It’s time to avoid see-sawing from one disaster to another

Here's how we can start planning for bushfire season now

 A firefighter walking down a charred street in the United States

In the last two years, the United States and Australia have shared some heartbreaking disasters. Both countries continue to battle a growing global viral pandemic, as well as the devastation wrought by bushfires and the catastrophic impact it has on a nation.

An important part of tackling any challenge is to regroup and grow from it – identifying the key lessons, and looking at what we can learn from other countries that have had to tackle the same problem. It's crucial to plan strategies that mitigate as much risk as possible and reduce the likeliness of the same disaster happening in the future.

It's clear in Australia that bushfires will continue to challenge our country and put homes and lives at risk. But there are many ways to help minimise some of the risk, and that starts in your home.

After the horrific bushfire season in Australia which destroyed 12.6 million hectares of land and almost 3000 homes, I looked at the data and mitigation strategies from a county all too familiar with the destruction of fires – the United States.

In 2018, the Californian wildfires were declared a national disaster with 7,639 fires burning an area of more than 1.96 million acres (793,183 hectares) and destroying more than 24,000 homes.

One of the biggest lessons from the devastating Californian wildfires, which also rings true in Australia if we are to prevent history repeating, is that retrofitting homes with wildfire resilience measures is imperative.

The Bushfire Building Council in Australia has found 90 per cent of homes in dangerous regions in Australia are not bushfire resilient.

Bushfire Building Council CEO Kate Cotter said: “Retrofitting is absolutely key to reducing life and property loss, yet that advice hasn’t reached communities or got into our policies or funding, and it’s absolutely critical.” 

The topic is now on the agenda for California governor Gavin Newsom, who announced a budget plan at the start of January 2020, including a $US100 million ‘home hardening pilot program’ to help Californians retrofit older homes against wildfire risk.

California introduced strict building codes to address bushfires in 2008. However, the codes only apply to houses built after the introduction. Currently, only six per cent of the state’s housing stock has been built since the building codes took effect.

After the deadly 2018 Camp Fire in Butte County, California, more than half of the 350 single-family homes built after 2008 came through the fire undamaged, yet only 18 per cent of the 12,100 older homes escaped damage.

The retrofitting issue in Australia

As it currently stands, Australia’s National Construction Code (NCC) requires buildings in designated bushfire-prone areas to be designed and constructed to reduce bushfire risk through the application of Australian Building Standard AS3959.

Yet, the code and standard only apply to new buildings constructed after 1994. The large majority of Australian buildings predate the requirements of these standards.

According to the most recent Census data, there are more than 9.9 million private dwellings in Australia. If we account for the construction of new homes since 1994 when the National Code took effect, there is a minimum of more than 3.5 million older homes that are unprotected.

More homes, communities and lives will be saved if the Australian government prioritises the conversion and retrospective application of ‘fire smart’ building methods and initiatives.
Houses in the United States with an bushfire behind them

Federally coordinated wildfire mitigation policy

California’s building codes bring together the best parts of government policy, building standards and innovation from across the US and are updated dynamically to ensure they are fit for purpose.

The Californian governor’s recent proposed budget aims to access $US75 million from Federal Hazard Mitigation Funding provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), a division of the US Department of Homeland Security.

FEMA developed a comprehensive Wildland / Urban Interface Construction policy for individual US States and local authorities to address wildfire risks. The policy framework includes requirements to address wildfire mitigation for both new construction and importantly, upgrades to existing structures.

Active control and suppression

For more than a decade, FEMA has worked with states and counties to provide hazard mitigation grants, which includes funds towards the retrofit of houses. One retrofit initiative that has proved effective is contained exterior sprinkler systems.

These sprinkler systems have been previously deployed across commercial and high-value properties in fire-prone areas but were historically cost-prohibitive.

In recent years, there have been advances in the deployment techniques and provision of sustainable water reticulation supply systems – making them more accessible to the domestic market.  These systems cleverly utilise existing water tanks, pool and dams that are self-contained and not reliant on mains supply.

Researchers from the University of Minnesota investigated the Ham Lake Fire in Cook County in 2007 and found of the 188 properties with a functional sprinkler system, none were lost to fire, but more than 100 neighbouring properties without sprinkler protection were irreparably damaged.

The study noted sprinkler systems appeared to protect structures and surrounding vegetation regardless of fire behaviour, intensity, fuels, weather, wind or other fire-resilient attributes of the property.  

