2012 – practical tips to protect life and property from bushfires

I live in an outer suburb of Melbourne [Australia] called Warrandyte. It is an urban fringe suburb and proudly part of what’s called the Green Wedge, a huge area of national parks and small communities that extends almost into the heart of Melbourne. Even fringe suburbs like Warrandyte are heavily treed. This is what I see when I look out over my 1.6 acre property.

Looking northeast from my back deck

There are houses nestled in amongst all those trees but you can’t see them. And therein lies a great danger because all those trees are eucalypts and eucalypts have evolved to burn. In fact if the fire is hot enough they don’t just burn, their canopies explode, flinging fire in all directions.

Thanks to these eucalypts and the hilly terrain, Warrandyte has always been a bushfire prone area but the radical conservationist policies of state and local governments over the last 20 odd years have exacerbated the problem enormously.

To give you some idea of how draconian these policies were [more on that later] all those living in the Green Wedge were forbidden, by law, to cut down any trees without a permit and I can tell you that getting a permit was and is on a par with winning the lottery. Worse still, we were ‘encouraged’ to allow native bush [which also burns merrily] to grow right up to our houses. The nett effect was to embed those houses in the middle of a bonfire and wait for someone to light a match.

Since the Black Saturday fires that killed 173 men, women and children not to mention pets, domesticated animals and indigenous animals, these policies have been revised … a little. We are now allowed to cut down trees without a permit so long as they are within a 10 metre radius of the house. I can tell you though that 10 metres is not a lot. My block was a horse paddock for about fifty years so it is more open than most in this area and I am lucky enough to have an average of 15 metres of cleared land between the house and the trees but even that feels horribly close when everything is dry as dust and there is a smell of smoke in the air. Those living in bushfire prone areas are now also allowed to clear bush and scrub within a 50 metre radius of the house but local councils would prefer you didn’t as clearing destroys habitat.

So, was Warrandyte burned by the 2009 bushfires? No, it wasn’t. A change came through late in the day so we were spared that horror but it was damned close. I did not realise how close until the day after Black Saturday when I learned that Warrandyte had been just 10 minutes…minutes…from ember attack when the wind changed and blew the fire away from us.

For those who do not know much about bushfires in Victoria, the worst fire conditions go hand in hand with strong north winds and the cool changes that usually follow. It is these cool changes that usually do the most damage because the change in wind direction can turn a narrow,  many kilometre long fire into a huge, many kilometre wide inferno. Before the wind change on Black Saturday the hot north wind was pushing the fire directly towards Warrandyte. After the change the wind came from the west and pushed the whole line of the fire towards the west, destroying the communities in its path.

I don’t know how many people might have lived had the authorities not been so criminally insane as to put theories and property above human life but I’m sure the death toll would have been less than 173. In all fairness,  the drought, the record temperatures, the Stay or Go policy and the sheer incompetence of those supposedly co-ordinating the fire-fighting effort all played their parts as well but the restrictions on clearing created a massive fuel load on the ground that made a bad fire even worse.

Sadly the fuel load in Warrandyte has only increased since Black Saturday so when our turn comes even a ‘normal’ bushfire is going to do an enormous amount of damage – both to property and to life. Which brings me to the purpose of this post – some practical tips on how not to burn when the next fire comes along.

First and foremost – use the new laws to their maximum. Because I am paranoid I have landscaped the area directly around my house as a rock garden so when those burning embers come flying in they will find very little to burn. Apart from the rocks, pebbles and granitic sand used to create the ‘garden’ this strategy is high on manual labour [mine] and low on cost. The following suggestions are ordered in terms of cost from lowest to highest.

Smoke Seals : putting smoke seals around every external door is not only a good way to keep smoke out of your house, it is also a good way of keeping the heat in during winter and at least some of the heat out during summer. I consider smoke seals to be mandatory if you are serious about trying to protect yourself. Trust me, wet towels may work in a teensy weensy fire but they won’t keep the smoke out in a big one and smoke inhalation can kill just as effectively as flames.

Gutter Guard : protecting your guttering not only makes sense from a bushfire perspective, it also saves you, the home owner, from having to climb up onto your roof every year to remove the leaves and twigs that eucalypts love to shed year round. I’m scared of heights so for me gutter guard is a must.

