Australia — The devastating Kelmscott-Roleystone bushfires destroyed around 70 homes in the Perth Hills in February this year.
The Keelty inquiry into the fires found about half of those homes were lost as a result of ember attack on evaporative air conditioners.
Filter pads in evaporative air conditioners are made from cellulose material which ignites easily when the system draws in embers or sparks and fire can then spread through the house or the burning unit may collapse into the roof.
The Fire and Emergency Services Authority says it has spent years trying to educate people in bushfire risk areas that a simple mesh cover on air conditioners costing from a few hundred dollars can eradicate the danger.
The head of FESA’s fire investigations unit, Craig Waters, says experts became aware of ember attack on evaporative air conditioning systems in the 1990s.
“We’ve been doing some work along with manufacturers to not only work on the type of filter pad they use but also the introduction of ember screens to prevent these embers from actually getting in and impacting the internal compartments of the units themselves,” he said.
“We’re trying to get the message out as much as we can.
“We had the same problems initially with the introduction of smoke alarms throughout the state and hopefully people will; it’s a small price to pay to protect potentially the loss of a whole house.”
It’s not just homes at risk.
The Mundaring shire president Helen Dullard says they discovered there was an issue during meetings on bushfire preparedness with 21 local schools.
“What we’ve identified, to our horror, the government schools in our area all have evaporative air conditioning,” she said.
“What we’ve done is written to the Education Department in response to the fact that the schools have been asking for ages for those air conditioners to be changed or have appropriate grilles put on them and got no response.
“So we picked that up because we recognised that those children in our schools are seriously at risk.”
The department rejects the claims and says while some school air conditioning units do not have the grilles, it is working to retro-fit those or have them replaced or removed entirely.
The department’s deputy director-general of schools David Axworthy says this will happen in time for summer.
“Our response at the moment is that we comply with FESA regulations and FESA advice that if there is a fire and if there is danger of a fire we advise our schools to turn off their air conditioning units immediately so there is no risk of embers being sucked into evaporative air conditioners,” he said.
Difficult to find
One of the difficulties with fitting the screens is being able to buy them in the first place.
A 19-year-old mechanical engineering student Ashley Swarts attended a meeting at Bedfordale after the bushfires and picked up on the fact there was no-one constructing and fitting the screens locally.
“Since then, I’ve joined the (volunteer) fire brigade and I’ve actually looked into it more about how to manufacture these screens,” he said.
Mr Swarts says the most difficult part in development was sourcing a local supplier for the mesh.
He has made and fitted about 25 ember protection screens and, since the end of university exams a couple of weeks ago, is now working full-time and employing his younger brother to keep up with demand.
“Most people have been saying, ‘wanted one of these for years and it’s great to finally see that someone is coming up with them,” he said.
Another issue is that unless you are in an area declared ‘bushfire prone’ you are not required to fit a screen?
FESA’s Craig Waters says declaring more areas ‘bushfire prone’ could help enforce their fitting and prevent the loss of buildings in this way.
“[It] then brings in a raft of construction requirements under the building code of Australia to ensure it is built to the required fire safety rating for that particular area,” he said.
“I suppose there needs to be more [such] areas declared and the enforcement of those type of construction methods to make sure the residence is actually fire safe.”
The Keelty inquiry found there was a reluctance from some local governments to declare areas bushfire prone as the requirements and increased costs could have the potential to limit development in their area.
Areas declared bushfire prone must comply with Australian Standard 3959-2009, which includes specific requirements of evaporative cooling units designed to prevent ember attacks.
One shire which hasn’t balked at the costs is the Busselton Shire, the only local government in the state which has declared its entire municipality bushfire prone.
The shire’s director of planning, Nigel Bancroft, says moves towards the declaration began in 2004 when an increasing number of people were building lifestyle properties in areas whose attractive characteristics, undulating land and thick vegetation, were the very factors making them high fire risk areas.
He says meeting the Australian standards for bushfire prone areas adds about five per cent to the cost of an average home.
“If you are going to buy and build in our lifestyle or rural-residential areas then it’s quite clear up front that these areas are at fire risk and your dwelling will have to meet certain standards to address that,” he said.
He says under the declaration each property is given a bushfire rating.
Only those deemed at medium, high or extreme fire risk must be assessed by a fire planning consultant and the appropriate Australian standard applied.
“The requirements for compliance, particularly clearing of your building protection zone, your hazard protection zone are done and inspected at the time of building,” he said.
“They have to maintain that year after year; going back a decade ago, people were often moving into houses with no bushfire vegetation control in place.”
Mr Bancroft says there’s been little concern within the community about the declaration and the associated cost implications.
“Most people acknowledge a responsibility and in a lot of ways a gratitude that the standard is there,” he said.
“It provides them good information about how they can address the bushfire risk.”
He says the attitude of property owners to bushfire prevention has changed in recent years with the prevalence of devastating fires around the country.
“There’s a lot more people that now acknowledge bushfire as a very significant issue and realise that they do need to do what’s necessary, at a minimum, what’s legislatively required to meet it,” he said.
“Quite a few people do over and above that.”
The Mayor of Armadale, Henry Zelones, in which the communities of Kelmscott and Roleystone fall, says the declaration of bushfire prone areas should be a responsibility of state not local government.
“So that we can ensure there’s consistency across local government boundaries,” he said.
“We found in the past when local governments actually do these things on their own, they’re not quite the same.
“Our preference is for them to make that declaration and make it uniform.”
A recommendation from the Keelty report is to vest responsibility for declaring areas bushfire prone with the WA Planning Commission instead of local government.
An implementation group is working on that but it will require legislative change and considerable resources to administer and it’s a change that won’t be made in time for this bushfire season.
Again the question needs to be asked, why did it take a major bushfire and the loss of 70 homes for the State Government to address this issue?