Friday, 5 June 2015

Ensuring homeowners are more self-reliant

One of the major problems as I see it with respect to bushfires and the impact that they may have on homes at the Rural Urban Interface is that, many properties are more at risk of bushfire attack than they need be.

A few simple actions taken by residents that include making their house more ember proof and removing vegetation from the immediate surrounds of their house and sheds can make them a whole lot safer.
Dry grass and prunings from shrubs grown too large are taken to the local
waste station to be burnt under controlled conditions. We can't burn
at home during fire season which includes March when this picture
was taken.

Many shrubs can grow to be a large bush in just a few years, so every year or so it is best to do an audit of the surrounds of the home and reduce the size of some of them or if they have foliage with volatile oils, consider removing them altogether.

Centre, a large vigorous Cotoneaster. Very robust it was pruned by a third,
two years ago and has regrown to be as big as before.
In the picture, left, a large Cotoneaster is growing well, too well for where it is, which is within about 10 metres of the Cottage that we have at the front of the property. We could continue to prune it every couple of years to keep it lower, but I am seriously considering taking it out altogether and replacing with a smaller growing, less vigorous shrub that will be easier to maintain, still provide some screening and be less of a fire risk.

The above are examples of what a homeowner in a Rural Interface Zone, as we are, needs to be doing to make themselves less at risk from bushfire attack.  We have a very small local bushfire brigade so in any bushfire we are likely to be on our own.

This predicament faces many residents in the RUI areas of the Perth metropolitan area and the South West of Western Australia. The number of households in the RUI in southern WA would run into hundreds of thousands. Many properties are not at all arranged to be at a low risk of bushfire attack.

How can people in this areas be encouraged and brought on board to be more self-reliant, educate themselves and be more self-reliant with respect to bushfire risk.

I wrote recently in a comment to a blog "Wildfire in the West"

"Somehow we need to encourage homeowners at the WUI to be more self-reliant and keen to ensure their properties are at low risk of wildfire attack. Perhaps we need to use the tools of marketing and advertising - put less emphasis on fear campaigns, "Do this or you'll get burnt out" - and more on positive outcomes. "Do this and you'll have a relaxing fire season because your property looks great and uncluttered, like a park." Another example, "Take out those two conifers near the house and you'll get more sun in winter, no more needles on the roof and an easy-care garden (and a lower fire risk)."

We need to stress the positive and use the tools of educators and marketing professionals to bring about behavioural change with respect to managing bushfire/wildfire risk. It would be the most cost-effective way to go.

Wednesday, 6 May 2015

Fire season blues
Fire pump
Testing the fire pump to see if it starts easily and runs properly.
Also helped to spread some moisture around near the house.
A hot wind from the east blew all day, drying the soil and plants even more from last week.

(I started this blog in January and have now come back to it in early May. Oh well, better late than ever. A great deal has happened since then.)

This was taken earlier this year in late January when the conditions were very dry. Typically January and February are the driest months and the chance of bushfires starting and spreading rapidly is greatest.

In fact as it turned out the first three months of 2015 was one of the busiest for emergency authorities, with the Northcliffe and Boddington fires being extremely large and destructive.

A substantial wooden bridge was destroyed in the Boddington bushfire - sometimes called the Hotham bushfire.
The Long Gully Bridge - an example of a wooden trestle bridge

Friday, 7 November 2014

"Gardens of Fire" Project

The cover of Robert Kenny's book
Several months ago I read the book, "Gardens of Fire" by Robert Kenny who lived through and survived the Victorian bushfires of 2009. Unfortunately, his house, though he tried to save it, was burnt to the ground.  Robert is an academic and historian who wrote a memoir of this event and its aftermath.

A good read, although rather unsettling, it provides very good reasons why it is a terrible thing for anyone to have their house destroyed. It forms a powerful motivating tool to encourage all those of us who live or holiday in fire-prone areas of Australia - and other countries with similar wildfire problems - to do everything we can to reduce the risk of bushfire attack on our homes and communities.

I am finding that the more I learn, the more there is to learn. This book is a good start.

The book is published by UWA Press and is available from them.

From the reading of the book came the project to build Bushfire Awareness which was supported by the Rotary Club of Bridgetown in South West, Western Australia.

A display was created which steps through the main points of living more safely in bushfire areas, often known as the Rural Urban Interface or RUI.

The book has now been distributed to 16 libraries in the Perth Hills and South West. The display was set up in Bridgetown, Balingup, Donnybrook, Bunbury and Manjimup Libraries.

