A bushfire prediction

As the dust settles on the Victorian bushfires – for now – I offer this prediction.

This is based on long observation, old memories of the 1983 Ash Wednesday bushfires in South Australia, the later bushfires that began in the Adelaide Hills Stirling dump, and some of the newspaper reports now coming out.

Specifically, three reports:

- One from an expert on fires and fuel loads, who says that what happened is inevitable because of a refusal by both authorisities (local councils / shires) and people to do controlled fuel-reduction burns

- One about some people who were FINED for clearing scrub from around their house. Who then spent $100K on legal fees to eventually win against their council (who had fined them). Their house survived.

- And one about councils / shires in bushfire prone areas who encourage home owners to plant natives close to their houses.

So here are the predictions:

The Royal Commission will run for about 2 years, and hear much emotional and anguished evidence from many people.

Many experts and tree huggers will pontificate.

Greenies will claim that fuel reduction burning is bad / destroys habitat / hurts animals / damages trees / smells bad / is too difficult.

All of the old, old, well established and practical research and advice about fuel reduction (cool burning) will be dragged out AGAIN.

Many arsonists will be blamed for many of the ills.

The Royal Commission will eventually find that the land management practices of the shires involved were negligent, because of insufficient fuel reduction, poor building standards, poor enforcement of building standards, and in some cases just downrigh stupid practices.

Following this, the legal action will begin. This will run for another 2 to 3 years.

This will take the form of a class action lawsuit brought against the shire in question, which will be bankrupted in order to pay the damages awarded.

The shire / council will collapse and be forced to merge with another adjacent shire/council.

The people on the shire/council which caused the damage, due to their silly, ignorant or uninformed views, will escape with damaged repuations but no personal liability or damages award against them (such being the nature of corporate vs personal responsibility.


Sound far fetched?

This is the way it’s played out in South Australia several times. Short memories abound.


Now that the worst of the fires are over, the inquiries and recriminations have begun. There is a Royal Commission in Victoria headed by a retired judge which will drag on for most of the year and cost several million dollars. There have been many such commissions and inquiries in the past and they all recommend the same thing, a reduction in fuel and more care on high fire risk days.
After the 1983 fires [26 years ago today], the power authority that I then worked for was accused of having some part in 14 of the 65 or so separate bushfires in SA. We were found liable in one and settled another as though we had been liable. The remainder were settled between the parties. But what was worst was the failure of our insurers to indemnify us due to they say, negligence on our part, so we sued the insurers and eventually they settled for a sum which almost covered the payouts but did not of course anywhere near cover the cost of administration in fighting the various parties involved including the insurers.
So I finished up with the task of trying to put our mains and power lines in a state where we could not be sued again and we concerted many kilometres of mains in the worst fire risk areas to insulated overhead cables and to do this we had to define what a high fire risk area was, what a high fire risk day was and define a set of criteria which would be defensible in any future action resulting from a fire. It’s at times like this that you find out what it is like to be truly alone, having no precedents and nobody to guide you. I spent some time in California and in France looking at the measures taken in those places where they had had fires previously but nowhere was there a comparable set of circumstances like we have here. So far so good; we have not had a fire attributable to electricity wires since we completed the changes and alterations that I helped to put in train.
But all of this pales when you start to try to implement changes seem blindingly obvious; such as cutting down trees near power lines and removing fuel in high fire risk areas. Where trees are involved, everybody who lives near a tree seems to assume a right of ownership and once you want to cut it or remove it they object and lobby with every dirty trick they can think of. Exactly the same thing has happened in Victoria except that it is rather worse there because they have a higher rainfall[ hence more fuel] and a higher tree change population in the bushland close to Melbourne. In the last week I have read many newspaper reports of people being forbidden to remove tress near their buildings. Some Councils have required home builders to replace like with like trees that were removed during the actual building. They have in fact been required to plant native eucalypt trees close to new houses and overhanging them. It is lunacy bordering on criminal negligence to make such demands. Whether this will be in the findings of the Royal Commission we will have to wait and see.
There has been much research carried out in the last 50 or more years following disastrous fires. If you do the following you may survive a fire:

