (P&W);
  • Establishment of the Community Liaison Unit and the Bushfire Ready program;
  • Establishing the Office of Bushfire Risk Management (OBRM) and improvements to hazard reduction burning planning;
  • Enhanced service delivery in the Capes area; and
  • Improvements to the State Emergency Management Committee.


Under the leadership of DFES Commissioner Wayne Gregson and P&W Director-General Jim Sharp, much positive change has been achieved. I also note numerous projects that are still in progress.

Notwithstanding this, the Waroona fire had significant consequences. The impact of this fire extends to a number of towns and communities, including the town of Yarloop, where two elderly gentlemen lost their lives and 166 homes were destroyed. The fire needs to be a catalyst for searching for improvements to strengthen community safety and fire agency capability into the future.

The Special Inquiry started in early February and evoked a significant response. It ran for 13 weeks and held formal hearings on 22 days involving 100 people. The Special Inquiry received more than 160 written submissions and I met with 42 organisations and interest groups. My gratitude goes to all those who contributed their wisdom, knowledge and experience. I particularly acknowledge those who have been directly affected by the fire, and who, in a time of turmoil, gave of their time to tell their story.

It has been the objective of this Special Inquiry to seek to identify improvements to the systems of community safety and bushfire risk management in Western Australia. I did not seek to find fault or allocate blame. Wherever possible it has been the intent of this Special Inquiry to regard any shortcomings firstly as shortcomings in the systems of work for bushfire management. If I had found evidence that individuals were negligent or did not act in good faith, then I would have reported this. I did not find any such instances.

I need to reinforce the difficulty and enormity of the task facing fire managers – especially Incident Controllers and Incident Management Team members. This was a very complex fire – indeed probably the most complex fire I have seen in my 39 years of rural firefighting. Fire controllers were at the mercy of severe weather and fuel conditions. There were a number of factors, outside the control of the Incident Management Team, that limited their options and made their job extremely difficult. Some oversights have been identified. This is to be expected when working under extreme pressure in a dynamic and volatile emergency situation. It is my view that the Incident Management Team members, firefighters and support staff always acted in good faith, and to the best of their ability. These are good, experienced and capable people who did their best in extraordinary conditions. I have confidence in their abilities into the future.

At the outset, I identified a number of compelling questions regarding the fire, for which the community would rightfully seek answers. The report makes specific findings in relation to these issues, ranging from the cause of the fire; why the water failed in Yarloop; why specific warnings were not issued; and why additional resources were not sent to Yarloop.

In the report I have made 17 recommendations for strategic change, and 23 agency opportunities for improvement.

It is my belief that, when actioned, these recommendations and agency opportunities will reframe rural fire management in Western Australia for the benefit of the community and for Bush Fire Brigade volunteers. Some recommendations for strategic change will take time, possibly years, to establish and to reap the benefits.

As flagged above, I note improvements in the systems of bushfire management in Western Australia over recent years. Despite these, it is my view that there exists a need to effect fundamental changes to the system of rural fire management in Western Australia. My conclusion, which has been very carefully considered, is that the current system for managing bushfire in Western Australia is failing citizens and the government. As a result I have recommended that the State Government create a Rural Fire Service to enhance the capability for rural fire management and bushfire risk management at a State, regional and local level.

I recognise that this conclusion will be contentious. But it is supported by many submissions and the repeated observations that point to the need for systemic change. Perhaps the most compelling support for fundamental change is the dramatic increase in the number and impact of damaging and costly bushfires over the last six years in Western Australia.

There is a strong argument that the State needs to readjust expenditure away from fire response and recovery, towards a greater investment in prevention and fuel hazard management. This includes investing more in the education, resilience and readiness of local communities and individual citizens. Many of the recommendations of this Special Inquiry will enable this shift in focus, and the creation of a rural fire service in particular, is vital to doing so. The momentum must be maintained into the future. If such change does not occur, then the prospect of a future catastrophic bushfire event is increasingly likely.

I thank the Western Australian Government for the opportunity to contribute to the vision of a safer Western Australian community and ask that you carefully consider my recommendations.