A copy of the display is now at Blackwood Rural Services in Bridgetown.

Saturday, 16 August 2014

Insurance considerations

Most of us would be aware of insuring our properties for their full value especially if we live in fire-prone areas when the risk of bushfire is quite high for around six months of the year.

I had recently read the book by Linda Masterson, "Surviving Wildfire", which was full of useful tips about what to do and how to go about it when living in a known wildfire area.

www.Surviving Follow the link to learn more about this book.  In it Linda describes how they had prepared somewhat for the occurrence of a wildfire but not enough for when they were actually hit by a wildfire.  Their house and most of their possessions were destroyed.

An older style house with a traditional garden,
but with some forest trees on a hillside
about 75 m away.
One point that Linda made was to look at the excess that you elect to pay should there be a claim.  Generally the higher the excess the lower the premium.  It is reasoned that small, fiddly claims will not be paid if the excess is, say, $1000 or more.  If one has no excess then there is far more cost for the insurance company because there is still the paperwork in the claim process even if the payout is quite small.

From the client's point of view it is worth insuring for full value in case of serious damage when although the chance of having one's house destroyed completely is not that high, the consequences and the financial loss is huge.  Thus it is best to be insured for the big catastrophe, and not worry about insuring for small claims.

My house and contents insurance comes up for renewal next month.  The premium was just over $1900.  I checked and found I had no excess apart from $300 for tsunamis which considering that I live some 70 km inland from the sea is not all that likely.  I nominated my excess to be $1000.  Thus any small loss or damage I would pay all or most of it myself.

I was amazed to find my premium would drop by over $700.  Thus I am saving nearly 40% on my insurance premium with only a small decrease in my insurance cover and only at the fairly inconsequential part of the insurance cover.

It basically means that I can more easily afford to pay the premium to cover the full value of my house and possessions, rather than be fully covered at the low cost end.

A revised premium quote is being sent to me now and it will be much less to pay.  I wished I had enquired sooner.  And thank you Linda Masterson for that tip.

Monday, 13 May 2013

From small seedlings big trees grow 

And may need to come out ... at great expense!

Blackwood Wattles, Acacia melanoxylon, are a case in point.  I once thought them attractive, a good example of a tall wattle, with dark green "leafy" foliage, actually flattened stems that look like a true leaf, that comes originally from parts of Victoria and Tasmania.  They do well in our South West particularly in moister gullies and on south facing slopes.
Blackwood wattle on right of the photo, quite a tall 
tree with, even then, signs of one of its undesirable
characteristics, namely, suckering.

Possibly about 25 years ago, a number were planted by previous owners as innocent-enough-looking seedlings.  It was the age of Permaculture, self-sufficiency and recycling.  These trees were put in as a tree crop with the hope that down the track they would provide timber for furniture or, at the very least, firewood.  

My first impressions of them were that they were desirable trees that were recommended by farming friends.  I was pleased to find them on my 1.9 Ha in Balingup that I bought in early 2006.

A few years later, in July 2008, I began to have reservations about them when during a winter storm, the tree, pictured left and below, came down rather spectacularly and as a total surprise, because I had had the impression that they were more long lasting than most wattles.
This Blackwood wattle literally collapsed and spreadeagled
itself across some 30 metres during a storm,  just missing 
the big shed shown to the right of the picture.
The Blackwood wattle just missed the Big Shed.
It, of course, happened at the start of a weekend and we needed access to our sheds and the driveway, so we had to engage expert help to remove the remains of the tree.  It cost us around $1000 to clean up.

It was sawn up and the smaller material mulched, the we cut some fire wood, took loads to the tip and burnt some logs.  Some was not usable because it had rotted at the base and hosted many borers that had been having a good time for many years.

When I realized that Blackwood wattles were also likely to be quite inflammable over summer with their incessant dropping of litter, small twigs, seed pods, larger branches and indeed the whole tree, I reviewed my opinion of this type of tree.  In addition to suckering they also grow prolifically from their many seeds.  I decided to remove them over time rather than try to prune them as this was quite expensive anyway and the tree would still keep growing.

Removed in February 2013, these
Blackwood Wattles are no 
longer a problem.
We had another storm in June 2012 and one large Blackwood Wattle leant over onto another one.  That was it!  The rest of them, about half a dozen which were casting a dense shade, a problem especially in winter, were removed at considerable expense, but now they are no longer a problem.  Importantly they do not pose a fire hazard any more.

