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Permaculture Techniques - Catastrophe Planning

Copyright © Beverley Paine

Planning for catastrophe is embedded in every permaculture design. When planning our property we carried out a permaculture sector analysis to determine where the wild energies of fire, wind, sun and water enter and leave the property.

Heavy rainfall, in the form of 'cloud-burst', and strong winds are two other dangers we have to consider, but fire is an ever-present worry during the long hot summer months.

We positioned the house close to the road, on the highest point, aware that this was the safest option should we need to evacuate in case of bush fire. Driveways form a band free of vegetation to the north, west and south of the house. To further protect the house from potential fires driven by hot northerlies we planted decorative deciduous trees. It is hoped that when mature they will form a 'fire blanket' and slow the fire's approach, giving us time to fight the fire or evacuate if necessary.

The vegetable garden and chook run are situated on the eastern side of the house, again providing a low burn area. To the south, on the steep slope, we removed several large feral olive trees and planted a small mixed orchard. Amongst the fruit trees we planted leguminous plants, which we keep pruned. These fertilise the soil and act as windbreaks, and were selected from a list of suitable trees for fire prone areas.

The establishment of microclimates plays an important role around the house in summer. Frog and fish ponds are dotted around the garden to raise humidity. Vine covered pergolas and shade houses fitted with spray irrigation keep the areas below moist and green. A recent visitor likened the effect, with the deciduous trees displaying vibrant green leaves, as reminiscent of her Queensland home.

Although our property is connected to town water, which is used for irrigation, we collect rainwater for use in the house. We keep one tank full all summer, which is connected to a water pump to fight fires, if necessary. This, in turn, is connected to the spray irrigation around the house, and is now extended to our verandah and timber walkway. Should a fire approach the house can be quickly enveloped in a fine mist. In summer, buckets and old sacks are ready by the back door, to put out spot fires and embers should the worst happen.

On the wall by the phone is a list of emergency instructions, including what to wear, what to do with the pets, and how to safely evacuate. Copies of important personal papers are kept off the property. It's impossible to be completely prepared for disaster, but the steps we've taken reassure us we have a fighting chance.

Wildfire Checklist

All people living in high risk areas need to have a prepared checklist of simple things to do immediately in the case of wildfire. This should be posted in a highly visible place in the home where all occupants can easily refer to it. I post mine beside the wall phone in the kitchen, next to the list of emergency numbers, and when my children were small and couldn't read I included pictures to illustrate the instructions. It's best to tailor your list to suit your home and property. Break the checklist into three sections to reflect the three phases of a wildfire. This organises your response and makes it more effective, and helps to prevent panic.
Remember to drink water frequently during all phases, preferably every 10 minutes, to prevent dehydration.

Phase 1: As fire approaches

The attack begins when embers, blown ahead of the fire front, reach the house and its surroundings. This ember attack can being up to an hour or more before the fire front arrives.

Inside home

  • Alert family and neighbours.
  • Dress in protective clothing - long sleeved shirts and long trousers made from natural fibres, sturdy leather footwear.
  • Shut all doors and windows.
  • Fill bath, sinks and buckets with water
  • Place wet towels in any crevices, such as gaps under doors, etc.
  • Take curtains down and push furtniture away from widows.
  • Place ladder in ceiling access reader to inspect ceiling cavity.

Outside home

  • Remove combustibles from around the house, including flammable blinds, wooden furniture and doormats, etc.
  • Start pump for fire hose.
  • Plug drains and fill gutters.
  • Wet down all ares on side of house facing the direction the fire is coming from.
  • Wet down any pre-determined problem areas.
  • Patrol for spot fires and extinguish.
  • Manage your water supply to ensure sufficient water is left for when the fire front actually arrives.

Pets and Livestock

  • Bring pets inside.
  • Remove any equipment from horses and hose all over (do not scrape off).
  • If time permits, relocate stock to a 'safe paddock' with the least vegetation.
  • Alternatively, open interior gates to allow stock to move freely from one paddock to another.
  • DON'T shut animals in a stable or yard.

Phase 2: When the fire front arrives

The second phase occurs when the fire front arrives. Ember attack, radiant heat, flames and smoke are at their maximum, but this only lasts for a few minutes while the fire front passes.

What to do:

  • Take buckets, hoses and mops inside the house.
  • Stay inside.
  • Patrol inside for spot fires and extinguish.
  • Check ceiling cavity.

Phase 3: After the fire front has passed

After the fire frnot has passed, embers continue to be blown from burning tree trunks, outbuildings, fence posts, wood heaps and the like. This final stage may last several hours.

What to do:

  • Put on a broad rimmed hat, gloves and goggles (to protect your eyes from smoke and flying embers.)
  • Wet a towel to breathe through to protect from superheated air.
  • Retun outside only when safe to do so.
  • Patrol for spot fires and extinguish for the next 3-8 hours.
  • If animals do sustain burns the best form of immediate first aid is sponging with cold water until proper veterniary care is avialable.




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Copyright © Beverley Paine 2002-14. Article from this website may be downloaded, reproduced, and distributed without permission as long as each copy includes this entire notice along with citation information (i.e., name of the periodical in which it originally appeared, date of publication, and author's name). Permission must be obtained from the author in order to reprint this article in a published work or to offer it for sale in any form. Please visit Bungala Ridge Permaculture Gardens for more original content by Beverley Paine.