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Old Coach Road
Fire Supression

>Home >Projects >Old Coach Road >Fire Supression

Natural Fire Protection

Since 2008 we have been seeking to reduce the risk to the Old Coach Road property from fire. The main focus has been restoring a rainforest canopy in areas currently dominated by senescing tea tree. Tea tree are highly flammable and represent a significant fire risk because of the volatile oils in their leaves. Volatile oils are released as a flammable gas during extreme fires, fuelling the fire with devastating impacts. We are trying to reduce the amount of volatile oils we will face by re-establishing the natural rainforest on the property.

We have been doing this over quite a wide area in an effort to dampen down the fire long before it gets to the house. The ACT 2003 fires and the Victorian 2009 fires seem to have justified this logic as they showed the disastrous effects of high winds and hot temperatures driving massive plumes of burning gas fuelled by volatile oils from eucalyptus trees and pines (For example see Peter Olorenshaw description of a 2009 fire below).

Reducing the number fire promoting species near the house and creation of more rainforest over the property will complement other traditional methods of fire fighting and survival including, pump and gravity fed sprinkler systems, fire fighting hoses running from the pump or gravity fed system, nap sacks, rake hoes, and a range of personal protective clothing and communication equipment. There is also a fire-bunker for shelter with an independent air supply in the form of scuba tanks.

fire bunker and enterence

Re-creation of the rainforest

Rainforest are made up of species that don't like fire and hence tend to grow where it is wet and damp. Rainforests tend not to promote fire, and instead have a closed canopy, creating a damp microclimate beneath that helps suppress fire, unlike eucalypts that allow sunlight to hit the forest floor and dry it out. Rainforest species also lack fire promoting characteristics: they don't have oil filled leaves or drop large amounts of bark and branches, which act as fuel on the forest floor.

Australia use to be coverred in rainforest type plants but with the arrival of fire stick farming, rainforests were forced to retreat to areas of high rainfall and dark wet gullies.

In the Otways the two rainforest upper canopy species are Blackwoods (Acacia melanoxylon) , and Myrtle Beech (Nothofagus cunninghamii). We have planted back hundreds of blackwoods using seed we collected in the area which were then grown by The Tree Project. We then propagated more blackwoods ourselves and our now moving to a combination of planting guarded plants and direct seeding. We have also planted Myrtle Beech supplied by a local nursery, Otway Herbs.

Boxes of blacktube stock lined up ready to plant Phoung is holdeing a foam box of backwood tube stock

Removing fire promoting trees

Extreme fires in Victoria in 2009 and the fires of 2003 and 2006 showed direct and dangerous impacts of climate change. Large fires are becoming more frequent and more dangerous. The 2009 fires encouraged us to accelerate our fire suppression activities.

Initially we cleared some of the eucalyptus trees growing too close to the infrastructure. Eucalyptus trees promote fire as part of their life cycle by having leaves with high levels of oils which become a volatile burning gas during extreme fires, and by adding to the dry fuel on the forest floor by dropping leaves, branches and sticks, and allowing light penetration which help these dry out at summer time.

Gum trees growing too close to shed

Steven cutting up trees with a chain saw Steven cutting up trees with a chain saw close up branches pilled up on the buggy

almost finished job gums trees next to shed have been cut down with only a few feet of stumps poking up here and there to be removed and shed is safer from fire

Planting a fire supressing barrier

We then began planting a row of poplars on the edge of the forest. Poplars are one of a number of deciduous trees that help reduce the intensity of fire. Most deciduous trees do not have volatile oil in their leaves and are resistant to burning. They can protect from radiant heat and help slow the wind speed, helping reduce the effects of ember attack.

The Small Tree Farm in WA has a PDF file you can download that looks at some case studies that relate to fire suppressing trees and their effects in the 2009 fires.

The photo below shows a row of poplars planted on the closest northern cleared boundary. We grew these Lombardy poplars from cuttings from a local tree. Lombardy poplars are the cone shaped poplars commonly used in formal avenues.

