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Are we doing enough to prepare houses and people for the dangers of bushfire? 

On Sunday 12 February, a massive bushfire ripped through the hamlet of Uarbry in the NSW Central West destroying five of the little community’s 12 homes along with its weatherboard church and corrugated-iron community hall.

Uarbry sits off the Golden Highway, a scattering of trees and houses an hour’s drive west of Merriwa and 45 minutes east of Dunedoo. It’s surrounded by prime agricultural land. Tongy Station, five kilometres north of Uarbry, is the best-known property in the district.

Owned by the family of former Victorian Premier Ted Baillieu, its 4,637 hectares of rich black soil changed hands for $20 million a couple of years ago. Tongy wasn’t spared either; it’s historic, 180-year-old colonial-era sandstone homestead was burnt to the ground.

The fire that flattened Uarbry – dubbed the “Sir Ivan Fire” by firefighters because it started near Sir Ivan Dougherty Drive in Leadville – was so intense it created its own weather system. The huge volume of smoke it produced formed a pyrocumulonimbus cloud, strengthening the winds that drove the fire onwards and unleashing dozens of lightning strikes. Some of those lightning strikes started new fires as much as 80 kilometres ahead of the main fire front.

Images of the Sir Ivan Fire that devastated Uarbry. Photos: Dean Sewell

Paul Devonian who was carting water to fire crews on the day reckoned the conditions were the worst he had seen in 25 years of fighting fires. “You couldn’t walk forward, it’d near blow you backwards, the wind,” he told ABC News.

The Sir Ivan Fire was the worst of dozens of fires that burnt across NSW during February’s record breaking heatwave, spurred on by conditions NSW Rural Fire Service Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons described as “as bad as it gets”.

By the time it eventually burnt out, it had scorched 55,000 hectares, destroying 35 homes and 131 outbuildings, as well as the Uarbry church and community hall. A further 11 homes and 42 outbuildings sustained significant damage.

That same week, the Pappinbarra Fire on the coast near Port Macquarie claimed 6 homes and 11 outbuildings, with another three homes sustaining damage. The Spring Hill Road Dondingalong Fire near Kempsey consumed two homes and seven outbuildings. Another home and two outbuildings were destroyed in the Binalong Road Fire at Boggabri in the Narrabri local government area. The White Cedars Road Fire, 30km north-east of Mudgee, claimed another home and two outbuildings.

The following weekend a grass fire at Carwoola near Queanbeyan burnt down 11 homes and 45 outbuildings, and damaged a further 12 homes and 40 outbuildings. Remarkably, given the ferocity of the fires, no lives were lost in any of them.

On the bushfire front line

While the heat wave that spawned those fires was unusually long lasting and fierce, the news images of firefighters and communities battling fires were all too familiar.

For the millions of Australians who live on the urban fringe, on farms, or in small rural hamlets like Uarbry, bushfires are a fact of life. Every summer, when the mercury rises and the humidity drops, it’s a given that bushfires will strike somewhere and that homes will be lost, lives up-ended, dreams destroyed and memories turned to ash.

With climate scientists predicting the fire season will grow longer and bushfires become more frequent and severe, it seems likely they will cause even more damage in the future. One way to counter this is to make houses less susceptible to fire.

Over the years, building standards for houses in bushfire risk areas have become more rigorous, stipulating building materials and features to improve a property’s chances of surviving a fire. But the majority of houses most at risk were built before the latest standards were introduced in 2009, and many were built before there were any bushfire-related building standards at all.

So how well-prepared are the people and the properties on the bushfire frontlines? Wyong Shire Council (now part of the merged Central Coast Council) asked that question and funded a team of University of Wollongong researchers to find the answer. Their findings are published in the International Journal of Disaster Risk Reduction, in a paper titled Retrofitting for wildfire resilience: What is the cost?

In the Sydney region alone there are well over 500,000 houses on the front line in terms of exposures to bushfires.

