Recently, we’ve been to a few Community Fire Authorityn (CFA) information sessions. These sessions are aimed at ensuring property owners are aware that we are coming into the ‘fire season’. This is the time of year when, due to the combination of high heat and low humidity, vegetation is dry and bushfires are more likely to break out. Our lives could depend on how well prepared we are if a fire should break out in our local area. The practical outcome of these sessions is that we need to develop a detailed fire plan – what we will do, and what our triggers will be for certain actions. These trigger points will be related to the predicted fire danger for any given day.
In Victoria, we now have a Fire Danger Rating system which attempts to provide some predicive measure on how controllable a bushfire would be, should it break out at various times. For example, if a bushfire started on a Low to Moderate day, it is likely that the bushfire could be contained. This is also the case on a High, or even Very High fire danger day. On such days we would need to be prepared and equipped to defend our property, but it is unlikely we would need to leave the area.
The three remaining categories on the Fire Danger Rating system describe conditions where a bushfire may not be controllable: Severe, Extreme and Code Red days. Depending on where a property is located, and how well equipped it is, the occupants may choose to leave the area rather than risk being caught on an undefendable property. The reality is that the bush we love so much also puts us in a high risk fire area.
Putting a fire plan together is harder than it initially seems. It requies that we think about our ideal actions, as well as what would happen if we could not implement our initial plan. We need to choose a trigger for leaving, and be prepared to leave the property every time that Fire Danger Rating is called by the CFA. If we leave, what do we protect by taking it with us? What do we remove from our house over Summer so that if the worst happened, it would not be lost? We also need to think about what would happen if we were trapped here, and could not leave. Fires can happen at any time – even in the middle of the night. Trees can fall across roads. The wind can change and turn a fire in an unexpected direction. If we leave, what can we do to give the house the best chance of surviving a passing fire?
We registered for a CFA inspector to come and give us an assessment of our property – to let us know how well we are doing in being ‘fire ready’ and to provide some extra guidance on what else we need to do. It was a relief to hear that while there are some small things to do, our house is mostly set out in a way that complies with their recommendations. We need to constuct a wire mesh cover for our air conditioner (to prevent embers gaining access to the house) and attach wire mesh to the two sides of the house that don’t aleady have this covering gaps in the external timbers surrounding the underfloor area of the house – around the decking, for example.
The CFA recommends that no plants alongside the house be higher than one metre high. We have a couple that are slightly taller, but mostly we comply with this. They also recommend that no under-story be between the bracken and the trees in the bush part of the property. This means it is wise if we don’t plant shrubs beneath trees. If a ground or grass fire erupted, it would quickly burn through the bracken, and keep moving on fast – before it got to the trees. However, if there were shrubs beneath the trees, the fire could use them as a ladder to get from the ground to the canopy of the trees. Once a fire is in the treetops, it burns more fiercely and for a longer time – days or weeks – prolonging the danger period. Every leaf is a potential ember. If these embers are blown by a fierce wind, they can start spot fires anywhere they land.
To be fire ready, we also needed a working fire pump, and a fire hose that can get around the entire house. When we moved in we had three fire pumps and two fire hoses. Testing the pumps, we found that none of them were adequate for our requirements. While two of them worked, air was being sucked in along with the water, greatly reducing the water flow at the nozzle. Richard worked on this for about a week, buying equipment and taking it back when it was inadequate. Finally, after a key component was identified and replaced, he solved the problem. We now have a full pressure fire hose which reaches around the house.
Small things can make a big difference. we need to continue thinking about every potential scenario, and try to anticipate what we will need to do. A hint from a CFA meeting was to bring a water hose inside the house and make sure it can attach to a laundry or kitchen tap – if left outside in a fire, it could well melt, and we would have no water to fight the fire. Wearing protective clothing, regardless of how hot it may be is also vital. Synthetics can melt onto the skin in radiant heat, even if the flames don’t do any damage.
Thinking about a fire in our belowed bush is confronting but necessary. Only by working things through, step by step, can we protect ourselves. The final part of the plan is knowing when to retreat, what we could use as a final refuge if the house did catch fire. We can only hope it never happens to us, while being prepared in case it does. Our lives may one day depend on this planning.
The following photos show our pump and fire hose in various states of repair.