Alison AplinEcologically friendly v fire ‘safe’

I can’t imagine a life without the many varied sounds of wildlife, in particular the bird varieties so many of us have come to love and enjoy. But in order for us to have these feathered friends close by we need trees, food and water for them.

I recently decided to have a bushfire assessment by the Country Fire Authority (CFA); a promoted, free ‘Defendability Advice for your Property’ visit. I was keen to get the professional opinion of a Wildfire Officer to see how he would assess our rating in a wildfire.

Our property is in a CFA designated high danger zone for bushfires. I assumed as much because of the number of State National Parks in the region. These parks form corridors of woodland, and Narrawong would be in a precarious position with north-west and west winds raging through the area.

Large eucalypts visble in the background on northern boundary

As much of our property is covered with large eucalypts – Eucalyptus globulus and Eucalyptus viminalis as examples, with coarse and peeling bark, I knew that our assessment would not be favourable. We also knew when we purchased the property, that a property such as ours would need good insurance coverage.

Many of the ideas covered were what I would call ‘wise’. Suggestions like removing fibre door mats from outside the doors on severe fire days. I had never considered this, but of course it makes sense when you think about it.

Covering external vents was another good suggestion, as well as overhanging branches of the roof. Keeping gutters clear, paint work in good condition – these are all good suggestions.

But I was very disappointed to hear the suggestion that I have no garden abutting the house. The recommendation to me was that “any garden area [minus the plants] should have river pebbles for mulch and not my recycled material that I generate from my own compost or garden prunings”. So much for habitat creation and biodiversity!

Illustration from the CFA Landscaping for Bushfire handbook

We have large windows; all the better for viewing the wonderful bird-life outside. They also provide us with ventilation with the north-south factor and the easterly windows following a hot day are vital to a good night’s sleep without air-conditioning.

I am concerned that because of bureaucratic fear following the Black Saturday bushfire that garden lovers are going to be encouraged to dispense with their gardens, or if not that entirely, to not grow any trees in their gardens. The assessor who visited my property wasn’t concerned whether it was indigenous or exotic. Being plants meant that they had no place near the house within 45 metres on our north-western side he stated, even succulents and geraniums in pots was discouraged. How could anyone assume that these would burn and provide embers?

Dense vegetation including eucalypts

I do accept that we have too many large gums close to our house, on our property and adjacent properties within the 45 metre zone. But I am not keen to have recommended to me river pebbles as a garden, when they are totally unsustainable to where I live. They are also inert and trendy, and I avoid trendy at all costs.

The unfortunate issue of the whole visit is the fact that our house is well built – as the assessor acknowledged. Our neighbour’s house, on our north western boundary, [a weatherboard with peeling paint on just about every surface] has a roof line only about 2 metres from the main bedroom of our home which is built up on stilts. This home is surrounded with litter which we would take to the dump, but they collect in random piles on site. This is our problem – which the assessor overlooked, even though he looked over the fence.

The assessment was worthwhile. But I am disappointed with the advice about removing all vegetation close to our house and replacing this with nothing other than river pebbles – not even plants growing in the pebbles. What is the sense in following out these procedures, when our neighbour’s home is more of a threat on a high fire danger day than any vegetation? We can only do our best to keep our maintenance up to a high level, while also deep watering the garden in dry periods. This then helps with the movement of water through the shaft of the big trees, making them less vulnerable to wildfires. 

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Alison Aplin

About Alison Aplin

Alison is a passionate, multi award winning sustainable landscape designer, Horticulturist and arborist. She has been the owner and designer of 2 Ecotourism gardens that have both won significant awards. Her writing is based on knowledge, empirical learning which is essential to sustainable ethic, and a questioning mind leading to much research. Her articles are often controversial - with a disclaimer that she is responsible for the written matter, and not Garden Drum. A deeply caring person about the natural environment, Alison's writing endeavours to explain why sustainable landscapes are so important. Without people like her, they will be lost and gardens will become merely concrete

7 thoughts on “Ecologically friendly v fire ‘safe’

  1. That’s interesting, Alison. We have a profressionally installed Cribb Engineering bushfire sprinkler system. The two layer system comprises butterfly heads along the eaves and a misting kind of system for the walls and windows. When the system runs, it throws out vast quantities of water: running the ten or twelve metres from the front to the back of the house, I get drenched. We have vegetation along each side of the house (eg camellias, viburnum as well as lilypilly and natives), although none touches the walls, eaves etc. I’d planned to remove much of it but we were told that WITH this sprinkler system, nearby foliage was actually an advantage, because it creates a huge surface area for the water to cover, as opposed to (say) a lawn, or bare ground.
    Our house is on a cut-and-fill site, tucked into the hillside, and considered relatively defensible when we had an assessment done many years ago (and presumably safer with the sprinkler system & pump).

