Mowing & Home Maintenance
Some Thoughts on Fire Prevention
AHANDYBLOKE Mowing & Home Maintenance offers some practical thoughts for fire prevention and abatement in and around the home. This information relates mainly to the south-east of Australia but I suppose it could be applied generally.
This is not a definitive article on the subject, rather it is a few practical, easily applied tips and thoughts learned through experience and observation. You are urged to read and study information supplied by your local and state fire services and relevant government departments regarding fire safety.
Complacency ‘It can’t happen to me’. Wrong! It can. Fire can strike at any time, in any season and often in the most unexpected ways. Never assume you are not at risk of fire. Complacency can kill you.
House fires Summer bushfire (or wildfire) aside, houses are just as likely (even more likely) to suffer a fire in winter than summer from heaters, from cooking, children playing with candles etc. If you live in a rural or semi-rural area you have a responsibility to have an operational fire pump and independent water source available at all times. Ideally, your fire pump should be set up permanently, serviced and run regularly (monthly) and your family should be trained in how to use it. An independent water source can be a dam, a tank, swimming pool or anything that holds at least 1000 litres of water.
Do not assume you will have time to run to the shed and get the fire pump and hose out from under the bench in the case of a fire. You won’t.
Kitchens and areas with wood heaters, gas heaters and electric radiant heaters should have a fire extinguisher and fire blanket at the ready. And don’t forget the barbecue.
Bushfire If you live in a rural or semi rural area, in a suburban fringe bordering bushland or parkland, in an area where many of the houses are planted with Australian native gardens YOU ARE AT RISK of bushfire during summer. There is no escaping this fact but fire needs fuel and this basic rule applies: No fuel, no fire.
Start looking around your property in SEPTEMBER, yes September, and aim to have your FIRST major clean up for the season completed by the end of NOVEMBER getting down all the spring growth. You should not wait any longer. If you do not have your property completely cleaned up by CHRISTMAS it can be too late. Even if you cut long grass after Christmas it will not have time to rot down and you will have dry grass and litter lying around through the heat of February and March. South eastern Australia usually has rain events around Christmas time and you can use this to rot down leaf litter and other ground fuel. If not, you will have an opportunity to rake it up and dispose of it.
Your SECOND major cleanup should be before or in early JANUARY, before the summer heat really strikes.
It is not enough to superficially clean up just once at the start of ‘fire season’ raking up the leaves around the lawn and cleaning out the gutters. Look EVERYWHERE - under the house, under the deck, around the back of the shed or garage. And KEEP LOOKING right through fire season. It’s good idea to get a second critical opinion as others will see things that you don’t.
Grass Get it short early and keep it short. Dry grass and leaves are fuel, referred to here as ‘ground fuel’.
Trees Trim them back from the house, but remember that it’s the ground fuel below them that’s the real danger.
Ground fuel Fire burns upwards, so removing ground fuel from around the base of trees and structures is a must, more important than worrying about trees.
If you live in a weatherboard or brick house on stumps, get underneath. You will be surprised by the amount of fuel that gets blown in there over the year and look up to the floorboards - brush down the cobwebs and dust. You can also take this opportunity to check for the ubiquitous termite.
Fencelines It’s amazing how much ‘ground fuel’ (there’s that phrase again) builds up along fences of all types. This fuel can act as a ‘wick’, spreading fire rapidly. Clean it up.
The shed Clean up inside and around the shed(s). Go and have a look, pretty bad isn’t it? All of those bits of timber you ‘might need later’, empty oil bottles and clutter. Often it’s closer to your neighbour’s house than yours and you don’t want their property on fire do you? And move the firewood.
Garden mulch DO NOT USE flammable mulch on your garden within two to three metres of your house. This includes ALL types of mulch that are flammable - pine bark, redgum chips, eucy mulch and the like. They are dangerous. If you wish to mulch a garden that’s against a house, you must use products like pebbles or screenings. They are both non-combustible and effective in moisture retention for the soil. In my opinion, garden mulch has possibly resulted in more houses catching fire than anyone can imagine. If you must use combustible mulches the CFA advises that mulch should be covered with sand during fire season.
Pot plants Pretty during the mild seasons, sinister in summer, especially in plastic pots. Get rid of them during fire season. Put them in a shaded areas away from the house (no, not next to the neighbour’s). And take that door mat be it fibre, coir, rubber or carpet and put it away until the weather cools.
