Tag Archives: Nillumbik

Warrandyte, bushfires & PALs

It’s only half way through September, and the grass is still green, but scratch an inch or two below the surface, and the ground is bone dry. Or at least it is in hilly Warrandyte where the rain flows off long before it can properly soak in.

So, I’m worried about the fast approaching bushfire season. East Gippsland is said to be most at risk this year, but the Green Wedge in Nillumbik Shire can’t be too far behind. And we have more people living in the shire:

‘The Nillumbik Shire Estimated Resident Population for 2017 is 64,626, with a population density of 1.50 persons per hectare.’

That’s a lot of people, but when you look at where most of them live, the figures take on a deeper meaning:

The area outlined on the map is the Shire of Nillumbik. If you read the legend to the right of the map, you’ll see that most of our population clusters in the pink and red areas to the south [the pink area circled in orange is my area, North Warrandyte].

An important feature not shown on the map is that much of the southern part of the Shire is intersected by the Yarra River.

The two areas circle in orange represent the two bridges that are the only way of crossing the Yarra from my side of the Shire.

The Offspring and I live on the north side of the Yarra, so we have to cross the Warrandyte bridge to get into Warrandyte Village, and from there to somewhere further south.

That bridge is currently being extended from 2 lanes to 3, but it’s not finished, and access is even worse than normal. Going in the other direction, we have to go through Eltham and cross a second, 2 lane bridge to get south of the river.

Guess which direction the worst bushfires come from! Clever you, yes, the north. Caught between fire and water, lovely.

Now, let’s have a look at the terrain around Nth Warrandyte. This is an aerial view of the area around the bridge:

The blue line is obviously the river. The red bit is the bridge in the middle of the orange bullseye. Up from the bridge is Nth Warrandyte. Down from the bridge is Warrandyte village, a popular tourist spot on weekends.

A feature you can’t see from that aerial photo is the terrain. Up hill and down dale describes it pretty well. The perfect playground for bushfires that love racing up hill.

All that dark green stuff? Gum trees and scrub, all of it native and all of it evolved to burn. My block is  relatively open, but further from the main road the blocks are densely treed and the only way in or out is often via dirt roads.

I have every fire protection under the sun. Most of the houses in my area have nothing. Even the pre-school and CFA fire station are nestled in amongst the trees with no in-ground water tanks, roof sprinklers or fire-resistant shutters. The area is a bushfire disaster waiting to happen, and Nillumbik Shire Council has done nothing to mitigate the risk, for years and years and years. If you’re interested, here’s a post from May, 2017 that looks at the Council’s budget for bushfire mitigation. Yup, they really take it seriously…

So, I’m worried, but this year there may just be a bit of hope on the horizon. Two years ago, an organisation called Pro-active Landowners [PALs] became a force to be reckoned with, and the Council elected in 2016…changed.

The following recommendations are taken from a recent PALs submission to Council:

Essentially, PALs is recommending that the bushfire danger in the Shire [which is huge] be managed.

It sounds so simply, yet for decades, Council has done anything but. I don’t know whether the interest group within the Council felt that nothing could be done to manage the risk – i.e. act of god etc. Or they were so determined not to let big, bad developers ‘ruin the green wedge’ that they were happy to see it all burn instead.

Council mitigated nothing while tying the hands of the CFA [the Country Fire Authority is supposed to save us from bushfires]. Worse, Council stopped landowners from protecting themselves either. You have no idea how good it feels to finally have a voice.

If the PALs recommendations bear fruit, we will finally be able to reduce the fuel load in the Shire. Fuel load is the leaf litter, twigs, branches and undergrowth that feeds a bushfire, and Warrandyte has masses of it. But even if every resident of Warrandyte cleaned up religiously, there are great swathes of public land that are virtually untouched because the previous Council wanted to keep things ‘natural’.

The irony is that the Green Wedge is anything but natural.

Pre-settlement, the Aboriginals used to manage the land by doing many, small, cool burns. These cool burns created a patchwork of burnt and unburnt land so that the native fauna had somewhere to escape to. The net result was that the fuel loads never grew too high.