Toughened Glass : if money is really tight then only putting toughened glass into the north facing doors and windows is better than nothing but please remember that windows and glass doors are the weak points in your house. Once they break you are up the proverbial creek without a paddle because your curtains and carpets, furniture and fittings are all tinder dry so the house will burn from the inside out. The more glass you have the greater the likelihood that something will shatter and let the fire in, so toughened glass is an investment in your life as well as your house. In my house I had toughened glass installed in the upstairs windows until I could afford to have fire resistant shutters installed [see next tip].

Fire Resistant Shutters : if you have the money for shutters be sure to ask for documentation that they really are fire-resistant. The ones I had installed have been fire tested by the CSIRO so I know exactly what they are capable of. I also know their limitations. Proper fire resistant shutters will protect not only your doors and windows, they will also protect your door and window frames. This is important because you do not want burning embers to collect on wooden surfaces right next to glass.

Good shutters will keep both heat and direct flame away from the glass but they are not built to withstand the furnace-like temperatures of Black Saturday. In truth it’s hard to imagine anything that could withstand those temperatures. It terms of ‘ordinary’ bushfires though the shutters will do their job for about twenty minutes but will work much better – and last much longer – if you keep all flammable vegetation away from the windows and shutters in the first place.

One thing though – resist the temptation to get electronic openers for your shutters. Go for manual winders instead. Manual winders may not look pretty or be something cool to show off to your friends but they will allow you to close your all important shutters even when the power is cut! No point having shutters you can’t close because the power lines are down.

So… are fire resistant shutters worth investing approximately $900 per door or floor length window? For me the answer is an emphatic yes. Not only will they protect the most vulnerable parts of my house during a fire but they are already starting to pay for themselves in lower heating and cooling costs.

Fire-fighting sprinklers/roof sprinklers : these are by far the most expensive investment to make because there is no point wasting money on a cheap system that may or may not work when you need it the most. A new car that breaks down is a disappointment. A fire fighting system that breaks down during a fire is death.

The system I have includes all of the following :

Hydraulics calculated for my specific house and roof. Without this careful design step your system may fail when put under the pressure of a real-life bushfire emergency. And one size does NOT fit all. I do not know how to stress this enough. The person designing your system has to be able to calculate how much water must go through those pipes and sprinklers for them to work at their optimum level. This really does have to be done by an expert.

Galvanized steel pipe. The pipes carrying the water to your sprinklers have to withstand massive temperatures during a bushfire so if anyone tells you that plastic or copper ‘will do’ they are idiots who should be jailed for criminal ignorance. My advice : use that nice cheap quote to wipe up doggy doo!

Pumps. Yes, plural pumps. I have two of them to be sure that in an emergency water will get where it is needed. Plus it’s nice to know that if one fails for whatever reason I still have a spare. When my sprinkler system was at the design stage I was given the option of going with petrol pumps or diesel. Because of the cost difference I stupidly chose petrol. My petrol pumps are located in their own pump housing with metal mesh doors for protection but I have now had an earth berm built in front of them for added protection. Nonetheless I know that those pumps are the weak links in my system.

If you are thinking of putting in fire-fighting sprinklers I strongly recommend going with diesel for the peace of mind. Another consideration is that if you want to install some kind of remote activation down the track then you will need diesel pumps not petrol. Whatever you do, please do NOT choose electric pumps. One of the first things that goes during a bushfire is the electricity so a fire fighting system run by electric pumps is a tragedy waiting to happen.

Water. Having dedicated fire fighting water tanks is an absolute necessity because if there is a fire in your area then the bulk of the mains water will be going to the CFA not you. This is a reality that is often overlooked. The size of the tank will depend on the hydraulics calculations but the type of tank you choose should be concrete and preferably in-ground so the water, as well as the connections etc are protected. Quite simply there is no point having a plastic or metal tank because neither will be able to withstand the ferocious temperatures of a bushfire. My system has an in-ground concrete water tank that is supplemented by approximately 18,000 litres of water in my above ground swimming pool. All up I have close to 50,000 litres of water for the sprinklers and some of that will be re-circulated back into the fire fighting tank but I would still like more.

