Five ways to prepare for bushfire season – looking out for each other and nature

Days getting longer, magpies swooping, plants looking thirsty from lack of rain: all signs it’s time to prepare for bushfire season.

With climate change driving more extremes in temperatures and fires, it’s more important than ever to do what we can to look out for each other and for nature.

Taking action to prepare for bushfire season in advance can also help relieve stress, worry and anxiety you might feel heading into summer.

We spoke with Tammy Garrett at Victoria’s Country Fire Authority (CFA), and here are five things you can do to prepare right now.

Signs to prepare. Photo: Michael Coghlan CC BY-SA.

1. Check and limit the amount of ignition points

Limiting ignition points not only reduces your risk, it also reduces the risk to your neighbours and surrounding landscapes, and wildlife too. Even if your property doesn’t directly border on bushland, you should prepare for bushfire season, since stray embers can ignite fires in properties hundreds of metres away from the fire front.

Clear your gutters regularly and keep vegetation-based mulch away from the house (you can use pebbles or gravel as mulch in nearby garden beds instead).

Leaves in gutters can be an ignition point for windblown embers from a bushfire.

Check for other flammable items outside that you might have stashed under the verandah or around your home, like gas bottles, doormats, outdoor furniture, or stored firewood. Dispose of these responsibly, store them away from the house, or be ready to move them inside or away if bushfire threatens.

2. Maintain your property to protect people and biodiversity

Even if you’re not staying to defend, preparing your property helps minimise the fire danger to your house and those of others, and to surrounding vegetation and wildlife. Small jobs can make a big difference.

Ask your local fire agency for advice about reducing your fuel load. They might have some surprising solutions (like hiring goats!). One of the most common causes of fires this time of year are burn offs getting out of control. Burn off safely and don’t rush it: check conditions, have fire extinguishing materials at hand, never leave the fire unwatched, and register the burn with your local fire agency.

As browsers of woody weeds, goats could help reduce fuel loads to prepare for bushfire season.

Cut back trees overhanging buildings and prune shrubs so they are less dense. You should also regularly mow grass around your property and reduce the amount of leaf litter under nearby trees. Selectively thin out and remove invasive or non-native plant species to reduce fuel load and help create a more resilient and biodiverse landscape as well.

It might seem like just clearing all the trees on your property makes it safer, but according to CSIRO, trees may actually help by screening windblown embers, buffering winds, and protecting buildings from radiant heat. Trees also shade other plants and soil so they retain moisture for longer.

Instead, group trees in clumps to reduce horizontal continuity across canopies, and also reduce vertical continuity between tall shrubs and tree canopies that might create a fire ‘ladder’ (this video from the CFA explains it well). This could mean more plants survive if a fire comes through, which helps biodiversity in the long run in a post-fire landscape.

Grow native, fire-resistant vegetation to create defensible spaces around homes and structures, and support biodiversity at the same time. Plants with low oil content, higher salt content, or water-retaining capabilities are less likely to ignite or burn intensely; such as saltbush (Atriplex spp.) and pigface (Carpobrutus spp.). Hedges of low-flammability plants can be useful as radiation shields and windbreaks too.

It’s also recommended to locate dams, orchards and vegetable gardens on the most fire-prone side of the home as these tend to act as natural fire breaks.

The succulent leaves of native pigface species, like this Carpobrutus glaucescens, make them a fire-smart choice for the garden. Photo: Botanic Gardens of Sydney CC BY-NC-ND

3. Where’s the water?

The way you manage water on your property can help with both fighting fire and reducing your fire risk in the first place. To prepare for bushfire season, check watering systems (e.g. sprinklers) are working, and make sure you have a hose that reaches right around your home.

Keep plants near your house well-watered over the bushfire season to create a cool, green buffer that’s less prone to burn, and also supports biodiversity by creating shady habitat for native wildlife.

Make sure you have a working garden hose that’s long enough to reach around your house.

Water is limited and valuable, particularly during bushfire season, when pressure and supply can be affected by power cuts. Longer term, it’s important to think about ways to harvest, store, pump and reuse water (e.g. rainwater tanks, grey water, ponds) to keep up the moisture profile around your house, to use if water supply is interrupted, and also for fighting fires.

Finally, look out for nature and leave out water for local wildlife. This may not be a direct bushfire preparation, but is highly valuable to many species, whether they’re struggling with heat stress or running from fires.

Leaving out shallow dishes of water can help local wildlife, like this Red-browed Finch, through a harsh summer. Photo: Dan Armbrust CC BY 2.0.

4. Make a plan and work with your community

Besides preparing your home and garden, prepare for bushfire season with your people. Make sure everyone is clear on the plan of action if your place is threatened by fire, or on a high fire danger day. On days of elevated fire risk, be prepared to leave early – that way, you’ll be in a calmer frame of mind to stick with your plan.

Think ahead about where you’ll go, what routes you’ll take, what you’ll take with you, and who you’ll keep informed about what you’re doing. A good idea to prepare for bushfire season is to pre-pack an emergency kit so you can grab and go (check these lists from Queensland Fire and Emergency Services and NSW Rural Fire Service).

Plan more than one route to your place of refuge, in case roads are blocked or closed due to fire.

Once you have a plan for your immediate family and home, check in with your neighbours on a broader plan for your area. By working together with your community, you’ll be in a better position to prepare for fires and decrease your overall risk.

Many local fire agencies have community programs to facilitate people working together, like the CFA’s Community Fireguard. Contact your local fire agency to find out about their community programs.

5. Set reminders for next year’s cool burns now

Many Australian flora and fauna species have evolved to cope with a certain amount of fire at certain times of the year. Over generations, First Nations peoples have used fire as a nuanced landscape management tool (check out the resources available through Firesticks Alliance), and as a broader Australian society we have much to learn from their experience.

Even with climate change altering fire intensity and frequency, reinstating cool burns or cultural burn protocols can help return degraded landscapes to a healthy condition and reduce fire risk.

Cultural burns, cool burns, and controlled burns like this one in Victoria can help reduce fire danger and keep certain Australian ecosystems healthy.

In many parts of Australia, it’s best to undertake controlled or prescribed fires during cooler, moister seasons, when the risk of a catastrophic wildfire is lower, and when the timing is right to get the best outcomes for fire-adapted ecosystems.

Prepare for bushfire seasons to come, and set yourself a reminder now to ask your local fire agency about cool burns. The end of fire danger season in your area is a good time to reach out.

Stay informed – further reading

Check the fire danger ratings every day during fire season and sign up for notifications or apps to help monitor fire outbreaks, depending on what’s provided by your state or territory fire service.

Follow these links for tips from your local fire service on how to prepare for bushfire season:

For help with designing a fire-smart garden, check out:

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