FEMA grants provided 75 per cent of the funding for the sprinklers, reducing the cost to an average of $US3,000 per domestic house installation. These systems are also compliant with the current building codes in Australia. 

Fire resilience funding

The Australian Bushfire Building Council is urging the Australian government for a retrofitting mitigation budget at a federal and state level.

“It’s very achievable, inexpensive and could be broadly adopted with the right incentive,” CEO Kate Cotter said.

In the US, FEMA has used federally coordinated and funded incentive schemes to successfully deploy increased wildfire resistance to old and new buildings through the use of innovative materials, technologies, active control measures and defensible spaces.

The investment is paying dividends over time. In the Big Bear Lake community of San Bernardino County, California, the fire department submitted four grant proposals to the FEMA pre-disaster mitigation grant program to pay up to 70 per cent of the cost of re-roofing homes with fire-safe materials, with the first grant taking effect in 2008. The Big Bear Fire Department identified 525 wooden-roofed homes in need of retrofits in the community, and now only 67 of these houses remain.

A sprinkler suppression system to help combat bushfire attack
Two people on a building site analysing plans for bushfire protection

In order to qualify for the FEMA grant, a cost/benefit analysis must be completed.

“Our analysis indicated that $US9.68 million would be saved in property loss for every $US1 million awarded in grant funds,” a Big Bear Fire Department spokesperson said.

With bushfires an issue of national significance and urgency in Australia, a Household Resilience Program promoting bushfire structural protection initiatives should be considered by the Australian government.

A combination of community education paired with financial mitigation strategies would be most effective to avoid mismanagement of government funds.

There is already a successful domestic precedent for a retrofitting funding initiative to respond to natural disaster. The Queensland government rolled out low-interest loan incentives and co-contribution funding in 2018 after the wake of damaging cyclones for homeowners of properties built before 1984 (building code amendments were toughened in the early 1980s as a result of Cyclone Tracy in 1974).

The Household Resilience Program provides a grant of 75 per cent of improvement costs up to a cap of just over $11,000.  The scheme has already been taken up by more than 360 households in the first two months and been proven to be effective in the reduction of cyclone risk in older housing, while also lowering ongoing insurance premiums.

An aerial view of a housing estate in the United States

Material innovations for ember attack

Retrofitting subsidies and grants could also help encourage the use of more material innovation. Great inroads have been made with the development and application of fire-retardant shields, glass, construction materials, exterior paints and coatings in Australia and the US.

One researcher identified that the main cause of home destruction during a bushfire is an ember attack. Embers travel far ahead of a fire front, often starting new fires for buildings that are not ready for ember attacks. Researchers identified the best way to help deter attacks is to use materials and coatings that don’t burn easily.

Fire-retardant paints and coatings are already available in Australia and meet building standards. The approximate cost to repaint the exterior of an average four-bedroom timber home can range from $5,000 to $10,000, depending upon the house’s existing condition – a cost that could easily fit into a disaster recovery grant or loan.

Managing defendable space

Building and retrofitting a house with fire-resistant material and active water suppression sprinklers is one part of protecting a home from bushfire. Managing combustible fuel loads around the house by creating a defendable space will also assist with retrofitting efforts. Increased education and implementation of how to create this space has helped to combat fire in the US.

Defendable space is critical to improving a home’s chance of surviving a bushfire. It’s the buffer created between a building on your property and any 'fuel' a bushfire can use, such as grass, trees, shrubs, flammable material, or any bush area that surround it.

This space is needed to slow or stop the spread of wildfire, and it helps protect your home from catching on fire – from direct flame contact or ember attack.

Maintaining a defendable space includes fuel load elimination strategies with a zoned approach. Both in the US and Australia it is advised that eliminating all combustible materials (such as vegetation or any flammable materials) in the first 10 metres is critical to increasing resilience to bushfires.

Two other outer zones (10 to 30 metres and then over 30 metres), help slow the spread of bushfires by incorporating well-spaced non-combustible islands of vegetation and removal of ground litter regularly. Installing paved or concrete paths as fire breaks is also important to consider in designing defendable zones, which should be incorporated into an effective retrofitting plan.

Now is the time to plan

If we have the same dry conditions this year as we did in 2019, then we are only six months away from a new bushfire season.

While it is absolutely imperative that we continue to combat COVID-19, we must not see-saw into the next disaster, and one which we have the learning and knowledge to plan for.

Now is the time to firm up Australian building requirements and consider mitigation initiatives to protect homes and structures for future resilience against bushfire – and looking to our US neighbours is an ideal place to start.

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