1. Site your house away from the top of a ridge and in a valley on the downhill side of a ridge where you know or expect fires to come from. [Fire travels fastest up hill and reaches a maximum speed at the crest].
2. Build of fire resistant construction; solid brick. [Not a wooden house like so many in Victoria]
3. Have fire resistant roof [not wood shingles] and have it sealed against ember intrusion with fire resistant sarking under the roof.
4. Have drop-down metal shutters on every external window [radiant heat will ignite curtains and furniture through glass].
5. Do not have a deck of wood against the house under which embers may accumulate and catch fire and if your house is on sloping ground, have the underside enclosed so that embers cannot intrude.
6. Have all flammable vegetation and firewood piles removed for a distance of 100 metres around your house.
7. Have all leaves etc off the roof and the gutters empty of leaves and filled with water.
8. Have a sprinkler system on your roof powered by a diesel pump pumping from your own water supply which is in a fire proof tank [not plastic] and with the capacity to pump continuously for at least 30 minutes, preferably longer. This will create a mist around your roof which will quench most embers. Gutters need to be arranged so that some of your water runs back into the tank.
9. Stay in your house to get all this running and have metal buckets [not plastic] around your house so that you can quench any spot fires after the fire front has started.
10. Wear a long sleeved cotton or woolen shirt and long pants also cotton or wool[ not synthetics] and a stout hat and gloves when you emerge { I know it’s hot but you will not get burnt dressed like this].
11. Your car must also be garaged similar to the house if you want it to survive.

Do all this and there is a 95% chance you will get through the worst of a bushfire.
It is also a good idea to have your own generator and enough food and water to last about 3 days as all power will go off and roads will be closed due to fallen timber.
Now none of this is new but very few people implement it. There is strong evidence to suggest that those houses which survived in Victoria had most of the above in place.
But will it be implemented in future and will low temperature control burning of the understory in the bush be commenced?

Past experience suggest that nothing much will change and the Dandenongs and Adelaide Hills will burn again.
The only place in Australia where they seem to have partially succeeded is near Perth in WA where an inquiry following the destruction of a town called Dwellingup in 1961 saw the introduction of control burning by CALM [Conservation & Land Management] has stopped [so far] any further major fire from starting.
Sadly, it is all mostly preventable but politicians in Federal, State and Local Governments all quail and succumb to the continuous and often very dirty tactics of the Green movement which has continually won the battle for the public’s support.

Comment by Dad | February 15th, 2009 7:54 pm | Permalink

This is so well written and yet makes me sad, because it has all been true in the past and will be so in the future.

Hey ‘Dad’ why don’t you offer your services and advice, because they’re brilliant.

Comment by Kath Lockett | February 16th, 2009 6:32 pm | Permalink

You can’t bushfire proof the bush (short of cutting every last tree down), it’s too big! I was in the Grampians National Park in 1994 and half of it was closed off due to extensive fuel reduction burning. Two years later the whole park burned. How do you explain that? Don’t blame the greenies. People choose to live in the bush and should know the risks. Don’t expect to buy a bush block then have the right to cut down all the trees. If you are that worried about it, why buy a house in the bush in the first place? It’s just people shifting personal responsibility again, because it’s sooo much easier to blame everything on someone else, like your idealogical rivals. That’s what I reckon anyway.

Dad fails to mention the most effective way of saving lives… build a fire shelter/dugout, or, don’t build your house in the bush. Simple. But if you choose to, that doesn’t give you the automatic right to cut down all the trees on the property. 90% of Australias forest and open woodland has already been cleared so live there instead.

I guess I disagree with you and Dad Wally

Comment by Wyn | February 20th, 2009 11:51 am | Permalink

I think this highlights a failing of recognising property rights.

If I own a property, I should be allowed to cut down trees on my own land if I deem fit.

The arguments the greenies have about destruction of habitat, etc., are valid concerns I think. But the people who live in these tree-dense areas do so for a number of reasons, and a large number of them, I suspect, because they enjoy the atmosphere that the tree-dense, rural landscape brings them. Thus, I don’t think it’s a fair stretch to say that even if people were allowed to fell trees for protection against fire, and to avoid stray branches falling on their houses, etc., will bring about the mass destruction of these rural areas.

I think if the councils keep their noses out of what people can do and do not with their own property, things could have turned out even slightly better.

