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Protecting your home against bushfires

Note that the Bushfires Act is currently under review and that the provisions stated below may be amended.

TV coverage of the February 2009 Black Saturday bushfires in Victoria showed houses that were saved from burning by the owners having illegally cleared the bush around them and been fined heavily, up to $100,000, for doing this. Neighbours who obeyed the law by not clearing lost their homes. 

        Note: Victoria has now changed the rules against clearing native vegetation around houses. The DSE website has fact sheets covering these changes.

In a Northern Territory fire protection zone you can be fined for not clearing around your home and other assets. Bushfires Regulations 2005 state:

        3. Clearing area to avoid risk of fire

            (1) The owner or occupier of land within a fire protection zone must establish and maintain a fire-break at least 4 m wide around any house, caravan, structure, stationary engine, bulk fuel, haystack, cordwood or stacked sawn timber on the land.

            Penalty: $2 500, and $250 for each day during which the offence continues.

            (2) An offence against subregulation (1) is a regulatory offence.

            (3) Subregulation (1) does not require the owner or occupier of land to clear bush or flammable material that forms part of a lawn or garden on the land.

Your fire protection plan should not rely on the local Volunteer Brigade burning your block for you. Shortage of numbers, together with a heavy work load attending prescribed burns on crown lands and chasing numerous wildfires mean that many Brigades just don't have the time to carry out private burns. Remember, we are volunteers, not private burning contractors and have our own properties to look after,too.

Your fire protection plan should also not depend on Volunteer Brigades burning crown lands in your area. There are forces hard at work trying to stop this burning and political parties needing preferences from minor parties to get elected to government tend to make deals not always in the public interest. Ask anyone from country Victoria.

Unfortunately, in the Darwin rural area it is not uncommon to see houses and outbuildings overgrown with long grasses, such as gamba and mission, and orchards overgrown with grasses taller than the trees.

Fire protection is the responsibility of the owner, lessee, licensee, mortgagee in possession of or occupier of, or the person managing or controlling or apparently managing or controlling the use of” the land. Too many people sit on their backsides doing nothing and rely on their local volunteer bushfire brigade for protection.

Apart from the NTFRS station at Humpty Doo, there are no fire stations in rural areas manned by fire fighters waiting for a call out. Many Darwin rural area volunteer bushfire brigades have a lot of names in their register of members, but with very few who actually fight fires, 10% of the membership if they’re lucky. Of these few, many have jobs and family commitments.

What I am working up to is that not all fires start on weekends and a wildfire on a week day may have very few fire fighters available to attack it.

With these limited resources, homes that have not been made bushfire safe are in danger of burning unless the owner is home to defend it, and on a week day this is often unlikely.

Instead of telling you what you should do to make your home bushfire safe – follow the links at the end of this article for that information – I will tell you what I do on my block.

  • All mission and gamba grass outbreaks were eradicated from my block by hand pulling and spraying heavy infestations with glyphosate. Knowing these grasses and being able to identify them when small is very handy. The main source of infestation was from an adjoining vacant crown land block to the east. For self protection I sprayed mission and gamba grasses on the road verge and in this block for about 2km up the road. Bushfires NT provide assistance with the supply of glyphosate for spraying the crown land and road verge and would also loan spraying equipment if needed.
    • Spear grass was very easy to eradicate. About 30 years ago I spent a full weekend slashing the block with a brush cutter (a whipper-snipper with a metal blade) so as to not damage native shrubs and trees. The spear grass was fully grown with seed heads formed, but not yet open. The following year the little that came up received the same treatment. Since then it has started to make a come back on the south east corner firebreak, but that's all. The rest of the block has been colonised by other native grasses and remains spear grass free.
  • At the same time I pull out other weeds, such as Sida acuta, Sida cordifolia and Hyptis sauveolens. These are all declared noxious weeds and if you let them go you will find out why.
  • The house yard and orchard areas are slashed monthly during the wet season. This eliminates long grasses, cuttings break down to enrich the soil and at the start of the dry season there is only a short height of grass to trim.
  • The bottom of the block floods every wet season. Fire breaks on the top land are slashed monthly with the rest of the block. As the water recedes the bottom breaks are progressively slashed with a whipper snipper until the ground is dry enough to support the weight of a vehicle.
  • An old generator base frame was dragged behind the ute to remove slashed grass from the firebreak. This was loaded into the back of the ute and used as mulch in the garden and around fruit trees. This mulch cost nothing and was guaranteed free of noxious weeds. Nowadays, the ute has been pensioned off and I hand rake the perimeter and internal firebreaks to bare ground.
  • A permanent sprinkler system is installed in the garden and around the yard to water trees and maintain a wide green belt through the dry season. Another sprinkler system is installed on the house and shed roofs.
  • A power easement along the eastern boundary is slashed in order to provide an extra width to that fire break. This also eliminates trees which have in the past grown through the high voltage power line.

The garden consists mainly of exotic and rain forest trees, with some growing alongside the house and overhanging the roof. Grass and weeds won’t grow in their dense shade and nightly watering keeps the mulch moist. Regular raking prevents the build up of fallen branches, twigs and leaf litter. The watering also quickly breaks the leaf litter down into rich compost.

The trees create a lot of leaf litter on the roof. This is swept at regular intervals during the dry season. The roof sprinklers ensure that leaves are not an issue between sweepings.

The mini rain forest has attracted a few jungle fowl whose continual scratching helps keep the area clear as well. They have built their mound in the bush alongside one of the internal fire breaks and cleared the ground for a considerable distance around. This has provided both material and a bare earth fire break for the mound. Smart birds!

When going out during the dry season on days of high fire danger, the bore is turned on to supply the roof and garden sprinklers. On returning home, sometimes many hours later, the place is saturated and perfectly safe from any bushfires. The trees and garden love the extra watering, too. There is copious ground water in the area, so the extra amount needed for asset protection isn’t an issue.

Thanks to termites, especially the voracious Mastotermes darwiniensis, power poles in the Top End are made of steel, minimising the likelihood of power outages during bushfires.

I have had people tell me that their bore uses too much power to water the area for a green belt around their home. In one of these people’s houses I saw multiple fridges, freezers, a very large washing machine, clothes dryer, microwave, toaster, and so on. They had two computers, one running on screen saver with nobody using it. The TV was also on with nobody watching and water for the offered cup of tea was heated in the microwave.

And the poor old bore copped the blame for the high power bill.

I realise that many rural properties don't have sufficient ground water to maintain green belts and bores can even dry up towards the end of the dry season. My bore is rated 15 litre/sec, while many in the Livingstone area are as low as 0.8 litre/sec. In this case the land holder needs to have a different type of garden to mine. Most people love a green lawn, but dead grass burns beautifully in hot, dry windy conditions. Even green grass burns, which is why I turn my bore and sprinklers on to keep the area moist.

Bare earth, gravel and pebbles don't burn. 

Check out some photos on the subpages by clicking the links at the bottom of this page or in the side bar.

External Links:

CFA Publications

Bushfires Act

Bushfires Regulations

Gamba grass

Mission grass

Sida acuta

Sida cordifolia