Australia — Five years after the Black Saturday fires claimed 173 lives in Victoria, Swinburne University of Technology engineers have collaborated with a Greek-owned Melbourne concrete firm to design and build a shelter that could be saving lives this summer.
Using a government grant, researchers from Swinburne’s Faculty of Science, Engineering and Technology, Professor Ajay Kapoor, Dr Ambarish Kulkarni and Rashmi Kapoor, along with Greek Australian Peter Zigouras from Frankston Concrete Products, have designed, built and tested the above ground bushfire shelter.
Before settling on the final design, Professor Kapoor and his team explored other options such as an underground bunker commonly used in North America.
“It’s a simple design, but Victoria’s rocky terrain wasn’t suitable, and from a psychological perspective, people felt uncomfortable about climbing down a ladder and closing a door,” Professor Kapoor said.
“It’s also not an option for the elderly or anyone with a physical disability.”
Affordability was another crucial factor and the team wanted to keep the costs of the structure down so as many people as possible could have the opportunity to access a shelter.
The shelter, which can accommodate five people and withstand intense temperatures, features an outer and inner chamber with double walls. In the event of a bushfire, people move into the inner chamber where they close the vents and wait out the fire. A small window allows them to check the fire front has passed before they exit the shelter.
Rather than relying on oxygen equipment or masks, Dr Kulkarni said the above-ground shelter had been designed specifically to provide enough oxygen for five people for up to one hour.
“We did a lot of calculations, so we know the shelter holds the right amount of oxygen based on our many tests,” Dr Kulkarni said.
After visiting the bushfire-affected areas, reading the bushfire Royal Commission reports and completing in-depth research about the impact of bushfires on communities, Ms Kapoor added features to make the interior of the shelter as comfortable as possible. The shelter has essentials such as torches, folding chairs, even a mirror on the wall to make the space look larger than it actually is.
Mr Zigouras from Frankston Concrete Products said the shelter was competitively priced, took about one month to build and due to its compact size, could fit on a standard-size truck.
He said the first Sanctuary Fire Shelter has cost nearly a million dollars to develop and make and he expects that it will cost around 23,000 dollars per shelter to manufacture it for the public, plus installation
The team recommended the shelter be placed no closer than 10 metres, but not further than 20 metres from a home, with an unobstructed area of one metre and kept well away from vehicles and farm equipment.