 MEDIA CONTACT: Jean Perkins – 0429 122 789

Fixed Wireless Broadband and AM Radio

There is still interference from the NBN Fixed Wireless Broadband when we try to listen on 1044 AM from the Bridgetown transmitter. Changes to the Outdoor Unit and the Indoor Unit have made an improvement, but for most of the time the radio has too much static to be able to listen to it properly.

Here is an image of an item on page 11 of The Weekend Australian of November 14-15, 2015.


The latest is that NBN Co is suggesting an indoor and outdoor antenna set up to boost the AM Radio signal. Here’s hoping that something will restore the radio signal to what it was before and provide us with local news and emergency alerts from the station in Bunbury which is the home of ABC South West Regional Radio.

Other residents of our area will also be similarly affected because they are also in a fringe area for radio signals, but are in areas that do have storms and bushfires.

Here is a handy link to the reception status of many places in Western Australia. Very instructive. At the moment we are tuning into the powerful Wagin transmitter.  We get a very good signal from Wagin on 558. However, it is broadcast out of the Great Southern Region with the station at Albany.

I have checked with ABC South West and for Emergency Warning Broadcasts they will normally broadcast beyond the immediate South West, i.e., to adjoining regions such as the Great Southern. This is reassuring although by listening to Wagin we miss out on the local news and weather from the South West region.

We are still trying to achieve good reception of ABC Local Radio South West as we used to have before NBN Fixed Wireless Broadband.



Older AM radio on left, tradies radio on right.

Retrofitting the garden around the home

The area near the house is very important when it comes to reducing the risk of bushfire attack.

A garden with a low risk of bushfire attack.

A garden with a low risk of bushfire attack.

The type of plant, its position and its condition can make a big positive difference to how well the house survives a bushfire.

Shrubs kept small, deciduous trees, grassed areas, use of rocks as border, not wood, all help in reducing the risk of bushfire attack.

There is more information with links to useful sites from a note that I have just updated about Firewise Gardening.


Communications, social media and radio

Sometimes in the upgrade to a new technology, such as the NBN, not all goes as planned. Offered an upgrade to the way high speed broadband would be delivered I jumped at having Fixed Wireless Broadband. Only snag – more like a large log really – was that my AM Radio was overwhelmed by interference.

Despite using Telstra’s Crowdsupport and beginning to let others know by social media I still don’t have the issue resolved.

Here is a letter I’ve written to a couple of newspapers.


Fixed Wireless Broadband antenna on veranda roof next to kitchen about 4 m from radio set.

To the Editor,

NBN stole my radio

As good as. Since I had NBN Fixed Wireless Broadband installed over a month ago I have had massive interference on my radio. Having NBN is fantastic and it is way cheaper than mobile wireless broadband. But …

We usually listen to Local ABC Radio South West broadcasting from Bunbury. We receive this via transmitters at 1044 from Bridgetown or 684 from Busselton. The radio in the house is best heard from Bridgetown as the signal for us in a Balingup valley is not strong.  We live in a bushfire-prone area. As ABC Local Radio South West is the designated station for receiving emergency alerts we need to have this working at all times. As per the Department of Emergency Services advice we have a radio that operates either with mains power or with batteries.

Despite alerting NBN and Telstra, our telco provider, to the problem within hours of the installation of the NBN, weeks later we are still waiting for a remedy. We’ve had reference numbers, complaint registrations and numerous phone calls, but nothing has been implemented to fix the problem.

What is worse, is the fact that a near identical problem was identified on Telstra’s Crowdsupport which was resolved in May last year. Search on “NBN radio” and you will find my posts and the resolved interference problem.

I’ve contacted the office of the Minister for Communication – they were quite helpful, my local MHR who was sympathetic, and the local installation company. So far to no avail.

I would be interested to know if any one else in the inland South West of Western Australia has experienced similar problems. To date I have found that many do not have access to NBN or that they cannot receive ABC Local Radio at the best of times.

Despite all the technological marvels of the 21 st Century I have the sneaking suspicion that the whole telecommunications set up in the rural areas is held together by bits of wire and pieces of string.  As for the bureaucracy surrounding the NBN; it would do the ABC TV series “Utopia” proud.