Professor Ross Bradstock

The Central Coast of NSW has a high number of houses in the bushfire risk areas. Indeed, for many people the opportunity to live close to the bush is one of the attractions of the area.

The study looked at houses in two areas: the adjoining suburbs of Toukley and Noraville where suburban blocks of around 500-800m2 back onto bushland; and semi-rural Durren Durren, where block sizes range from two to four hectares and are often surrounded by bush.

Each property was assessed for what it would cost to retrofit to current building standards, with the average cost per house $24,600. Estimates for individual houses ranged from $8,500 to $47,000 – amounts significantly higher than homeowners felt able to cover.

Professor Ross Bradstock, Director of UOW’s Centre for Environmental Risk Management of Bushfires and a leading authority on bushfire ecology, says housing in the two areas was broadly typical of the residential developments in south-east Australia most at risk from bushfires.

“There’s a lot of property in NSW and elsewhere that would be similar to that surveyed in this study, developments built from the 1960s through to the ’90s,” Professor Bradstock says. “In the Sydney region alone there are well over 500,000 houses on the front line in terms of exposures to bushfires, and an awful lot of that would be very similar.”

Alan Green, a PhD student at UOW’s Sustainable Buildings Research Centre, says none of the houses they looked at complied with current building standards, despite most being considered to have the highest level of bushfire exposure.

“The study highlighted that there is still a way to go in terms of retrofitting existing buildings to meet the current standard,” Green says.  “All of the houses were built before 2009, and most were between 20 and 40 years old. The main problems were gaps and cracks in the building envelope, which can allow embers to enter; and exposed combustible cladding, window frames and doorframes.

“There’s no established way to quantify how big a difference retrofitting would make, but one opening in the building envelope could lead to the destruction of the building.”

Professor Bradstock adds that the effect of retrofitting would vary from house to house. “This study concentrated on features we know are critical elements of building design, so while we can’t yet quantify that difference in terms of the chance of a place burning down, we can say it’s likely to be significant,” he says.

“The big-ticket items you often find are lacking are typically the glass, the eaves and gutters, and enclosure of spaces under the house. The glass is not of sufficient thickness and not toughened; the gutters and the enclosures around the eaves are very vulnerable and need to be improved; and underneath the house is not enclosed. Other things are timber decks or exposure of timber features where embers can stockpile and catch alight.”

While the big-ticket items might prove too expensive for most residents, the researchers found several low-cost actions that would improve their chances of surviving a fire.

Having a bushfire survival plan can make a big difference if you need to stay and defend your property.

Dr Christine Eriksen

“There’s basic things like having a bushfire survival plan, which this study found many people don’t have,” Professor Bradstock says. “Then there are things like tidying up leaves, grass and other vegetation, and storing gas bottles away from the house. They’re all relatively inexpensive things homeowners can do and typically you find that not all those boxes are ticked.”

Risk and responsibility

As well as assessing their houses, the researchers interviewed the property owners to get a better idea of why those boxes weren’t being ticked. Dr Christine Eriksen is a social geographer at the Australian Centre for Cultural Environmental Research at UOW and has done a lot of work looking at how social and cultural factors affect people’s responses to natural disasters, including bushfires. She says there are many reasons people don’t always get around to preparing for a bushfire.

“An obvious one is that people had chosen to live in that particular place because they wanted to be close to nature, so they didn’t want to clear the property,” she says. “They like having trees close by, they like living close to the wildlife. There is a risk-benefit factor: people choose to live in a high-risk area because it has many other benefits in terms of amenity.

“Also, people have other priorities. Many of them commute to work, so once you’ve added up all the commuting there’s not a lot of time left to think about bushfire preparedness and often it gets shuffled to the bottom of the priorities pile.

Group photo of Professor Ross Bradstock, Dr Christine Eriksen ad Paul Green.