In areas not managed by the Aboriginals, nature itself managed the land with lightning strikes. Lightning would start small bushfires that would run until they finally died out. Again, because these small bushfires happened so regularly, the fuel load did not have a chance to become truly dangerous.

And then the white man came along with his English farming practices. Farmed land had to be protected, so bushfires had to be put out before they could do much damage. The net result was that parts of the land were over managed – i.e. the farms – and great big areas were left completely unmanaged, allowing the fuel loads to grow. The character of the land changed, and the bushfires turned vicious. 1939 was a very bad year, and so was 2009.

2009 was the year in which ‘…173 people tragically lost their lives, 414 were injured, more than a million wild and domesticated animals were lost and 450,000 hectares of land were burned’ in the Black Saturday bushfires.

If you’ve ever built a camp fire, or an open fire in a hearth, you’ll know that fire needs just two things to burn – fuel and oxygen. That’s why you build a teepee of twigs and dry kindling to start the fire. The open structure allows air in to feed the flames. After the fire is going though, the kindling is no longer needed because hot air rises, sucking in cooler air from below.

A bushfire does much the same, and the bigger the fire the more powerful it becomes, preheating the fuel ahead of it so it will burn even faster. The Black Saturday fire was so powerful, it generated its own weather.

No amount of human technology could have stopped the Black Saturday fires once they started. But a bit of wisdom might have stopped them from starting, or at least reduced the loss of life. But we weren’t wise.

Two acknowledged experts in bushfire behaviour submitted reports to Nillumbik Council prior to Black Saturday. Both reports warned about the dangerous levels of fuel in the Shire. Both reports were ignored. 9 years on, the lessons still have not been learned: when it comes to bushfires, fuel load is the only thing we can actually control.

The Black Saturday Royal Commission recommended mandatory prescribed burns of 5% to public lands each year. They haven’t happened, and part of the reason they haven’t happened is because of the bureaucratic red-tape that’s required before a burn can take place. Sadly, the weather rarely keeps these kinds of ‘appointments’ so either burns are cancelled because the conditions are all wrong – rain or high winds – or they go ahead in less than optimal conditions. And sometimes they get out of control. So even less incentive to do burns.

I’m no expert on bushfire management, but I can’t help wondering why we can’t let the CFA do mini burns every single day that the weather conditions are suitable? Why do burns have to be these big, dangerous things?

When I burn off, I do lots of smaller piles rather than one huge one. It makes sense to me. Mini burns, often. It would work, why can’t we at least try it?

The PALs submission to Nillumbik Shire Council may not solve all our bush fire woes but it would be a huge step in the right direction. Fingers and toes crossed that commonsense finally prevails in the Shire of Nillumbik.

Meeks

 

 


Nillumbik budget ‘highlights’, 2017-18

I live in North Warrandyte. That means I’m stuck with Nillumbik Shire Council. This is the most expensive council in Victoria. We pay an obscene amount in rates. This year, the council boasts that it won’t raise rates. Yay.

This is also the same council that wants Residents to embed their houses in the bush despite the bushfire danger. Clearly, they don’t believe that Black Saturday can ever happen again. The proof is in the priority they place on bushfire mitigation. The following figures are taken directly from ‘Living in the landscape’, the Nillumbik Shire Council newsletter. The only change I’ve made is to sort the table by the cost. Have a look at this council’s priorities:

As you can see, $1,100,000 is considered more than enough for ’emergency management’ while a sporting redevelopment deserves almost twice as much at $1,795,000. I guess they figure that when a massive bushfire comes through again, we’ll all be dead and won’t be able to complain about their disregard for our health and safety.

Meeks


Bushfire season 2011/12 is over

I hope I haven’t jinxed myself but I honestly can’t see how a fire could hit Warrandyte now – the air is crisp and cool, the grass is a vibrant green and you can almost smell autumn in the air…oh wait, that could be alpaca poop.