And finally a word about bunkers. I believe that bunkers should be mandatory for every house in a bushfire prone area because they are the cheapest way to save lives. Unfortunately the authorities are still not sufficiently focused on saving lives versus property. That is why we still do not have a standard for the construction of bunkers and that means very few people can legally own them. It also means that those who install bunkers on the quiet have no guarantee that their bunker will work as advertised. If you are thinking about getting a bunker as the most cost effective option of last resort – i.e. you didn’t leave in time, your house is burning and you need to take shelter somewhere – then look for a bunker that has the following features as a bare minimum :

– can be dug into the side of a hill so the earth itself provides insulation against the heat. During Black Saturday the earth was scorched down to a level of half a metre in places. Avoid the bunkers that are dug down into the ground with a trap-door entrance at the top as falling trees and debris could make it impossible to open the trap-door once the fire has passed. Suffocation anyone?

– has a fire-rated door that seals air into the bunker and keeps smoke and noxious gases out.

– is large enough to hold enough ordinary air for at least an hour. Beware of oxygen bottles etc. They can be dangerous.

– has a furnace glass peep-hole so you can see when it is safe to come out.

– is made of reinforced concrete that is water sealed on the inside otherwise you will be bailing water out of the bunker during the winter.

– is situated far enough from the house to avoid falling debris if the house burns but close enough so that you can make a dash for safety if things go fatally pear-shaped.

While I believe bunkers will be the way of the future I don’t think they or the regulations governing them are there yet so be very careful and remember – if you get a deal that’s too good to be true then it probably isn’t.

If you’ve followed me thus far then you’re probably thinking that I’ve spent an awful lot of money trying to fire proof my house. I have. Part of my motivation was pure fear but most was necessity. When I began this journey I was responsible for my aged father who was living with us. Dad had mild dementia and did not cope well with changes to his routine so packing him into the car and leaving on high fire danger days was just not possible [I suspect many mothers of young children will be in the same boat] so I was forced to protect him by protecting the house. Dad died almost two years ago but I’m hoping the house will now protect me in my twilight years.

“But why don’t you just sell up and move somewhere safer? And cheaper?”

Trust me, I’ve thought about it. In fact I think about it at the start of every summer but every year I decide to stay because fire or no I love this place. I love the morning sun filtering down through the trees in autumn and I love the quiet, especially late at night when the stars glitter in the frosty air. I love the green of winter and the connection to life that you just don’t get in the real suburbs. I love looking out of my office window and seeing an echidna slowly snuffling its way up the fence line. I love the roos and wallabies that use my backyard as a shortcut to somewhere else and I have a special place in my heart for the family of magpies who use my compost heap as a smorgasbord. And I love the people here. There is a community spirit in Warrandyte that I have found nowhere else. Neighbours look out for each other and even the shopkeepers are friends. So I stay because this is home and I don’t want to leave but I do know the risks.

Talk to any of the old time locals and they will all tell you that Warrandyte is overdue for a burn. The last big one was in 1969. The next big one could well be in the summer of 2011/12 thanks to all the rain we have had. Water and warmth provide the perfect growing conditions for plants and we have had a lot of both. At the moment the ground is still very wet but by late January, early February all that lovely new growth will have dried out and then we could be in trouble. So if, like me, you live in a bushfire prone area please don’t be complacent. Slash the grass and cut back the scrub, clean your gutters and if you can afford to do so, put in at least some of the protections I’ve listed because the best laid plans can and do go wrong.

So many people I’ve spoken to say their plan is to leave but I always wonder how realistic those plans are. We are told it’s best to leave the night before or first thing in the morning on a day of high fire danger but where exactly are you meant to go? Where does a mother take her young children? Friends? Family? That’s probably fine once or twice during summer but it becomes a lot less appealing when you have to do it every time it gets seriously hot. And unfortunately that’s when human nature kicks in and people start to think that they’ll just wait and see what happens but all too often you won’t know what’s happening until it’s too late to do anything about it.

On Black Saturday no-one knew what was going on and warnings did not go out. I sat here, constantly refreshing the CFA website and listening to 774 all day and I can tell you that the only real information on the fire came from ordinary people ringing in with warnings.

I hope that things will be better next time round but I’m not wildly optimistic. Fire  will come again and so will the confusion and the panic so I’m urging everyone in Warrandyte  [as well as other bushfire prone areas] to invest some time, effort and money into protecting their houses because leaving may not always be an option.

About acflory

I am the kind of person who always has to know why things are the way they are so my interests range from genetics and biology to politics and what makes people tick. For fun I play online mmorpgs, read, listen to a music, dance when I get the chance and landscape my rather large block. Work is writing. When a story I am working on is going well I'm on cloud nine. On bad days I go out and dig big holes... View all posts by acflory

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