In the event of excessive tree felling, I don’t think it is unreasonable for concerned owners to discuss the issue with the offending neighbours, and reach some amicable agreements. If that doesn’t work, then they can escalate the issue.

All I’m basically saying is that if I cut down a tree on my own property, that is not the council’s business. I own the tree. It is mine. I will do with it what I please, and if it endangers my property, I will take action. If their is concern by neighbours, they can take the issue up with me, and if I’m unreasonable, then the issue can be taken further, by other means.

Ironically, for all the stopping of people clearing undergrowth, and cutting down risky trees, the whole area has now been decimated by these fires; much more damage than could have ever been done by a few landowners with a chainsaw.

Comment by Mark B | February 21st, 2009 12:31 pm | Permalink

Of course you can almost prevent a house burning down by placing it underground. There are a very few houses like this in the Adelaide Hills and I had a nephew who lived in one for a while [he did not build it but bought it after somebody else had done most of the development work]. I personally used to investigate most of the fires that started near power lines for several years and vividly remember a road running just off the Mount Barker Road [in the Adelaide Hills and a classic fire start area] where every house had been destroyed except for the one that was buried. They are more expensive and have problems with waterproofing etc but it is another way to go.
So far as Wyn’s comment is concerned, the evidence about control burning is overwhelming. It does not prevent a fire from starting and spreading but what it does do is to stop the spread of uncontrollable fires. Once a fire gets started in an area with a high fuel load [8tonnes per hectare and more from memory] it becomes uncontrollable especially under a strong wind and of course fires do then start their own winds which is just the air rushing in to feed the fuel. All fire fighting manuals and books say that such fires will burn until there is no more fuel or there is rain or a wind change. Witness the Victorian fires which are still burning over two weeks later. Once the fire ‘crowns’, i.e. starts to ignite the cloud of flammable eucalypt oil which is vaporized by heat over the tops of a eucalypt forest, the fire will spread like a bomb burst and at a speed which allows no time for a human reaction to it.
So what control burning does is to keep fires to a manageable level so that the disastrous crowning high temperature fires seen in Victoria at present just never get started.
And of course, if a tree is dangerous, it must be cut down. External restrictions on vegetation control is a recipe for disaster. This was particularly demonstrated after the Sydney fires a few years ago where bushy suburbs went up in flames. The CSIRO investigators afterwards found that where house had survived it frequently had to be attributed to the owners cutting trees near their houses and frequently being fined for doing it by the local Councils.
Councils are frequently composed of green idealists who live in a safe environment themselves but want to impose their ‘green religion’ views on everyone else.
‘Power without responsibility; the ultimate prerogative of the harlot throughout the ages’ was I think attributed to Winston Churchill.
Perhaps someone should hold the Councils to blame by suing them but don’t hold your breath. Government bodies mostly are indemnified by statute so are immune from public criticism. Two weeks after the fire is over, it will all be forgotten again except by those who were burnt out.

Comment by Dad | February 22nd, 2009 11:22 am | Permalink

I have been a fire officer ( Volunteer ) for more than 15 years now and was wet behind the ears when most of my brigade was putting out fires in our locality.
I am proud to be part of a tight knit if sometime nosey communtity and believe that theses people who haved lived here all their lives are the only ones who should have a say in whether or not hazard reduction, prescribed burning should/should not be done in their area. It is their lives and properties at risk not some politician or greeny who lives in the metro area and drives a bentley or a clapped out volkwagon.
we know our area an know what our bush can handle. I have never had to save animals from a HR burn but have had to plenty of times during wildfires. Burns done right move slow. Snakes and lizards burrow under rocks, roos have time to run off. Autunm burns i have done with rains around have shown fresh new growth within two weeks.6 months later if some off the bark on the red gums trees wasnt black you could not tell a fire has been there. So go on live in your concrete jungle, clear more land on your coastal dunes to build more brick and iron ( non renewable resource homes ),surf you net, listen to you ipod, put your head back in the sand and if you bury youself enough the firestorm you are endevouring to create with your limited understanding maybe you will survive.I like trees too but controlled burn does not kill them if done right.wildfires do.
The definition of a weed is a plant out of place. The bindi bindi has a right to live in your (well watered) manicured front lawn but you dont here me complaining when you cut it down.

Comment by knighty | April 25th, 2009 11:22 am | Permalink

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