For those who don’t know, alpacas almost always poop in nice, discrete piles, as if they invented the idea of latrines. This highly civilized way of defecating means that you can walk around outside without having to wear gumboots all the time. Unfortunately it also means that the smell is rather concentrated. There is a pile of poop about 10 metres from my office window so when we have a  north wind blowing I have to seal the office off. Nonetheless I’m  not complaining. How could I when the alpacas have manicured the grass so nicely?

I have about 1/2 an acre out the back and at the moment it is as well cared for as a putting green! Except for the piles of poop of course; they look like small green volcanoes with a black caldera in the middle. The black part is the poop while the green part is the well fertilized grass around the poop. Not surprisingly the alpacas won’t eat the grass that’s too close to their piles. Can’t say I blame them but the green volcanoes do look a little odd.

Alpaca volcanoes aside though I am pleased to say that the alpaca experiment has been a qualified success. They have done a very good job of keeping the grass down directly around the house and their clawed toes are much kinder to the soil than other introduced grazers such as cattle or sheep. The one downside in using them as part of my fire prevention strategy is that they will only eat the native grasses when there is nothing else to munch on. This was partly my fault as I sowed some special alpaca feed* in the flat spots around the house during the last winter of the big drought. These grasses stay green even when the rest of the grass has gone your typical summer brown but with all the rain we’ve had the last couple of years the alpacas have been spoiled for choice and have ignored the brown stuff with disdain. Even so they have kept the area around the house well mowed and that is all I can ask for now. Come winter I am going to try and extend their pasture further downhill. If it doesn’t take because of the steepness of the slope I’ll have to think about putting in a bit more terracing [gah…more work].

So having alpacas is not a magic bullet but they are better than mowing by hand or, as seems to happen a lot in Warrandyte, not mowing at all. I know that everyone is busy and I know that many of the people in Warrandyte are new to the area but removing fuel load is part and parcel of living here. It is NOT an optional extra.

I know it’s not feasible but I’d love to see herds of alpacas wandering along Brogil  creek and keeping us all safe. They might be a bit of a traffic hazard but at least they’d do a better job of reducing the fuel load than Nillumbik Shire.

Yes, I know I’m a grumpy old ratepayer but you’d think that at $656 per quarter our local council could do something a little more practical than  telling us to clear out our gutters. Every time I receive one of their expensive newletters full of hot air and self congratulations I wonder how a shire that let, nay caused so many people to die on Black Saturday can escape all accountability.

-sigh-

I truly do wish that being elected to local council was like being chosen for jury duty – an unpleasant civic responsibility that no-one in their right mind would want to do. Then at least we might get some local government that was truly unbiased, a-political and not driven by ambition or self-interest. Come to think of it that could work at state and federal levels too…

Back to reality. Alpacas are herd animals and need the companionship of two or more of their kind or they get a bit psychotic – much like people in solitary confinement – so having just one is not a good idea. One way around this problem is to join together with your neighbours in owning and caring for them. I am one of a group of three neighbours and our four alpacas keep a total of about 2.5 acres mowed. To make things easier we invested in side gates that link our three properties. We all get on really well and that helps too.

The bottom line though is that Warrandyte is a fire prone area so if you live here then you must find some way of keeping the fuel load down on your own property. The danger may be past for this season but it will return and when the next fire does come through we will all be on our own so it makes sense to do what we can now.

If you don’t believe me do the math : there are three CFA fire stations dotted around Warrandyte, North Warrandyte and Research. As far as I know each of those fire stations has 2 fire trucks. That makes 6 in all yet even if there were twice that many they would not be enough to protect the 7393 people living in Warrandyte [2006 census figure].  So yes, the reality is that when the next bushfire sweeps through Warrandyte we will be on our own so doing things to help ourselves should be as much a part of the culture as enjoying the ‘serenity’ of living among the gum trees.

And with that homage to The Castle,  I’m going to go out amongst my own gum trees to shovel some alpaca poop. At least it makes good compost.

* Note : ordinary lawn seed is NOT good for alpacas as it can make them bloat which is serious!


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