Young poplar planted in guard of wire mesh, looking down from directly above Stakes shows a line of young poplars planted on edge of the forest, staked and garded Stakes shows a line of young poplars planted on edge of the forest, staked and garded

In the forest we are continuing to plant blackwoods to create a rainforest canopy and replace the ti-tree. They are guarded to protect them from browsing by wallabies.

Trunk of a gum tree that has been cut witha young black wood in a gard growing in forest edge.

Fire Survival - facing a fire

Facing a raging bushfire is something we should never want to do, however if you are planning to stay and fight a fire it is best to have some idea of what you will be facing. Peter Olorenshaw defended his property in the Strezleckis during the 2009 Black Saturday fires in Victoria with his son and just managed to survive. His witness statement to the Bushfire Royal Commission, describes the effects of the volatile oils from Australia vegetation in an extreme fire and is a must read for anyone thinking of facing a fire on an extreme bushfire day.

Before you read his statement take a look at this page from the Royal Commission which will remind you of the conditions on the day.

Initially Peter and his son fought the fires outside but were forced inside from the radiant heat. They soon had to leave the house after the windows blew in and the house filled with fire. I have included some of the most interesting quotes below but there are many more, and Peter's entire statement is worth reading.

"The fire was nothing like I had expected. I was anticipating a solid firewall, as that is the type of wild fire that I have attended before in a professional capacity. This fire, however, came swirling over the ridge and descended on the property. The fire swirled up and was literally dumped in the middle of the hay paddocks at the back of the property... The swirls were 200-300 metres wide. It was reaching a height of 60 to 80 metres into the air at times and was very random and aggressive."

"As well as the smaller twig embers, there were now whole branches flying through the air. The largest were about a metre long. Although I knew that such "ember" attack was possible, I had never experienced anything so severe."

"I also saw that the back lawn was alight. The flames were burning to a height of 1.5-2 metres which really shocked me because there was almost nothing there to burn. It seemed that the fire was just using the few shards of grass as a wick to ignite eucalyptus fuel that was blowing through."

"...I was hit by a front of radiant heat. I was on the concrete driveway on the eastern side of the house and when the heat hit I fell to the ground and literally cowered on my knees."

"It was very dark outside by now from the smoke but there was an eerie glow from the fire. Tim and I patrolled the house, waiting for the fire to run through. We intended to wait for the firefront to pass and then go outside and put out what ever fires we could. I expected the flames to lick at the sides of the windows, giving us time to put them out with towels and buckets. What actually happened was that the fire storm impacted dramatically on the west side of the house. The windows blew in with tremendous force and the house essentially imploded. Tim and I were hiding behind a wall in the hallway at the time but I could see into one of the bedrooms. I saw the fire impinge so suddenly that it immediately filled the whole room. Very shortly thereafter the flames entered, the varnished surfaces of the built-in wardrobes and the paint on the walls caught alight. The atmosphere in the house became intensely acrid and it felt like my lungs were shutting down. One minute I was breathing and the next minute I physically couldn't inhale."

"When I inspected the car after the fire, I could see that the glass had melted across the dashboard. I was told that the temperature in the centre of the firestorm must have been somewhere around 1,500 or 2000 degrees Celsius in order to melt that glass. Later I inspected other vehicles on various properties and observed the same effect on the glassed areas."

"Tim had been trying to direct the cattle to the big dam on our property, which is part of our fire plan. We have a number of dams on our property, but the largest dam has a huge capacity and also lies below ground level, which provides extra protection... I said to Tim that we should open all the gates on the property so that the cows could find their own way to the dam when the fire came. Cattle are quite intelligent in a fire and will make their own decisions... My cattle and four other herds had all made their way to the big dam on my property and sheltered there."

Read the full statement here as a pdf or on the Royal Coommission website and find out how Peter and Tim survived.

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