Saturday, February 14, 2009

Saturday morning musings - issues raised by the Victorian fires

With encouragement from Legal Eagle and Ramana, this post looks at some of the lessons raised by the Victorian fires. I thought that Kanani would be interested as well because of her comments on the California experience.

I had not intended to write now, but I am starting to see commentary and responses to the fires of the type I feared focused on yet more controls. To my mind, the answers are a little different.

To start with two general points.

The first is that the choice of where and how to live is a matter of individual choice. Each choice has risks. Those risks can be managed, but cannot be removed. Our modern tendency to try to remove risks imposes its own costs, something that I have written about before.

The second is that risks vary from place to place. In the case of fires, for example, there are variations in terrain, climate and vegetation that affect the form of fires. This is directly linked, I think, to the reasons why most of Australia's most damaging fires have been Victorian. The answer lies partly in the trees.

These variations in local conditions between areas, but also over time within areas, make it hard to impose effective universal prescriptions.

Working on the front line

Effective fire prevention starts at home. If you chose to live in the bush, then you need to be prepared for it.

Nobody can be absolutely safe when you get fires as big as these blazes. However, the aim remains to survive the immediate fire front, 15 to 20 minutes. Then from this point, burning is based on local fuel.

I first came across fire preparation when I was a kid. We went down to stay in Springwood in the Blue Mountains west of Sydney. This was very different terrain from that I was used to. The house backed directly onto bush now included in a National Park. It was absolutely wonderful from a kid's viewpoint.

One morning, our hostess said that it was time to start preparing for the bush fire season.

This is a very fire prone area. She gave us all rakes. Our job was to rake up all the leaves and small twigs not just from the back garden but into the first part of the adjoining bush. We also collected branches. She cleared the gutters - we were not allowed to do this because of height. All this was put into piles for either composting or burning.

The aim was to create a buffer at the back of the house. 

I use this example because I was struck in the Victorian fires by images that suggested in some ways the urbanisation of the bush. I am a townie. Still, we grew up with fire. We played with it. We also took part in burning off on my uncle's place. So we knew something about the way fire worked.

To extend this point, I want to take some images from the Victorian fires.

There was the image of the youngish bloke in shorts and a blue singlet desperately carrying buckets as he fought the fire. Shorts? A singlet?

Fire burns. If you are going to be near it, you need to be properly dressed. This need not mean fire suits, but at least long paints, long sleeved shirt, a wool pullover. There is a particular problem here because much modern synthetic clothing melts. You need natural fibres. Wool in particular smoulders rather than burns.

A second image, people spraying Pepsi onto the fires. Modern urban families depend upon electricity and mains water. In this case, power went off, some of the pipes melted. Again, you need to make sure if you can that you have some access to water, that you can wet things down.

As in the case of the Kinglake builder with his generators and equipment, even if well prepared, the fire may come so fast that you cannot use it. However, I was struck by something else here - the drapes.

If you look at many of the houses in the urban bush areas, they have huge plate glass windows to provide best views of the bush. I love the views too, but they can allow heat to enter the house.

In the Kinglake builder case, they appear to have had heavy drapes to pull across the windows. This helped reduce the build up of heat inside the house during the critical fire period.

Just to summarise to this point. As the Fire Authorities keep saying, you have to prepare your property for fire in advance,and then be prepared to deal with it when it arrives. I am sure that the Victorian Royal Commission will point to failures here.

Building Insanities - beauty vs safety

Some years ago I was Chair of the Queanbeyan Beautification Committee.

The local fire department wanted to build a fire trail along part of the Queanbeyan River. This created great local heat, in part on environmental grounds, in part because it would damage views. In my role, I had to chair local protest meetings and help organise the opposition.

At one point there was a river inspection involving the local council and its staff, committee members and the local fire chief. At this part of the river, the high grassed river bank sloped up steeply. At the top was a house built out on stilts so that the front room and verandah captured maximum views.

We cannot defend that house, the chief said. In the event of a major fire along the river, the flames will climb rapidly igniting the verandah and front room.

Similar examples are scattered throughout Sydney, nestling in the bush. Here, its really a case of having your cake and wanting to eat it too.

One outcome from the Victorian fires are the suggestions that people should be prevented from building in particular areas and that building codes should be strengthened to better fire proof houses.

Despite the Queanbeyan example, I actually have some real problems in this area.

I am sure that more can be done to strengthen the capacity of buildings to resist fire. I also have real problems with people building in un-safe ways if they then expect their property to be defended. Yet we already have problems with mandatory building codes.

I say this at two levels.

There is first a matter of free choice. I accept that this is a philosophical point.

But secondly, there is a matter of cost. The codes that we already have have greatly increased building costs. The old shack whether for recreation or as a cheap home is a thing of the past. Instead of allowing for local variation, our Governments have a tendency to impose uniform standards and conditions independent of local variations.

I am not sure how we handle this.

Certainly more research would be valuable. Then maybe all houses in fire prone areas should be given a fire rating. This would preserve free will, but would flow over into things such as insurance costs.

Changing gardens

This may sound an odd one to include, but I think that it is a real issue.

When I first went to Canberra, the city was a garden city marked by green lawns and English style gardens. Last year I revisited the suburbs I knew nestled at the base of the hills. Green was gone, replaced by brown nature strips and native gardens. This is partly a matter of style, more of water restrictions. 

