Australia –Being ready is the key to coping with the threat of future bushfires, writes KEVIN BUTLER.
This article explores strategies to prepare for the next inferno. The strategies are ranked in priority order.
1 Reduce the fuel load. When I was as high as my Dad’s knees, I remember sheep grazing out paddocks around the shearing shed and house, especially on the north side. I remember Dad creating fire breaks in the late spring by cutting the grass on the roadside and burning it once it had dried off a week later. The lessons I learned when I was young led me to have 20ha of nil fuel load over three paddocks for my sheep to safely go to each summer over the past several years, in case of fire. Creating these bare areas of impossible combustion status is a yearly insurance. You may prepare them each year for a whole lifetime, but a fire will incinerate you the year you don’t. Similarly, many farmers had large dams, which cattle simply walked into while the fire roared around them.
2Install galvanised-pipe sprinkler systems around, and even inside, your home and sheds before the 2010 fire season. Install a bore and a new dam to store two megalitres of water, to fight a fire for up to two days. It is wise to have up to four sources of water supply, with pumps: bore; dams; water tanks collecting from the roof, and mains water. This is where my preparation could have been better – I should have had a saturation system for all garden beds and roofing installed beforehand. Properties which did this and were in the path of the fireball, or a lesser-intensity grass fire, survived. When trying to save your home and sheds with a fire bearing down all around you, with all its embers as well, you will not have the time to be everywhere at once. So automatic saturation, all around and over the buildings, is a splendid strategy. All poly pipes and fittings from dams and bores should be buried a minimum of 300 mm underground or else they will simply melt from the heat, as many did on Black Saturday. As I write, the tractor and grader blade are deep-burying the 50mm poly pipe from my bore and dam complex to the farmhouse and shearing shed. Also, I should have taught my wife and daughters how to start the diesel-powered bore well before the fire season started, rather than teaching them on my mobile phone while I was fighting to save a neighbour’s home. Preparation is the key.
3Move farm animals to safe places by 9am on a day of total fire ban. This strategy proved to be an absolute winner, as on Black Saturday I had moved my 1200 ewes to safe ground an hour before the fire broke out. The fire leapt up to 11km in one minute, meaning if you had not moved stock before the fire had started, and they were in the fire’s path, you faced horrible losses.
4 Beware of falling into a false sense of security just because you have paid your insurance premium. Your insurance will never recompense you for the loss and suffering resulting from a mega fire. Can you find insurance to adequately replace beautiful 150-year-old oaks? It is far better to insure well and have the contract checked by your legal advisor annually, and then lock it away in an off-the-property safe and pretend you have no insurance at all. This will cause you to be far more fire vigilant during summer.
5Be outside your home watching for smoke signals between 10am and 8pm on a day of total fire ban. The act of closing blinds, switching the air conditioner on and watching TV on a day of total fire ban proved to be a disastrous one for many people. Furthermore, I am of the firm resolve that the Kilmore East fire started at 11.18am on that day – 29 minutes before the first call to 000 and 45 minutes before the first of the two Kilmore tankers arrived on the scene. Had a vigilant neighbour spotted the fire earlier, before it moved out of heavily grazed paddocks into the forest, there is a great possibility the tankers would have been there on time to stop the inferno developing.
6Only grow trees around your home which will not explode into a wall of flame. Cut down all gum trees and replace with oak trees or fire-resistant natives. These trees will not make the fire worse. A gum tree, cypress or pine is similar to the fire itself – a great friend in one season but a terrifying foe in another.
7 Switch your radio to the ABC emergency channel all day and have battery back-up. Consistently monitor the CFA website – every minute. We all have a communal responsibility to not only take care of others, but not to be a burden on our welfare system as a result of not taking due vigilance on a day of total fire ban.
8In heavily forested country, have the car well fuelled up and be prepared to leave your home at the first instance of fire. In fact, if your only experience of a fire is of blowing candles out on your birthday, you are best to leave. You cannot prepare thoroughly enough beforehand, survive, or help others and property survive in a fire unless you have had several experiences beforehand that have frightened the life out of you. The fact that I have fought several fires during my life, including one I accidentally started on a tractor, has been a great teacher to me. Be of the mindset that in mega fires you are on your own and that the fire front will move far more quickly than the official updates that come to you. It was painful and pitiful for me to watch the impotent CFA first response to the Kilmore East outbreak at noon on Black Saturday. It was even more painful watching and realising in the next 90 minutes that the communities of Wandong and beyond, which were in the path of the fire, had no warning from the media or from any authority until I phoned and spoke to 774 ABC radio at 1.35pm. And finally, the Black Saturday fire-recovery program has been a bigger disaster than the fire itself. We could not stop the fire, but we could have started and completed the rebuilding well before the cold weather and wet months. Nothing lifts bushfire survivors’ spirits faster than a quick clean-up of the ruins, followed by overwhelming and prolonged community support until the job is done to their satisfaction. After four months, many thousands of kilometres of fencing, gardens and hundreds of homes and buildings still lie in ruins. Furthermore, the names of thousands of people who have offered volunteer rebuilding work have been lost in government databases, with few practical conduits to tap into volunteers’ time and energy. History will judge the preparation before the Black Saturday fires and recovery after the fire as being largely uninformed, disorganised and reactive – from property owners to all levels of government and their authorities. Since Ash Wednesday we have, indeed, reaped what we have sown.