Professor Ross Bradstock, Dr Christine Eriksen and Alan Green assessed how prepared for bushfires houses in risk areas were. Photo: Paul Jones

“Then you have the expense of buying the right equipment or the feeling of not knowing what the right equipment is or who to contact to get that information.”

The study found differences in residents’ perceptions of risk and responsibility between the two areas studied. Homeowners in semi-rural Durren Durren were more aware of the risks and accepted more responsibility for preparing their properties. Those in the more suburban Toukley-Noraville area, felt council had a bigger responsibility to mitigate against bushfires.

“In areas like Toukley you feel like you’re living in a built-up area – you have roads and all the amenities you’d have in a city, but you also happen to have a green backyard where there are lots of trees and flammable vegetation,” Dr Eriksen says.

“The perception that you’re living in an urban area makes you feel safer and to some extent that’s justified: it is easier to get out, you possibly have resources and emergency services closer by.

“In Durren Durren people were more prepared. They’d done things like making sure they had hoses around the building they could use. They had also given quite a bit of thought as to how they were going to get out because they had a one-way-in, one-way-out scenario. They’ve made a conscious decision to live in a high-risk area so have given more thought to natural hazards like fire.

“Also, because of the surroundings they have to interact with the natural environment more: the lawns need to be taken care of if you don’t want snakes on your doorstep; you need to clear leaves out of your gutters if you want good drinking water in your rainwater tank. Those sorts of interactions automatically double up as bushfire preparedness.”

We live in a changing environment; we know fire seasons are getting longer, we know the fires we experience are likely going to be more severe.

Dr Christine Eriksen

However, none of the residents from either area had completed a bushfire survival plan. “Having a bushfire survival plan can make a big difference if you need to stay and defend your property,” Dr Eriksen says.

“Particularly when you find yourself in a situation where you had planned to leave early but can’t get out and therefore need to hunker down. Having that information to hand can really make a difference when a bushfire is close by.”

Looking to the future

So, what is the best way for people in the bushfire prone areas to make their properties safer? Ultimately it will always come down to individual homeowners to prepare their homes, but the study raises the question of whether there’s a role for governments in helping them do so. The cost of bushfire damage to housing and infrastructure is enormous, so there may be some cost benefit to governments in preventing some of that damage.

“It’s food for thought about what might be the best investment strategy for bushfire risk mitigation,” Professor Bradstock says. “Given the sort of expenditure that would be required to retrofit a property, is there a role for some government investment in helping people upgrade their properties? It might be worth it for both local and state governments to think about helping people out in some way.”

Another role for governments is in providing homeowners with the information they need to improve the fire safety of their properties. One of the findings of the study, however, was that to be effective, that information needs to be delivered the right way.

Aerial view of a bushfire.

A bushfire threatens houses on the urban fringe. Photo: Shutterstock

“Homeowners generally seem quite willing to retrofit, but the right information needs to be there for them,” Green says. “It’s highlighted the need for detailed, specific information for individual homeowners. We found that people had trouble understanding how generic advice should be applied to their property.”

Dr Eriksen says the study shows that current methods of communicating information to homeowners aren’t sufficiently effective.

“From the point of view of emergency services and councils, you can put an awful lot of fliers in people’s letterboxes but if you have the time to go and talk to people in person that gives you infinitely more uptake of a message because people feel it is content specific to their property,” she says.

“They can then make informed decisions about which preparations will give them the most benefit: making sure you have a clear firebreak, mowing your lawn and clearing your gutters, putting gutter guards in, and making sure you have static water supplies.”

She adds that the fact the Central Coast Council commissioned the study showed that some governments are taking the issue seriously. “This project was funded by the Central Coast Council and I think that in itself is worth mentioning in that they were really keen on learning more on how to engage with their community,” Dr Eriksen says.

“We live in a changing environment; we know fire seasons are getting longer, we know the fires we experience are likely going to be more severe, so by councils taking an active approach to better coexist with these kind of environmental hazards is a really good way to look towards the future.”

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