My first reaction was how drab the place had become. My second, my God what happens if there is a fire. Gardens have ceased to be a buffer and instead have become a potential burn point.

Environmental policies and land management

This brings me to my next point, the impact of changing approaches to the environment and land management.

This is a touchy area, so let me just point to the issues as I see them.

When I ran for Country Party pre-selection in Eden-Monaro in the seventies, fires coming out of the national parks was a major issue. Tom Barry who later became the State member for Monaro was absolutely virulent about national park management.

We have to fight these fires, he said, but have no control over park management. There was particular venom at the time because traditional grazing access to the high country was being increasingly restricted.

I could see his point, because it was the local bush fire brigades made up especially of farmers adjoining the Park who had to deal with the fires at a time when their livelihood was being affected by the Park.

Since then, the issue of park management has come up time after time. It's not just things such as controlled burning. It's also the removal of things such as fire trails. Country people argue that the various forestry services that used to manage state forests as a timber asset have been replaced by bodies that essentially want to leave the country in a state of stasis.

Now to avoid un-necessary debate here, I am not attacking the Greens or greenies. My focus is on the arguments.

In this context, the inquiry after each major fire event has pointed to lack of controlled burning as a problem. Each time, there have been counter arguments including scientific arguments saying that this is wrong.

I can only go on the opinion of those directly involved who know the country, and their view is that we have a land management problem extending well beyond the simple controlled burning issue.

This links to the the growth of softwood plantation farming. These plantations burn. I am not saying that we should not have them, I think the opposite, but we have to recognise the fire risks.

Problems cascade from this broader macro level down to the local.

To my mind, we have gone tree mad. People have to be able to clear vegetation around their home where it poses a threat. To have to get council approval to remove a tree that poses a threat to life or property strikes me as silly. There has to be some balance.

In all this, I think that there is a broader issue.

Fire is a natural feature of the Australian landscape. Prior to the arrival of the Europeans there were constant fires. Some were started by the Aborigines, others started as today by natural cause such as lightening strikes. These fires burned unchecked. The landscape evolved as a consequence.

Today, as soon as a fire starts we try to put it out. Why?

If our landscape has evolved through fire, then our efforts to put fires out of itself causes environmental change. Why not simply let fires burn unless there is a reason to do otherwise?

This simple act would be consistent with the Australian environment and would, over time, go a long way towards hazard reduction. Our fire policies move from fire prevention to fire management. 

Leave early or stay and fight

This policy was introduced following the Ash Wednesday fires in Victoria when so many died trying to escape. Now it is being questioned.

I think that the evidence is that it has worked in normal circumstances. I also think that Australians would simply not accept the compulsory mass evacuation policies that we have seen in California. Further, all the evidence that I have seen is that these give worse results.

However, the policy does need refinement for one simple reason. Our population is aging. When I look at some of those who have died in Victoria, I wonder about their physical capacity to defend their homes.

Things get complex here.

Human emotions are one thing. I am getting to the age that I would deeply resent being told to go!

A second thing is that, over time, those who stay are more likely to save their homes. If we are going to get some people to go while letting others stay, then those who go need to have a degree of confidence that their home will be protected in their absence.

This leads me to my next suggestion. I think that bush communities that might be threatened by fire need their own fire plans.

At Kinglake there were many examples of cooperative action. There were also people who simply hadn't  focused on the fact that fire was a threat. The CFA (Country Fire Authority) people in Kinglake fought hard but were swamped.

A fire plan would provide guidance to the community as to action. What do we do? Where are the safer areas? Who is responsible for ensuring that little things like opening oval gates are done?


There are many other simple things that could be done.

Take, as an example, the availability of fire tankers. These are in short supply in high stress situations. Tankers in reserve would help.

But beyond this, when it comes to the first line of defence against fires, we come back to the local community. Fire planning to begin here.


Legal Eagle said...

This is such a good post, Jim. You don't get into the partisan backstabbing, but you look at the facts dispassionately, and the various factors operating.

It does appear that some of the fires were started by human agency, although certainly not all of them. Thus, the other issue I would add is whether we need to have better awareness of people who might be firebugs, and to nip such behaviour in the bud rather than to imprison them after the fact.

Anyway, three cheers for you. Bravo.

Jim Belshaw said...

Thanks, LE. I meant to pick up the arson issue, Ramana asked about it, but forgot while I was writing.

The difficulty is to make sense of it all..

Winton Bates said...

I agree with Legal Eagle. This is a very good post.

The way things are shaping up we might end up with a lot more regulation about what kinds of houses people can build etc. I think this would be unfortunate. But I can't see why insurance companies could not be more active in this area e.g. by refusing to insure houses that local fire authorities consider to be undefendable because of proximity to trees etc.

Jim Belshaw said...

Hi Winton. I really value positive feedback from blogging peers like you, LE or Neil whom I greatly respect.

I fully agree with you on the regulation point. My suggestion for fire rating houses - say a star system like energy efficient fridges - would then bring the insurance marketplace into play.

You can build what house you like where you like, but you may not get insurance.

Issues that I did not address in this post because I could not see a way of doing so tactfully were the moral hazard/free rider arguments.

I say tactfully because so many people have been killed or hurt, so many have worked so hard for the community.