I wrote about our fire preparedness, or slightly frustrating lack of it, back in November when I marked the first anniversary of the Pinery fires . We were partly prepared, but nothing close to what I’d planned. That changed soon after that blog post, with the purchase of a fire pump and the installation of roof sprinklers. Today, in the first week of January, it finally feels like summer is here, and we tested everything to make sure it all worked and that the family knew how it worked. I’m now feeling pretty confident in our ability to not just survive the next fire, but to actively fight it.
Two things struck us on November 25th, 2015 when the Pinery fires ripped through here. Firstly, the power goes out hours before the fire is even close to us. Secondly, the water pressure drops to next-to-nothing shortly afterwards. If you’re dependent on mains water or electric pumps for stored water, then you’re pretty much screwed.
The other thing we learned is that most houses are lost due to ember attacks, rather than radiant heat. This is especially true of houses like ours that have a tiled roof – the embers can sneak in under the tiles or they hit the gutters and burn litter and/or burn through the fascia.
We’ve combatted all of this in several ways:
Every downpipe on our house and sheds goes into a tank. We currently have something over 80,000 litres of water storage, with the ability to collect around 200,000 litres per year from our roof areas. That’s broken down into a few different areas.
We have two galvanised tanks that collectively hold around 26,000 litres, and these are to the west of the house behind one of our sheds. They are right where we’d expect a fire to come through, and so our first line of defence.
We have two tanks next to the house on the western side. One is a 5,000 litre poly-tank and one is a 2,000 litre fibreglass tank. The 5,000 litre tank is dedicated to our roof sprinklers, and the 2,000 litre tank is there for the CFS to use.
We have two poly-tanks that collectively hold near 50,000 litres on the western side of our big shed.
Our plan is to keep the tanks in Areas 1 and 2 full all Summer, even if we need to fill them from the mains. Area 3 has more water, but is a long way from where we’d expect a fire front, though we’ll make sure there’s still water in them and the ability to use them should it be required. We’ll not bother filling them to the top though.
We installed two runs of purpose-built sprinklers on our roof and they are amazing! The brand is Ember Defender, and they’re an Australian invention. They’re super easy to set up, and just them on their own would give me a lot of peace of mind in the event of another fire.
The guide with the sprinklers suggests a run of 3 for a house our size (250 square metres). They also suggest a closed loop – hoses from each end of the run that run to the tap. This increases the pressure, and it really made a difference when we tested it.
We ended up installing 5 sprinklers, so way more than suggested, and did it on two separate runs. We did a run of three from a fire-fighting pump we already had, and a run of two from a slightly weaker electric pump. We can run these off of mains at first, should the pressure be good enough, and then switch to the pump later, or just run it from the pump. Either way, it takes no time at all for the roof to wet down and for the gutters to fill.
In theory, you block the downpipes and fill the gutters. The fact that all of our water runs back into the tanks means that I just leave them unblocked. We have a dedicated 5,000 litres for the sprinklers, and that will run them for hours and hours. I’d expect a decent warning before a fire got to us, we had a few hours warning before Pinery, and the first thing we’d do is start the sprinklers.
We bought a nice fire-fighting pump and use the 26,000 litres described above in Area 1. Most of our weather comes from the north and west, with Pinery coming directly out of the West. We expect something similar with any subsequent fires, and this pump and the water are situated accordingly.
The pump will run two hoses, and we have a 20m and 50m hose connected currently. We tested them, both separately and together, and the range of the water stream is impressive. The 50m hose reaches north to the front of the property, and will reach most of the way down our western boundary towards the south. It’ll also reach every corner of our house.
We’ve done other bits-and-pieces as well. We’ve run the overflow hose from the Envirocyle (recycled septic system) down the western boundary with its low-pressure sprinklers. They’ll keep some of that area constantly damp.
We’ve also trimmed back the trees along our northern and western boundaries, of which we have around 20. The gum trees are actually excellent at absorbing blow embers, as we found out when John’s house burned last year. We want them there doing that job, but these trees tend to grow long limbs that break under their own weight. We’ve removed those limbs, as they’re just fuel for a fire, and pre-emptively pruned some limbs back to keep it all under control.
At the same time, we have a handful of giant pine trees along the western boundary, right where the Pinery fire hit us. Those trees are awful in a fire, and I considered taking them down. However, I actually like them, and we should be able to control any fire near them with the fire hose. In fact, two of them did start to burn last time, and there are still scorch marks a good 10 or 12 feet up their trunks. It was the wind and dust that snuffed those fires out, but next time we’ll be able to do that ourselves. We still cleaned them up a bit, and removed any dead wood from the area.
Most importantly is how we bring all of these things together. Our strategy is something like this:
· Keep the tanks in Area 1 and Area 2 full ahead of summer.
· Have generators available for the electric pumps in Area 1 (used for the second run of roof sprinklers) and Area 3. We have two generators, both of which are situated where we need them.
o Have petrol available for the generators and the petrol pumps. This is in the form of larger jerry cans tucked into a shed, with smaller cans next to the devices.
· Test the entire system at least monthly, including generators and petrol plans etc. We did that today.
· In case of a fire alert:
o Turn on the roof sprinklers.
o Use the fire pump to wet down the boundary where the fire is expected to hit. The boundary and a few metres inside our property will be wetted. There are some trees there that almost burned last time, and we’ll wet them too.
o Given time, we’ll also wet internal fence lines, especially anything that houses an animal.
o Fight any flames that make it onto the property.
The pump and stored water in Area 3 will only be used if needed. This will be if something gets passed us, or we need some extra water. If nothing else, I can run the pump and transfer water from those bigger tanks to the smaller fire-fighting tanks.
The priority in these fire events is to protect yourself, your house, your sheds, everything else, in that order. I’m pretty confident that we can protect everything with our current set-up; however, should something more ferocious than Pinery hit us then I am super confident that we can protect at least the house and ourselves.
Last time we were helpless. Nothing we did altered the course of that fire, though we were able to save most of our animals and our house (the CFS were confident that our house would’ve gone without our intervention. They were actually surprised that it didn’t go up even with our intervention). Even with saving the animals and the house, we felt completely helpless, just reacting to whatever disaster the fire decided to throw at us. Next time, however, we’ll be able to proactively protect ourselves and what’s ours. Hell, we’d be able to reach next door and help at John’s house if needed. That makes me feel much less helpless, and much, much happier. 🙂
My one biggest wish is that we never have to use any of it.