Yours sincerely,

Peta Townsing

Their home is their castle

Or Why homeowners are central to bushfire risk management

I recently put together a poster for the Australasian Fire and Emergency Services Authorities Council (AFAC) Conference coming up this September in Adelaide.

There were a number of themes chosen for the Conference amongst being “A Shared Responsibility”. I am not particularly happy about the use of the term as it is often taken to mean that a homeowner in, say, a bushfire-prone area should or should not do certain things according to some law or regulation, rather than do something because they see the reason for doing so. To me it sounds authoritarian rather than subtly persuasive; the latter being the preferred technique of marketeers when selling products or ideas.


A Silver Birch was removed as it was only 3 m from veranda and for months dropped tiny seeds from its numerous tassels that went into the roof space and gutters.


Tassels of the Silver Birch which will dry out and become fuel in the gutters and roof space.

On the other hand if the term is used to ensure that local Shires, Main Roads WA and other government bodies have a commitment to reduce fuel loads on land for which they are responsible then it makes more sense.

Additionally Government does have a role in facilitating the education of landowners who dwell in the Rural Urban Interface areas about bushfire risk management. In particular they can help encourage a sense of pride in homeowners to become more self-reliant and reward them for so becoming.

The Water Corporation has an excellent record in encouraging customers to become waterwise. The aim needs to be for homeowners to become firewise.

The poster was designed to be A1 size and attempts to look at bushfire risk management from a homeowner’s perspective.

Enlightened self-interest is a good motivator. People who live in the RUI areas will come from a range of backgrounds and for many their home and their lifestyle is precious. If they can be more self-reliant in looking after themselves, they are also helping their neighbours.  Here is the poster: Shared_Resp_PetaTownsing_Poster_sm 02-5


Example of a firewise garden at low risk of bushfire attack. Wide lawns, gravel paths, deciduous trees. low shrubs, perennials such as agapanthus, all make for a garden that is of low flammability.

Prescribed burning – a hot topic

Here in the South West of Western Australia, where we have just survived a fire season with many bushfires, the topic of prescribed burning has been debated.


Jarrah forest just 4 kms away from the town of Balingup in the inland SW which has had a recent prescribed burn. Note the blackened trunks and relatively small amount of understory.

To many of us who live near forests and farmlands prescribed burning is not at all problematic – it is a potent way to reduce the fuel built up in forests and woodlands. Without this controlled burning of forest litter and other dead or dry material we know that the build up of flammable material will lead to huge, intense bushfires that can travel for kilometres.

In one of these intense fires, the recent Northcliffe bushfires, embers were spotting up to five kms ahead and starting more fires.

The area near the small town of Northcliffe not far from the south coast of WA has coastal heathlands and further inland large stands of Karri forest, some of it in National Parks. Much of the  area is difficult to burn because of its mild climate where it is well into summer before it is dry enough to burn. It can quickly become very dry and dangerous to burn. As a consequence and with limited resources there were some areas that had not been burnt for thirty years or more and there was significant fuel build up.

A series of lightning strikes over summer started many fires and most were contained quickly, but not all. With hot, strong winds fires took off and merged to create one of the biggest fires in the State’s history.

After the fire there was a community meeting called by the authorities: the Northcliffe Bushfire Debrief. Here are the Minutes Operational 2015 3 10 of this meeting which gives some idea of the enormity and cost of this fire (or these fires).

Two days later another meeting was called by a residents’ group to call for more prescribed burning.

Poster for Meeting advocating prescribed burning.

Poster for Meeting advocating prescribed burning.

Here is the poster:

The newspaper account of the meeting was sent to me as pdfs.

Here they are: MBT18MAR15MAN1STA001 MBT18MAR15MAN1STA005 MBT18MAR15MAN1STA009

One of the speakers was retired forester, Roger Underwood who spoke at the meeting. Here are the notes of his speech. Bushfire management in the karri country

There is much to be said about prescribed burning, but the best thing to do is to take action and conduct these controlled burns. The rains have come to the South West in the past few weeks, quite early for the season, in the form of remnants of two cyclones. Not dangerous to us here but bringing gentle, soaking rains. The bushfire risk has passed, it is safe to burn, if a little damp to get the fire started!

