Preparing for Imminent Summer Heat Through Firescaping

Wednesday, August 28th, 2013
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With bushfire season looming, firescape design prepares properties to be fire resistant.

With summer just around the corner, homeowners and landscape architects are preparing fire resistant landscapes in preparation for the summer heat while states such as Queensland begin bushfire hazard reduction burns.

Firescaping aims to design a landscape with trees and plants that enhance the property while offering the best defense against wildfire. Integrating traditional landscape functions, firescaping has several fire resistant principles such as fire safety zones, defensible space principles and vegetation modification techniques.

Landscape architects who use firescaping integrate several fire resistant materials into the design including driveways, rock, brick, walkways and fuel breaks such as water features, ponds, or pools.

Australians live in one of the most fire-prone environments on Earth and must learn to cope and deal with wildfire, which carries out beneficial ecological functions, without allowing it to cause death and destruction.

In Victoria, the Black Saturday fires of February, 2009 wiped out up to 70 per cent of homes in some communities. New building regulations in fire-prone areas and sensible firescape designs aim to increase the survivability of the homes within the community.

“We have tended in Australia to see the bushfire as something beyond our control, a force of nature, and we have to just take our chances,” says Dr Alan March, a researcher from the Faculty of Architecture, Building and Planning at the University of Melbourne.

“This is a common misconception in the area of disasters generally but it doesn’t match the reality of what can actually be done to reduce these risks.”

Black Saturday

Urban landscapes including parks and gardens, as well as residential landscapes, can be designed to minimise vulnerability and strengthen resistance to fire. Important factors to consider are design, materials and products, plant selection, and continual maintenance.

A sensible design and regularly maintained garden can significantly contribute to a bushfire plan.

Sensibly designed vegetative landscapes are beneficial during a fire as they can reduce fire intensity, reduce wind speed, deflect and filter embers, and provide shelter from radiant heat.

Firescape Design Tips

  1. Create a buffer zone between the home and any potential bushfire fuel. Include a clearing of paving, non-flammable mulches, stone, gravel or short lawn around the house
  2. Place driveways, swimming pools or tennis courts on the side of the house most likely to face first contact with bushfire
  3. Create a radiant heat shield by building a stone wall or earth mound close to the house
  4. Position any timber stores or woodpiles away from the house
  5. Maintain well-compacted surfaces and wide gateways for easy emergency vehicle access
  6. Ensure there are appropriate pumping facilities and hoses with a significant water supply for firefighting

firescaped house

Any type of vegetation will burn when dry, but to prepare for fire, plants with low flammability should be selected, such as those with moisture-retaining leaves and foliage.

Shrubs and plants close to the home should be low-growing. Trees should be planted a distance equal to their mature height away from buildings and power lines.

Create a windbreak by planting multiple rows of fire resistant trees or shrubs a safe distance from the home and ensure they are regularly maintained through pruning and removal of dead vegetation.

Ensure that plants and trees receive enough water to retain moisture in their foliage to decrease their flammability.

Three main factors influence the destructive nature of bushfires including heat yield, rate of spread and the amount and nature of fuel available.

Terrain and weather both influence the rate of spread. For example, fires burn faster uphill.

Many Australians choose to live in rural areas for the ambiance and lifestyle but this doesn’t mean they’re automatically at higher risk of being affected by wildfire.

Margaret River architect David Willcox says to reduce the risk the understory can be cleared but significant trees left standing,

“Allowing you to maintain the bush ambience but reducing the fire risk,” he says.

Dr March and his research team, composed of members from CISRO and RMIT, look at factors that can stop the spread of bushfires through urban areas. These include the nature of fences, garden plants, the use of parks and nature reserves, and the quality of building materials.

The Insurance Council of Australia says events such as wildfires are becoming increasingly expensive and that “[m]uch of the cost could have been avoided if the damaged properties had been built to be resilient to the risks.”

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