As bushfires rage around the country, I'm getting educated and prepared.
Sitting back at my computer after a Christmas/New Year hiatus, one big thing I am being forced to reflect on is bushfire. The temperature today is rising rapidly and will probably reach maximums in excess of 40 degrees celsius for a number of days. Many of our little plants are fighting a losing battle and shrivelling in the merciless heat and even the larger trees are stressing. It is, unfortunately, not really unusual for our little part of Australia. We expect this weather in the summer, but it doesn’t make it more bearable or without its risks. As I consider the lovely Marri tree grove at the front of the house beyond my office window, I am grimly aware that the breeze out there is hot and dry and the constant fall of leaves and twigs from all the eucalypts result in a relentless and continuous increase in fire fuel load.
Luckily we have not been directly impacted by the recent fires, but that doesn't mean we can entirely relax.
Since mid-December, high numbers have bushfires have been raging around Australia, scorching hundreds of thousands of hectares and making international headlines. I have been frustrated by the embarrassingly poor response of our Prime Minister, and bewildered by the debate on “climate change”. Clearly the climate of the world is changing. This particular bushfire event, the severity and expanse of which is unprecedented here in modern human history, is illustrative of what the future may hold for Australia. In particular, conditions that make fires more likely and then more intense. Regardless of the actual cause (whether you believe that it is purely natural, a result of human interference or a combination of both), as a global population we are going to have to find ways of addressing the effects. The way we populate the world alone can have an impact on the result of a bushfire. The scale of this bushfire disaster and the horrific impact on the environment, human communities and the wildlife population has made my heart heavy and certainly has brought fire safety to the forefront of my considerations.
We live in a rural area that would be considered of high bushfire risk. It was something mentioned frequently to me by those who were questioning of out tree-change dream when we were first planning to move and regularly referred to by many other city and suburbanites since. In the suburbs we lived opposite a park containing bushland and our property was zoned as a bushfire risk too. Whilst I think the risk of bushfires in areas like ours can be overstated - the chance of damaging or losing a home to a standard house fire in the city, suburbs or country is far more likely than losing a home to bushfire - we would be naive and foolish to not consider taking efforts to protect ourselves from the threat. There are certainly many things that can be done to reduce the risk, and the majority of homeowners in my local area are dedicated to regulated hazard reduction measures. In fact there are many suburban areas - particularly the leafy and/or bushy suburbs on the urban fringe that I would consider at more risk than us, purely because in the country we are forced to consider it and therefore address our protection measures.
Homes can be better designed with fire safety in mind.
If you are considering purchasing or building in a bushfire prone area, you should do your research to ensure your house is as safe as possible. Simple layouts, access consideration, use of fire-retardant materials, draught excluders and weather strips, window protection and water storage are all important. Our house has some ideal features - it is a simple rectangle, is solid brick construction and is completely fitted with roller shutters. It has multiple access points, closed eaves and is not on a steep incline. The location of the roads and the ability to exit the area is also important, our block allows us to easily exit in multiple directions.
Here in Western Australia, properties are classified with a BAL or Bushfire Attack Level,
each category of which provides homeowners which an assessment of the risks predicted for their land and appropriate regulations for safe construction. Whilst many find a high BAL rating frustrating, as construction may come with some extra costs, the benefits in a fire could not be argued. Home builders would be wise to incorporate as many safety aspects into their home design as possible (beyond the minimum regulations) - Archicentre Australia has this useful Bushfire Design Guide .
Garden design can also make a huge difference to fire safety.
It is not just a matter of keeping plants away from your house - in fact, it can be the opposite. Strategically placed solid walls and hardscaping can aid in fire blocking, certain types of trees can be fire retardant and used as fire barriers, green gardens adjacent to the home such as vegetable gardens, lawns and orchards can also be beneficial. Keeping trees trimmed, gutters clear, fuel loads down and good firebreaks well-maintained are also vital. Huge amounts of information are available - this landscaping for bushfire article from Victoria’s Country Fire Authority explains a lot.
Know where and how to get (and understand) information in a fire emergency.
Be educated about the meaning of different bushfire alerts, fire warnings, fire bans and burning restrictions. There’s a lot of info in the DFES "Firechat" publications.
Have the EmergencyWA webpage (or your local relevant emergency organisation) saved on your phone and subscribe to alerts. There are also Facebook groups that can provide local update information - if you are in Western Australia, look up EASE WA. We are spoiled because although they cater for the whole of WA, the admins of this page are very local to me (one of our school families).
Get to know your neighbours.
Combining resources, sharing information and literally knowing who is there can be very helpful. Some of our locals are combining to form a little action group to help those who are less able to make their homes more fire safe. Sharing energy and resources such as helping an elderly neighbour clear their paddocks and firebreaks properly benefits the whole community. For those in rural areas who are willing and able, you may want to consider volunteering with your local fire authority. At the very least, support your local fire fighters whenever possible - ours are regularly fundraising.
If the worst happens and a fire is approaching, it is vitally important to have a plan.
My son’s school have an annual fire education event where they learn (and relearn) about fire safety and make pillowcases as a “bugout” bag for fire emergencies. We have never very formally discussed our fire plan for this property, but with the images of this weekend’s “megablaze” on the other side of the country fresh in my mind, I’m making one. I have chosen to download the DEFS (Department of Fire and Emergency Services) Bushfire Preparation Kit and will follow all the instructions.
Download the Department of Fire and Emergency Services Bushfire preparation Kit here:
I’ve also put together an Emergency Kit.
There are different ones on the market, but I
purchased a basic kit here angled towards fire
emergencies to which I will add our family’s extra
essentials based on DFES advice.
We also have purchased a fire fighting trailer.
Whilst there are different versions it is essentially a water tank, with a pump, hose and generator.
Whilst we are not likely to stay and defend our property in a real bushfire emergency, this
appliance can help us safely supervise hazard reduction burns and wet down areas ahead of a
fire. These units are expensive, so we purchased ours second hand and in need of some attention. This was relatively easy to fix and now we can
a functioning fire fighting trailer for a fraction of purchasing new.
Hopefully we will never directly experience a fire emergency, but I will sleep a little better knowing that we do whatever we can to make us as safe as possible. There are several other things I would like to do to improve our property’s bushfire readiness, but due to budget constraints we maintain our essentials and work towards gradually improving all the time.
It has been a gruelling few weeks for those fighting fires across the country. I watch with great sadness as news of another fire fighter’s death last night is shared with the world. As the extent of the damage continues to emerge I hope all the affected communities can find the strength they need to start rebuilding and that the wildlife and environment can slowly be restored. Whilst I’m sure it won’t be long before Australia’s fire fade from the international headlines, it will be a long, slow recovery ahead. And hopefully from the regrowth we learn something too.