Vegetation can be fuel

A question often asked is what sort of plants should I have around my house if I live in a fire-prone area.

Whilst recent trends have been to save water and plant waterwise plants, these can often cause problems as they may also be quite flammable. Typically plants with volatile oils in the leaves, such as lavenders or eucalypts will burn intensely and quickly and need to be kept well away from the house. At least 20 m is a minimum spacing.


Artemisia or Wormwood is a drought-tolerant shrub that grows up to 2m or more high if left unpruned. It has volatile oils in its leaves and accumulates dead leaves along the older stems. A useful, tough garden plant except that it catches alight very easily. Best kept well-watered and pruned hard each year or replaced with something less flammable.

If you have adequate water and areas which are protected from the hot afternoon sun in summer, then hydrangeas could be good candidates.


Hydrangeas do require watering over summer otherwise they will wilt and start to dry out thus becoming more flammable. If the plant is kept well watered, leaves remain moist and less likely to burn unless exposed to embers or flames until dried out.

A useful tip is to try the barbecue test where a gas barbecue is heated up and specimen plants of various sorts are placed on the griller part. Some plants will burst into flames immediately, others will burn after several minutes once they have dried out, and others, such as the hydrangea will take some time until they are all dried out and then will smoulder, rather than burst into flame. These tests are best treated as a guide only because any plant will burn if exposed to flames for a long period, but some plants will burn more readily than others and these are best kept away from the house.

Fine leaved plants with waxy leaves and oils in their leaves are best placed well away from the house. Plants such as coprosma and most deciduous trees which are of low flammability are potential candidates for gardens likely to experience bushfires and in order to provide shade can be planted closer to the house than 20 m but not so close that they overhang the roof.


Testing plants on a gas barbecue at the Fire Station in Balingup.

It was after 6pm and we placed the barbecue several metres out from the veranda on an open gravel-covered area. (Just to make sure we did not start a bushfire!). A useful exercise with most plants burning more than we would have predicted.

To be a safe as possible it is worth spacing low flammability plants at least 5m to 10 m out from the house and keeping them well maintained and watered. If they dry out or become very big they are just fuel for a fire by a different name.

Bushfires – not only a risk to lives and properties

Bushfires in SW Western Australia are a natural occurrence and to be expected from October to April. Of themselves if not hugely intense they have a role in the regeneration of the vegetation, they recycle nutrients and remove dead and dying plant material to make way for new growth.

Problems arise when bushfires meet people or property. In the past forty years or so many people from the cities and suburbs have sought a home in the country either as a holiday home or as a permanent place to live. The sea change concept applies to coastal living, the tree change to those who wish to live closer to forests or woodlands.

“Tree changers” will often have a romantic view of the bush. Unless they have had experience of living on a farm or near bushland they may be unprepared for living in a safe way in fire-prone areas. In fact if a bushfire comes close it may seem more like a war zone than a peaceful country home. See my recent letter to the West Australian, published on the 13 January 2015. The link is to a pdf version.

Letter published in The West Australian, the daily newspaper of the state of Western Australia.

Letter published in The West Australian, the daily newspaper of the state of Western Australia.


In any bushfire that comes close to settlements there will be some disruption of daily life. Power will often go off, sometimes for hours or even days as in the recent case of Northcliffe which is still being restored. Power is needed to operate pumps where there is no scheme water, so water supply can be affected just when you need it most.

Circumstances may indicate that it is better to evacuate to somewhere else whilst the bushfire is active. Then there are problems with respect to pets and to livestock including those half a dozen hens that are almost pets that scratch around the yard.

With no power for a day or more, the contents of freezers may well be not fit for consumption.

Who can you stay with?  There may be no likely candidates at short notice.  A plan can be useful but it does not disguise the fact that normal life has to be put on hold.  There is also the possibility that the house may be burnt down with most of your possessions destroyed.

Now that is disruptive!

After the bushfire

After the fire at Parkerville, Perth Hills, January 2014. 57 houses were destroyed by fire.