Saturday, November 27, 2010

Q&A Councils in denial about fuel management

Prudent vegetation management makes this house less vulnerable to bushfire.

European deciduous trees are bushfire survivors.
Indigenous trees and conifers burnt at Marysville -but not this Liquid Amber.
Pictures © Katherine Seppings

Norman of Hurstbridge wrote:
I read with interest your blog on the Victorian bushfires and the subsequent outcomes from the Victorian Bushfire Royal Commission. I live in the Shire of Nillumbik where many lives were lost during that fire and am becoming increasingly worried by the actions of this council. They have just passed a motion to write to the planning minister to have the townships exempt from the 10/30 rule without acknowledging that some areas in our townships are in high fire danger areas. The townships were arbitrarily removed from the Wildfire Management Overlay some years ago.
The planning rules are under review and this council wants to stop building on undersized lots in the rural areas. That is, lots that are under the planning overlay size, which affects 81% of the shire. I am worried that if our house is destroyed, or damaged by 50%, by fire or bushfire or other we will not be able to rebuild. This then puts us in a position of maybe staying to defend our house even though we are unable to clear enough area around the house due to council vegetation restrictions. I wonder if you have any thoughts on this.
Joan Webster OAM replied:
Norman, your question reflects the concerns of many. It is a persistent problem with councils affected by illusion
It is as ludicrous as it is dangerous for councils to try to maintain a 'natural' or indigenous appearance of the bush within and adjacent to their townships. Once a house is built in bushland it is no longer natural. Our houses are not indigenous. Our houses are European. Our lifestyle is European. The only way to keep the bush 'natural' is to have no houses in it. To have townships and bush separate. Two hundred years on from settlement, this is impossible – we can't unmix the cake.
Once there are houses in or near bushland, the responsibility of municipal councils, above all the love of nature and our beautiful bush, is the safety of their residents. Most pertinently, their safety from bushfire. And this means either thinning the density of native trees, and reducing the fuel load under and around them, or replacing this highly flammable vegetation with less flammable types. If this results in altering the appearance of bush-clad town-scapes with introduced European species, so be it. We are introduced European species, as are our houses, our livestock, our pets and our cars.
The 10/30 rule – permission to cut down trees within 10 metres of the house and remove undergrowth for 30 - was introduced because of the dire need for this fuel management in areas such as the Shire of Nillumbik. Some bushfire scientists are advocating no native trees within 50 m of houses. To try to be exempted from fuel reduction around personal premises amounts to municipal manslaughter. The submission for larger allotments is, on the other hand, understandable as the smaller the lot, the less protective space can be created around it. Theoretically, at least. In reality, on bigger blocks, people may build bigger houses that leave little garden space. The tragedy of being unable to rebuild on one's later out-lawed land has historically exacerbated bushfire tragedies. Many people burnt out in Cockatoo in 1983 were put in this situation.
If Nillumbik Shire is, by some perverse political process, allowed to force its ratepayers to retain readily burnable kindling close to their dwellings, there are ways to mitigate the danger by other garden management practices. Fire can’t burn what you’ve cut back. It can’t burn bare earth or gravel paths. It can’t ignite trees if there’s nothing growing under them. Replace rough barked eucalypts with smooth-barked trees (e.g. box and ironbark). Plant dense canopied European deciduous trees near on the firewind side of house. These absorb sparks and small embers and so can protect roof and walls. (Even on Black Saturday, 2009, trees such as oak and ash did not ignite.) Have paths between house walls and shrubby plants. Populate garden beds with low flammability succulents and vegetables. Replace flammable mulch granitic sand, pebbles, or road-metal crushings. And a vital adjunct – make your house as ember-proof as possible and learn as much as possible about how to be prepared, planned and practiced.
The Complete Bushfire Safety Book has a large chapter on protective gardens and eleven pages of fire retardant plants listed with their indigenous origin, mature height and drought resistance.