Friday, March 27, 2009

We Can't Stop the Fires, But We Can Be Better Prepared

One of our delayed reactions to Black Saturday, has been that we constantly relive what happened in our minds and conversation. Not from the ‘wasn’t it terrible” viewpoint, but more in a questioning way. We are trying to understand exactly what happened and why. We were too busy on the night and in the days after, to do anything but deal with the emergency.

The sorts of questions that are preying on our minds are:-
· How are the many people who lost houses, precious possessions, pets, and worst of all their loved ones, coping? We are reminded of their loss every time we go past the wreckage that was once somebody’s home. This brings tears to our eyes as we feel a small part of their pain.
· Will the bush and its inhabitants return to something resembling what it was before the fires, in our lifetime?
· Why have we no recollection of radiant heat or the sound of the fire?
· How could so much lovely bush (whole forests) be transformed in such a short time?
· How fast did the fire spread? It seemed to arrive and the next thing we knew, it was all around us. How long did this process take?
· How much luck was involved in our fire fighting efforts?
· Would a fire driven by a north wind be worse than this fire that came from the south?
· How is it that the legs of the wooden stands that support our beehives started burning, but the fire fizzled out and the hives survived without our intervention?
· Where did the lyrebird go to survive? Did more survive?
· Did any goannas survive? These massive (2m+ long) ancient looking reptiles always gave us a thrill as they stomped their way through the forest.
· Why did a particular tree or small area of bush not burn?
· Why did the fire come to our place? It travelled 10 km over undulating grasslands burning much of the Pauls Creek Valley, but missed some areas altogether. Was this chance, or were there reasons for the path it followed?
· Was there more that we could have done on the night? This question haunts me (Andrew) in particular. Understandably I was preoccupied with fighting the fire and continually checking out everything, but if only I had spent 10 minutes letting a substantial amount of water out of the dam outlet. This may have created a less intense fire in the gully below our dam.
· What can we do to be better prepared in the future?
· What strategies would be valuable in future events?
· How do you get the message about really basic preparations and behaviours through to everyone in fire prone areas? Some people appeared to be completely unprepared, were not alert on the day and when the fires came many made some really dangerous decisions.

These last three questions have prompted us to put in a submission to the Royal Commission. We don’t expect much attention to be paid to our thoughts (amongst the thousands of pages of expert comment), but we are doing it because we would like to do what we can to help avoid such a massive loss of life in the future. Victoria is certain to have more fires- possibly even worse ones, but we must develop strategies to keep people safe. We are also hoping that by doing this, all the questions that keep popping up in our heads will be put to rest.

Here are two of the ideas we have come up with:-

There is a need for the introduction of a state wide “Closure of Forests” on total fire ban days. That is all National Parks, State Forests and Forest reserves where possible should be closed to public access on fire ban days. The benefits include:-
· Closing forests would make it more difficult for arsonists to access isolated bushland roadsides.
· Apprehension/identification would be easier because forest staff and the general public would know that those entering the forests are doing it illegally.
· Less people in the forest means less chance of fires being accidentally started from cigarettes, bbq’s etc
· Forest closures would reduce the need to rescue people who get trapped in the forest by fire.

A way of helping residents improve their fire defences would be to run demonstration days. Selected properties could be used to provide real life examples of fire defence strategies. Many people cannot /will not read the very useful material put out by the CFA, however they may be prepared to spend a couple of hours looking at what others are doing. This works for open gardens and farm demonstration days- why not for fire defence education?
Most of our ideas are “concepts” that would need a lot more work to make them feasible. Some may be impractical and financially unviable. The thing is, we need every idea on the table, even ‘way out ones’, so that the best can be selected for follow up. We welcome your comments-perhaps you would like to make a submission yourself. The Royal Commission website has all the details on how to make a submission. See
In the next post we will describe a couple of other thoughts we have had.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Concrete Bunkers in Bushfire Prone Areas

Property design, planning and preparation are keys to saving life and property in a wildfire. However it is almost impossible to be 100% ready- there is always the chance of unexpected factors arising. These could include the fire being worst than expected, trees falling across exit routes or on top of houses, cars not starting, having a bad fall etc. In case a worst case scenario arises, having a backup plan is good insurance and provides a greater sense of security.

Our backup plan (which we fortunately didn’t need to resort to) was to shelter in our concrete bunker. It is an adapted concrete water tank with strengthened walls and roof so it can be earth covered. A metal door in the side allows access and there is provision for a vent in the roof. We installed this in 2000 and have been progressively getting it ready. Two years ago we backfilled earth around it, but have not yet covered the top with soil.
The bunker is located just metres from our back door allowing quick access in an emergency. It is next to the double brick masonry wall of the house which should shield it from fire, if the house caught alight. There is a tap located on the corner of the house to provide a water supply. The plan is to use Besser type bricks to build a retaining wall on each side of the bunker entrance and then completely cover it with soil/gravel.