    But what annoys me is that the new fire index rating of catastrophic no longer has a FDI number attached, with catastrophic being any fire danger index of over 100. Well, 100 is OK for defending our house (I’d stay), but the extreme of 300 as we saw in Victoria, would not be (I’d leave early). But now that the FDI is no longer given, I have no way of knowing! Very frustrating!

  2. Interesting to see how it would be from state to state. We have a fire rating for different plants. Not sure how accurate it is, but soft leaved europeans tend to be encouraged, mainly because they are less flammable and because of the benefits of screening from radiant heat, which can be considerable. We also plant with regard to separation of the layers. So eucalypts we tend to trim up the trunks, so they have less chance of catching alight, and don’t plant flammable things underneath them.
    Assessing the fire rating of vegetation and gardens sounds like it’s a complicated issue that has still not been very well described.

  3. Having been in the area during the last threatening bushfire, which actually went thru Tyrendarra, I think you are being a little complacent with fire safety. During Black Sunday, winds were well over 100km, and it was less then half an hour between the fire breaking the containment lines, and reaching the township – the distance it travelled, was similar to the distance from bush line, and the Narrawong township. Half an hour sounds like a long time, but when you are panicked into either protecting your house, or evacuating, it isn’t long at all… Given that on that Sunday, the grass fire burnt like someone had thrown petrol on it, I would take all appropriate actions to have a ‘safe’ property setup.
    And honestly, I think that given your position as a garden design advisor, you should be actively encouraging people to have a defendable property, especially given the area’s reputation for fierce burning bushfires.
    You are in a position here to help promote CFA’s bushfire awareness, and all you have done, is criticize the majority of features, that for the most part, are quite sensible suggestions.

  4. Hello Simmy
    Thanks for your post. Please do not think that I don’t understand the concern of people in fire prone areas – I do. We have lived in many a high danger zone area [the Adelaide Hills for example, surrounded with large gums] which caused sheer terror on really hot windy days, especially as we lived in a gully.

    I have just done the Landscaping for Bushfires course which further demonstrated what was promoted by the visiting CFA officer. Much of it is wise, and I will definitely be using with clients in this area.

    We have recently had the Glenelg Catchment Management Authority authorize the planting of Crown land between Mount Clay and our property, surrounding the wetland, with a mass of Manna Gums, Swamp Gums, Blackwood Wattle and so on in vast numbers considering the size of the land. I complained bitterly about these plantings, to Council and the CMA, not only because they will help dry up the wetland, but also because of the fire issue from Mount Clay. The wetland is a peat bog, which can burn for months if ignited. So I am fully aware of the issues that this region faces and which you draw attention.

    My concern is that we are just the custodians of the land – we cohabit with other creatures like koalas, birds, lizards and snakes to name a few. If we all have gardens composed of a few grassy plants and river pebbles, then MY quality of life would be seriously affected as well as the lack of habitat for the fauna that reside in this area.

    Our biggest issue is our neighbouring property, as stated in the original post. I have no control over their property maintenance. We now also have the issue of the wetland planting which has been so badly addressed.

    Tyrendarra is a far more heavily wooded area than Narrawong. You also have heavy clay soil, which when dry, on an extreme bushfire day, will not release any moisture for the multitude of trees. So they will be far more volatile than those in our property for example which has a completely different soil.

    In essence, I think that you may have overreacted to my article as I commented favouribly about other very good suggestions from the visiting CFA Officer. I am not complacent re our issue. We just understand that we will leave our property on an extreme fire day with pets in tow.

  5. I just feel your article could have had a more positive tone to it, in regards to fire safety, and that most of CFA’s energy at a bush fire, is spent on asset protection rather then fighting the actual fire front.
    ANY actions and preparations that landholders can do to assist in this, are very helpful. Regardless of neighbours actions.

  6. I do understand Alison’s concerns re the recommendations for landscaping close to the house in fire prone areas. However, constraints can be opportunities. Moss gardens and water gardens would be my suggestions. Moss gardens have a long tradition in Japan and may be achievable by using misters. Think of the mist garden at the National Gallery, Canberra. Water gardens might simply be collections of water bowls or an actual puddle or pond or two. Water bowls (and ponds) come in all sorts of shapes and sizes. Gil Teague of Florilegium, the garden bookshop in Glebe, NSW had a superb large water bowl in his shop that was an old copper still fitted with a small reticulation unit. Water would also attract wildlife, the viewing of which could be enjoyed from inside the home. I once created a small pond garden outside the principal’s office at my local high school. Rainbow lorikeets used it for a bath and I often saw the principal standing at the window watching their antics – a great connection with nature. Stones or boulders of local provenance (on site?) may be able to be used if you don’t want to import river stones.

    • What a positive comment. There are some great ideas here as an alternative to plants close to the house. I think that the water option would work best on the southern side of the home, preferably in a wind protected spot. But there are some very good points to consider here – ideas that I myself will use.

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