Monday, October 21, 2013

Bushfires, rules and real harm minimisation

I was trying to find a photo to illustrate this story. Springwood Sept 1952; Cecily, Mary, James, David This was the best I could do, taken from cousin Jamie's collection. It's taken in Springwood, the site of major damage in the current fires. From left to right Cecily, Mary (I thought Mary was rather special), me, David. I will come back to the photo in a little while.

As always happens, special details of these fires are now emerging.

One was the way in which an old wooden fence between two houses caught fire, taking the two houses with it.

A second was the vulnerability of modern subdivisions adjoining bush. Why vulnerable? Well the blocks are very small, so as one house goes, the others around it are likely to catch, setting up a chain effect.

However, there was one piece of information that really pulled me up. Surely, I thought, that can't be right?

I was talking to a work friend who lives in one of the fire threatened areas. She was at work today, but with the weather worsening she is going to work from home tomorrow and Wednesday.

She told me that she and the kids made some cookies for the firemen and took them down to the local brigade headquarters. Chatting to the Fire Chief, she commented that she thought that their place was pretty safe. He looked at her and said just the opposite! They came home and started to complete the rest of their fire preparations, including tidying up the yard as best they could. This is where the photo came in.

I mentioned staying in Springwood as a kid with family friends. It was spring, September. We loved that place. David, Cecily, Mary, JimIt backed onto bush. First there was a creek with tadpoles, then beyond that a track took us through the bush to other streams with little holes where we could swim. This is another photo from the period.

I explained to my friend how we enjoyed the bush fire preparation drill.

First we raked the garden, picking up all the leaves and branches, putting them into small piles. Then we moved back into the bush immediately behind the garden the same thing.

We didn't cut down bushes or anything like that , just removing the fuel. The aim was to create a buffer zone between the house and the intense fire zone. 

Everything gathered, we had the fun of burning the rubbish piles with the smell of the burning eucalyptus leaves in the air.

My friend looked at me strangely. You can't do that anymore she said, you need special approval. It had been thirty years, she went on, since the last big fire in the area. The fuel, leaves and branches, was now a metre deep in spots. A floating ember would quickly create a major fire.

What are you going to do, I asked? We have a bag packed to be ready to leave. But we are at the end of a single road through the bush, with all the later access roads running through heavy Bush. It all depends on how much notice we have, where the fire spots.

A little later I went back to her, This has to be a bit crazy, I said. Aboriginal land management was all about small, cool, fires that would clean away the fuel before it accumulated. That minimised damage, including damage to animals. She looked at me. Oddly, she said, we were talking about that just last night.

As I write, the Rural Fire Service is engaged in heavy backburning, creating mini hot bushfires with the aim of avoiding a worse catastrophe. It doesn't seem a sensible approach to me. We need a few basic changes focused especially on current rules. That includes allowing tidying up around peoples' homes.          


Neil said...

I was going to make a comment but the stupid bloody box frustrated me! Sorry! You suck, Blogger!

Neil said...

Perhaps later Jim. No reflection on your post! Bit I suppose the post I have linked to is an implicit comment.

Neil said...

Bit = But!

Anonymous said...

January 2003; wildfires in an urban environment. Whoever would have thought Canberra could explode? We survived unharmed, but houses across the road didn't, and we all spent time in total fear that 2 HUGE and totally inappropriate eucalypts in an urban environment would crown and take out the suburb. Sometimes by laws and planning permissions are just moronic. It was the closest I ever want to get. According to the Spiritual, 'God said a fire, not a flood next time'. The rain here has just started; hope to God that there is enough where it matters.

Jim Belshaw said...

Sorry you had problems, Neil. I had actually forgotten that earlier post you linked too!

Interesting piece on the Canberra fires, JCW. The comment on the trees reminded me of something else. Given that the Australian bush is fire prone, to have a natural bush garden stretching right up to the house is to create a fire risk.

Evan said...

My wife grew up in Canberra.

When she walked around the areas that burned she remembered the houses that burned often had large eucalypts near them.

We could put a kilometre cordon around inhabited areas. And not have bush coming right up to the house (which seems insane to me).

Jim Belshaw said...

People are funny sometimes, Evan.

When I was chair of the Queanbeyan Beautification Committee, the Fire Brigade wanted to build a track along the river. This became a major issue with those with homes overlooking the river, leading to major protests. Our Committee was at the center of the protests, but when I walked the river with the fire brigade chief I could see his point.

Many of the homes had wooden decks overlooking the river. Fire would have rushed up the slope and could have ignited those decks, some with tall gums just next to them.

I suspect that we need a common sense not a rules based approach. We also need to let people take risks and suffer for them.

On common sense, I don't know that we need a formalised buffer zone. But it would be sensible to let people clear and burn fuel in a strip just behind their property. Then for those who just want a bush shack, let them build that, but on the basis that they shouldn't necessarily expect fire fighting support.