There is some concern about fires consuming all available oxygen. Although we have to do further research on this aspect, we expect that the oxygen available in the structure should be adequate for the length of time we would be in there. Experts generally say that it is best to focus on fighting the fire and putting out embers until it gets too dangerous. We would only need to stay in the shelter until the worst of the front has passed, and then it would be back outside to put out what we can.

Other considerations are:-
· If it gets too hot the metal door could expand, jam or buckle. There will be no flammable material near the bunker door so this should not be an issue.
· Sprinklers could be used to continually soak the area with water.
· We will have a supply of water for drinking and fire fighting equipment inside the bunker including damp towels etc.
· Filters could be installed to prevent entry of smoke.

This view from the north shows our white 7,500 gal. water tank with the fire shelter behind. This arrangement was part of our permaculture plan. Rather than just having a water tank and a fire refuge we have achieved many extra functions from these two pieces of infrastructure.
Apart from use as a fire shelter, the bunker has an everyday use as a cellar for storage of pumpkins, spuds, fruit, wine, ginger beer etc. It has been sealed with a coating of water proof material and backfilled with gravel on all sides to ensure water drains away without causing dampness. Once it is finished it should maintain a reasonably constant temperature in winter and summer.
The backfill against the water tank helps keep the water cool and means the tank is less susceptible to damage in a fire.
The fact that this wall is largely earth sheltered sets the house down low, so embers and heat largely pass overhead.
The setup provides easy access to the roof without ladders. (Of value whenever roof access is required but particularly in emergencies.)
The earth sheltered house wall adds extra thermal mass to the house, helping to keep temperatures in the house comfortable all year.

Hopefully a concrete bunker would never be required for emergency use. However it is a good investment because, apart from providing some piece of mind, it has potential to fulfil many other functions.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Healesville Organic Market

This market is quite different to most of the so called “farmers markets’ that have sprung up around Melbourne. It was an initiative of the Yarra Valley Permaculture Group as a way of improving the quality and security of our food supply. Five years ago it established the market, aiming to encourage locals to produce organic food for sale to their community.

Over the years it has steadily grown and become a main source of local organic food in the area. Although only a small market, there are a wide range of products for sale including seasonal vegetables and fruits, honey, compost worms, garlic, bees wax, pottery, nature photographs, juices, breads, seeds, plants and more. Some weeks we are joined by extra stalls selling wooden toys, chook feeders, soaps, chai tea, jams and preserves and delicious food for morning tea. There is also a stall that supplies organic food from Victoria Market that cannot be grown locally.
The concept of keeping food miles to a minimum is more important than ever as oil becomes scarce and global warming worsens. Apart from its environmental benefits there are economic, health and social benefits as well. Shoppers are supporting local growers, the organic food is free of pesticides and other chemicals, and often picked the night before or that morning- we are REAL fresh food people. The market has become a regular Saturday morning social occasion. Unlike many other markets the focus is not so much on making money but on enriching and supporting the community.

Growers and buyers usually know each other by name and spend time chatting and sharing news, gardening tips or networking. On fine days customers sit and have a bit to eat or drink as they catch up with friends. The market is held every Saturday morning from 8am to 1 pm outside the Healesville Railway Station.

As our society has become more complex and more interlinked globally, it has also in some ways become more fragile. A natural disaster, accident, a poorly thought through government or business policy or terrorist attack can have terrible consequences for large numbers of people. In the last 10 years we have seen the effects of company crashes, gas plant explosions, oil shortages, energy shortages, water shortages etc. We can build some protection from these events by developing resilient communities. Communities and individuals are starting to take on responsibility for the necessities of life by generating their own power, storing their own water and growing their own food. This concept can be taken further through projects such as the Transition Town concept. Gavin's ( ) latest blog entry describes in great detail the exent to which our society has become dependent on oil and how the transition Towns model may hold many of the answers.

Although our organic market’s focus is on food supply we are doing our best to promote other elements of community resilience. The market offers opportunities to network, share ideas and promote community activities and hopefully provides a model that can be taken up by other communities.

If you are up Healesville way on a Saturday morning, drop in to the market and say hello to us at the Tenderbreak Permaculture Farm stall and the other stallholders. Most of us have been through the fires or been very close, so seeing faces not covered in soot makes a pleasant change.
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