Weatherboard houses - should have NO combustible material within 600mm of the base boards and stumps and the base of timber stumps should ideally be protected with a non-combustible fibre board. This includes green grass growing up to the edge of the house where it should be cut back to bare earth. One hot week and that green grass will be toast. In all cases in rural and semi-rural areas, houses should ideally have a minimum 600mm wide non-combustible strip around the wall base of the entire house. It can be concrete, gravel, pavers or bare earth. Not pretty, but effective. Again, gardens should be sparsely planted and NO combustible mulch.
Plants Avoid natives close to the house. Yes, I know ‘they don’t use much water’ and ‘they attract the birds’. Well, they attract fire too. Plant them out in garden beds away from the structure. There is plenty of information available on websites regarding what to plant where, especially as it relates to microclimate control around the home. Also avoid planting conifers near the house, particularly on the north and west, they burn like crazy.
Fire pumps If you live in a rural or semi-rural area, whether near bushland or in open country, there is NO EXCUSE not to have a fire pump and around at least 1000 litres of water on hand. When you have a fire, you need a LOT of water FAST. No sense waiting for the fire brigade, they’re not miracle workers and they can’t get there instantly. And remember, you are just as likely to need it winter as summer. Plus they’re great for washing down the house.
You can get petrol, diesel, mechanical or electric start; you can even get them to start up by phone remotely ... Your electric household pressure pump that’s wired into the house will be next to useless in a bushfire or house fire as you will possibly have no electricity and they really don’t have enough output anyway. They are designed to push water down 12mm pipes, whereas 5 or 6 hp fire pumps are usually designed with two 25mm outlets. Doubling the diameter of the pipe quadruples the potential flow. Think about it.
Hoses Keep duct tape or plastic electrician’s tape handy for repair of hoses in an emergency situation and also some spare hose joiners and clamps. It is possible to purchase percolating hoses and lay flat canvas hoses may be a good option too. Google them.
Generators are a good option if you want to power an electric pump but remember that a fire affected, singed or burned electricity cable may or will not work and is inherently dangerous particularly in an emergency situation. (See my comment in fire pumps about the effectiveness of household pumps). I do have an electric pump, so I’m not saying they’re altogether useless, but my 5 hp petrol firefighter will be my first choice.
Sprinklers A fire pump is easily connected to common garden sprinklers. I use impact type sprinklers on standpipes with the sprinklers heads 300mm below the eave line and 5-7 metres from the wall, depending on where I can site them. It’s not perfect and it’s not that fancy, but it sprays water on both the walls and onto the roof and gutters at the same time. Beware of placing sprinklers along roof ridges alone, as while they cool the roof they do not wet the walls. The idea is to wet the base of the walls, the roof and gutters and to create a mist of water around the house. In the event of fire getting close, a thoroughly wetted area will create a steam mist and of it’s also about dousing embers. DON’T FORGET to put a sprinkler over the fire pump and, if necessary, bring the fire hose inside as the fire passes.
You can construct and install you own sprinkler fire service yourself. You will need to consult a plumber if you wish to connect to ‘town water’ and use plastic or copper I think. My sprinklers are on galvanised iron standpipes that I easily made myself, but this system is not connected to ‘town water’ in which case I would be required to use plastic or copper. The spinklers themselves are plastic, however I would suggest that in areas close to thick bushland, brass might be a better option. Underground is plastic 19mm and will be in endless loop to the pump when I finish it, so it is charged in both directions. If you need help with a ‘do-it-yourself’ system talktome.
That’s about it - there is plenty more information available on the CFA and DSE websites and elsewhere about bushfires and clothing and fire plans there’s no need to go over all that here. Remember that EVERYONE who lives in an area close to bushland, including people living in the suburbs are at risk of fire. Don’t get complacent. The fires that savaged Victoria in February 7, 2009 could just have easily wiped out the north-eastern suburbs of Melbourne had the wind not changed! Any part of Victoria including the suburbs could have been fire affected that day.
Read the information on fire plans from the CFA and DSE, both organisations did a magnificent job during the fires in Victoria through summer 2008-09 as they do every season. They are all to be heartily thanked and congratulated for the work they did. And that of course includes the interstate and overseas personnel who came and helped out. Outstanding.
These are just personal comments and obviously I don’t know everything but remember that in the event of a fire such as occurred in the unbelievable conditions we experienced on February 7, 2009, all the preparation in the world may not be enough. But prepared is better than unprepared. You need to give yourself, and others, a chance.
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