Sharks, Native Plants and People

Are people less important than the environment?

Shark attacks appear to be increasing when compared with statistics of some decades ago when sharks were fished commercially. The article from The Australian newspaper discusses this issue.

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A quote from the article.
“Almost everywhere one looks — the CSIRO, universities and the various departments of primary industries or fishing — one sees a higher priority given to sharks than surfers, divers or swimmers. This misanthropism springs from the common perception that humans are a blight on our planet and that a few casualties from interactions with nature are an acceptable price in the quest to save the Earth from ­rapacious humans. Such a deliberate lack of ­humanity is usually assoc­iated only with religious ­delusions or witchcraft. But, then, you “believe” in “saving” the environment or you don’t.”

What is interesting is that a parallel can be drawn between this situation and bushfire attack on people who live at the Rural Urban Interface, typically where native plants are in close proximity

In the example above, a case is made that human lives are treated as of less importance than those of the sharks. In the instance of bushfires, for those who are living in bushfire prone areas, having native plants (which predominantly are of high flammability with volatile oils in their foliage) near the house is plain dangerous. It increases the risk of property destruction and inherently increases risk to life.

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Taken earlier this month in Margaret River, in Australia’s South West, noted for its wines, for surfing and unfortunately shark attacks, these homes have native bush close to them. Note the dry branches, much litter, many eucalypts – a fire hazard from November to April.

In gardening circles and throughout much of the popular media, residents are encouraged to “plant natives” or, indeed, are barred from removing native plants, to save water, to increase biodiversity or in other nebulous ways “to save the planet”.

Perhaps we should look at native plants like tigers in our garden, or sharks in our favourite ocean swimming spot. We need to recognise the dangers and make clear-eyed decisions to reduce the risk. And put people first.

Ferguson Report: Full Media Statement

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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.

23/06/16

MEDIA STATEMENT FROM SPECIAL INQUIRER EUAN FERGUSON AFSM

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

Waterwise Verge Problems in Bushfire areas

Last week I saw promotion of an initiative to implement waterwise verges, waterwise verge – best practice guidelines throughout the Perth Metropolitan area including in those areas now recognised as being bushfire prone. Unfortunately, this program is likely to have unintended consequences for large parts of the metropolitan area in that it will create a real and ongoing threat of increased fuel load near homes, thus leading to a greater chance of bushfire attack*.

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South Western Highway at Kirup. Whilst not in the metropolitan area the image shows an example of a verge that is both waterwise and does not constitute a fire hazard. It is firewise!  It  is quite bare apart from the row of deciduous, decorative pears which give shade in summer, colour in autumn and let the sun through in winter. They are also covered in blossom in spring. 

 

Paradoxically this initiative was promoted in the same week as the release of the Report of the Special Inquiry into the January 2016 Waroona Fire (the Ferguson Report waroona_fires_2016_-_volume_1_-_report_final) which in its findings places a strong emphasis on fuel management.

In this Waterwise program incentives will be offered to householders who will be subsidised to change their verges by a combination of Council and Water Corporation funding waterwise-verge-information-sheet. Thus we see one arm of the State Government, the Water Corporation, offering incentives to change verges to increase the fuel load, i.e. create a fire hazard and another, the Public Sector Commission, in the Ferguson Report, advocating fuel management processes to reduce the fire risk.

For some time I have been concerned about the effects that bushfires may have on communities in Bushfire Prone Areas including in the Metropolitan area. These areas have now been mapped and these BPA maps were released a few months back. They are disturbing in that they show much of the South West Land Division including the outer areas of the Perth Metropolitan area being at risk of bushfire attack.  Even areas near the City are shown to be at bushfire risk. I have friends in Glengariff Drive, Floreat who have Bold Park at the rear of their property and they are classified as being in a BPA. See the link for the BPA maps. Developing a verge as described in the Water Corp initiative would add to their fire hazard. http://www.dfes.wa.gov.au/regulationandcompliance/bushfireproneareas/Pages/default.aspx

Thus the release of this verge initiative is concerning for those areas that are quite clearly in areas of bushfire risk. Here is the link to the Page.

http://www.watercorporation.com.au/home/business/saving-water/water-efficiency-programs/waterwise-council-program/waterwise-verges

The program recommends that in order to save water, householders remove their street lawn and replace it with waterwise plants – the preference is for native plants. These plants are to be kept below a height of 70 cm and preferably are to be non-irrigated.

This treatment of a verge will result in a strip of flammable plant material that is likely to catch on fire and carry a fire toward the house.  Embers can be carried hundreds of metres or even more from the main fire. The use of mulch is recommended and its type is not specified – apart from being described as needing to be of coarse consistency. If the mulch is shredded plant material it will act as fuel in a bushfire and add to the risk caused by using fairly dry native plants.

Water conservation is essential, but if water is to be saved, verges in Bushfire Prone Areas, would be best covered, at least partially, by non organic materials including some paving. A small bed of succulents, eg pig face could be added or a small clump of drought-tolerant plants such as geraniums. A shady deciduous tree, such as a Chinese Tallow or Chinese Pistachio, even Prunus  or decorative pears (which are quite drought tolerant once established) would be preferable than planting eucalypts or any conifer in BPA. Keeping the verge clear of vegetation apart from some well placed deciduous trees is a viable option. The image of the pears in Kirup is a good example of a practical solution showing a verge at low risk of fire and waterwise.

The select-the-right-tree document referred to by Water Corp includes eucalypts and wattles which are not suitable not only because they are flammable but because they have undesirable habits such as weediness or they are brittle and likely to drop branches or fall over entirely. Flinders Range Wattle is a definite weed and flammable as well. In fact any of the Eastern States wattles are poor subjects for the South West gardens and verges (including the metropolitan area). Balingup, where I Iive, has too many of these trees and they are a real nuisance as they can become large and dangerous. It can cost thousands of dollars to remove them as friends and I have found to our cost.

I have both academic, gardening and first hand experience of many of the trees listed. For some years I did a gardening spot on ABC Local Radio SW. At times I have learnt the hard way when I thought a type of tree was attractive until I discovered it increased bushfire risk, had bad habits and it cost a fortune to remove it.

*There has been an extra section included in the document Waterwise verge – Best Practice Guidelines,  Page 6 Additional Section 1.2.8 Bushfire Prone Areas. See waterwise-verge-best-practice-guidelines1

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.

Weekend_Aust_14-15Nov15

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.

http://reception.abc.net.au/Reception.aspx

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.

 

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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.

Firewise_gardening_Oct15

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.

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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