Jandakot Fire Station's fire wise landscaping

Just as new drivers must pass a driving test, people should need to prove, through a planning, design and management process, that they are doing all they can to create a “fire wise” space to live in.

Twenty twenty has been the year we would all like to put in the waste basket of history. Before Covid (was there ever such a thing?) there was the apocalyptic summer of catastrophic bushfires, cutting a devastating swathe across the heart and through the very psyche of Australia.

Close to 5 million hectares, over 1000 homes and 24 lives lost, not too mention countless precious animals.

Photo via The Forever Project Facebook page.

Despite all of this, fire fighters will tell you with discernible horror how poorly prepared most homeowners are for bush fires. Typically less than 8 per cent of homeowners in high fire risk areas have anything close to a detailed fire plan, meaning the overwhelming majority have a potentially devastating mix of a poorly designed and managed property, an unhealthy complacency about being “fire safe”, and a totally unrealistic belief that “the cavalry” (firefighting crews) will always come to their rescue.

Meeting the fire authorities halfway means embracing three rather inconvenient and uncomfortable truths:

  1. Accept that if you are outside of the city confines, then there’s a good chance that you live in some of the most dangerous fire prone areas on the planet,
  2. And so, as much as possible, you will need to take responsibility for your own fire safety because (and here is the tough one),
  3. You need to assume you are on your own when it comes to managing the impacts of fire. Images of water bombers, tankers and even marching reservists, while reassuring, tend to set up the false belief that help is always going to be there. The simple truth is that the best we can muster in people, assets and expertise is simply no match for the sheer size and might of a catastrophic fire.

The good news is that if you can swallow and digest these three inconvenient truths, then if fire threatens, you are statistically more likely to have a workable exit strategy, a place that can be defended, and – if you are fortunate – firefighters that they will decide that your property is safe enough to risk their lives to defend.

Getting real about bushfirea in Australia

As a society, we need to have the same mindset about building and living in high fire risk areas as letting people drive a car on our roads.

We know through the bloody chapters of our transport history that the risks of unregulated car useage are just too high. So we demand that an aspiring driver must earn and maintain a licence, proving through a rigorous testing process and maintained by adherence to a strict suite of road rules they have the skills and commitment to drive in what can be a very dangerous space.

The same strict standards should be required of people living in high fire risk regions of Australia. People should need to prove, through a planning, design and management process, that they are doing all they can to create a “fire wise” space to live in. But just as with the fabled car licence, it doesn’t guarantee your safety, but it will certainly and significantly increase the odds.

Like most areas of society where adaption is needed, and needed fast, we are dealing with the thorny combination of pre-existing as well as proposed design, development and management in high fire risk areas.

Retrospectively, many rural and peri urban subdivisions have clearly not been designed with fire safety in mind.

Scattered homes perched on ridgelines, linked by a single narrow road threading its way through deep tall forest is hardly a recipe for a calm and effective fire response.

Similarly, we are drowning in a sea of opinion, hysteria and extremism, making it hard to rally everyone behind clear and coherent strategies and design standards moving forward.

Jandakot Fire Station’s fire wise landscaping

Until we have national standards, blended with Indigenous wisdom and experience, for how we educate and empower the community in the way we design, develop and manage communities, homes, gardens and broader natural landscapes we will continue to lose lives, infrastructure, livestock and wildlife at catastrophic levels.

Principles of a fire wise landscape:

  1. The exclusive use of fire retardant plants: These are plants that if kept well maintained and free of leaf litter and weeds, can help slow a fire as they are typically slow and/or difficult to ignite.

  2. Fuel load separation: The plants have been chosen and placed to ensure that fire will not be able to move quickly up or across to the next fuel source.

  3. Deliberate breaks: Paths have been set up through the garden to separate fuel loads, act as mini “firebreaks” and give ease of access for management & any fire mop up operations.

  4. Fire safe management of existing trees: We strongly support the retention of trees on properties in fire risk zones. Tree removal as a way to reduce fire risk is often misguided and counterproductive; leaving the property bare and exposed to strong winds and extreme heat. Retained trees can be high pruned and trimmed well back from eaves and supported with a fire wise landscape at their base, making them a safe and sustainable component of a fire wise landscape

  5. The exclusive use of fire wise mulches: Stone, rock and gravel of varying size and colour are not only going to snuff out any embers that land … but they are extremely waterwise and can be made from recycled materials – making them the perfect choice to make the garden even more sustainable

Chris Ferreira is the director of The Forever Project and author of A Place in the Country, a guide to creating a safe, sustainable and productive rural landscape.

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Our Spinifex column is so named, by the way, because it’s for the pointy or “spikey” end of sustainability – the people who are doing the tough and inconvenient work of fast tracking sustainabiity. Spinifex, the plant, may be inconvenient or even annoying at times, but in fact, it’s highly resilient, essential to biodiversity and it holds the topsoil together.

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  1. This article highlights the human failings of not preparing for the future and procrastinating “when the time comes”. The same should be said of having a home to safely age in. Ageing is also an inconvenient truth. Given the age of so many who lost their homes and yet plan to re-build, how many, I wonder, have also thought about a step free entry for example. Too many city baby boomers are moving to the country for their dream with no thought of actually getting older. They buy for the view. Not sure we can change the psychological make-up of us humans.