During the Festival of Country Gardens on the Arboretum Amble in early May, the owners of the property with this wonderful assortment of trees told how they had decided to remove a row of Blackwood Wattles because of their undesirable traits.  I agreed wholeheartedly with their sensible decision.

Borer signs in felled Blackwood Wattle.

This Blackwood Wattle had rotted out at the base and was
leaning into another after the 10 June 2012 storm.    Note 
the regrowth, they have ways of surviving.

And the moral of this story is:  
Don't plant Blackwood Wattles in gardens in the first place. 

Monday, 24 December 2012

Small is beautiful - when it comes to shrubs

Plants grow!  This may not come as a complete surprise, but many of us, myself included often think that the shrub or tree that we plant will take ages to reach a satisfactory size.

These Ceanothus, Californian Lilac were
less than a metre high a year before and
have taken off.  Not a good position next
to a shed with timber walls.
Not so!  If given a modicum of care, regular watering - not necessarily a huge amount but done at around twice a week and preferably via a drip system, plants will grow noticeably bigger.  Drippers deliver water at ground level, not into the air where much evaporates, so most of the water delivered by drippers will percolate down to the roots.

In addition to aid the growth this year, we have had the season on our side with not so much rain over winter, but good late rains in September, which with the added warmth and daylight hours of the equinox period, meant that plants really took off.  Modest little shrubs became two metre high shrubs and began to reach rooflines and come close to tree canopies.  Somehow the process of raining is more effective than drippers, probably because whole areas of the garden are watered and not just the spots where the drippers reach.

The Ceanothus shrubs as shown above and right are growing next to a shed with wooden sides.  The Ceanothus is a short-lived Californian native that grows fast, and dies within 15 - 20 years by which time it has many twiggy, dead branches and will burn easily.  It is designed to burn as a way of renewing and allowing young seedlings space and nutrients to grow.

If grown near trees it can create a ladder effect whereby a grass fire or flying embers from a bushfire can set the Ceanothus on fire and in turn the flames can reach up into nearby trees where the fire can really take off.

These shrubs could be pruned low, although they don't respond to pruning very well, or taken out altogether.  Watch this spot, these shrubs will be removed!

Monday, 6 August 2012

Shrubs: the Good, the Bad, the Ugly

The flowering apricot is more of a small tree, but it 
perfectly exemplifies the attractive bare branches of winter,
though here it shows its typical early blossom 
amongst the bare stems.  GOOD

With winter well and truly here, the nature of the deciduous shrub becomes obvious - it loses its leaves and reveals the scaffolding of its branches.  For many species the winter pattern of its branches is a beautiful sight, for although it offers no solid screening as it does in summer, it nonetheless creates a gentle softening of a vista with the tracery of those bare branches.

The Hydrangea has very few dead leaves
caught in its branches.  Its leaves break
down quickly once they have fallen.

Deciduous shrubs do more than reveal their branches, they also show that they have very little build up of flammable material.  The freshly growing leaves are, more often than not, low in volatile oils, contain a high proportion of moisture and come from climates which have cold winters and mild summers.  They are not designed to burn unlike shrubs adapted to water saving such as those from a mediterranean climate.  The dead leaves of the deciduous shrub tend to fall to the ground and, in most cases, will quickly decay over the winter becoming composted and eventually part of the soil.  Thus by summer they pose no hidden fire threat either from the new moist leaves or the old ones becoming part of the top soil.

By contrast an evergreen shrub may build up much dead litter caught in the branches, that cannot readily be seen, because of masking by the evergreen leaves.

A Book Leaf Cypress looks green on the outside, but part
the leaves and there is dry and inflammable litter inside.

Euonymous japonica

Of course, there is great variation and a spindle berry, Euonymous japonica, is quite low in flammability, although an evergreen.  Its leaves are quite large, fleshy and moist without volatile oils.  When looking into the shrub there is very little in the way of leaf litter caught in the branches.

To sum up, choosing deciduous shrubs are often a safer choice for fire-prone areas, partly because they come from cool temperate areas and are not inherently inflammable, but also because it is easy to see if there is a build up of inflammable material.

If you do choose evergreen shrubs, choose ones like the Euonymous with broad, fleshy leaves.

If you really like plants such as diosma or artemisia keep them small and low to the ground - less than a metre - this regular cutting back will reduce the litter build up.
Artemisia, Wormwood, is best cut back regularly, but it does
have volatile oils and needs controlling.
A qualified GOOD.  High maintenance!