Tenderbreak Farm – Note the veggie garden, orchard dam and road between the house and the fire front
Tips to help you fireproof and protect your property the permaculture way
Penny Pyett February 2020
Permaculture has traditionally been against burning as a tool for managing your property and landscape with the exception of cultural burns in national parks in some eco-systems. Instead it has advocated hydrating the landscape; improving soils and pastures; using animals to manage fuel loads (on properties and in neighbouring national parks); thinning and managing of forests and designing the land to protect from and minimise fire damage. Indeed there are many things we can do to design for fire as many examples in these recent and other fires have shown us.
Here are just some:
Zone and design your property for fire
There’s no doubt, the permaculture design process, principles and method of zoning your property is powerful for fire prevention. Reading the landscape, and knowing your site including where fire will threaten and what it will threaten, and then designing for it, is paramount. The principles of “Each element performing many functions” (including the function of fire) and “each function supported by many elements” (putting many fire prevention elements between your house and the fire) are important fire prevention design principles.
Water storage on the property
Water is the enemy of fire. Indeed you can’t have too much water when it comes to fighting fire and hydrating landscape on farms. Our two dams have been a lifesaver for us in hydrating our land and garden and have given peace of mind and security. Header gravity fed water tanks can also do this and supply irrigation. Government policies that restrict farms to build dams and store water need to be challenged and changed.
Swale or keyline your property
Being able to fill up our swale and hydrate the landscape was a real bonus for us in our recent fire attack. Swales are very effective at stopping a grass fire. Connecting our swales to our dam enabled us to pump water from the dam into the swales quickly. When our swales are full the overflow drains back into the dam so the system keeps circulating. The swales were also good as a firebreak for the poultry being protected from the heat and fire. They loved paddling through the swale water and were able to cope with the 45 to 50 degree days we had. After the fires, the swales provided another valuable role. With a blackened landscape, ash and remaining organic matter, soil and nutrients, flow down and are lost downhill or into water systems. It’s well known that many fish kills happen with the first rains after bushfires. This is because the ash is alkaline and changes the pH which has serious knock on effects in the system. Swales and terraces capture and hold these nutrients uphill for you to use and they protect waterways.
Earthberms – around the property fire sector and house.
Mounds of soil strategically placed near your house enable you to access the roof quickly and safely to fight fire and ember attack. The roof is a hot spot in a fire and climbing ladders is dangerous. Earth mounds also protect your home and other structures and keep them cool.
Safe landscaping around your house and planting fire retardant species around the fire sector and paddocks.
Select fire retardant safe species to plant around zones one, two and three – along driveways and access roads on your property and around animal paddocks to protect the movement of people and animals. In contrast, Eucalyptus species, pines and many native fire prone species are dangerous along roadways, access ways and paddocks and can accelerate fires and trap people and animals to death. An integration of exotic species is necessary. Plants like deciduous trees, sappy green leaved trees and shrubs and ground covers will help slow down fire and break its path. Agapanthus for example has been known to halt grass fires in their tracks. In the recent fires a farmer from Canberra spoke on national TV about how his planting of chestnut, poplar and oaks slowed down and stopped an approaching wildfire and protected his property whereas neighbouring properties burned down. Fruit and nut trees are much safer than eucalyptus and provide food and other functions that many of our natives don’t. A total nativist philosophy will not protect you and your property against wildfires and is a dangerous one to have. In contrast an eco-synthesis is a safer and more diverse and resilient option.
Placement of veggie gardens, food forests between house and fire sector
Food forests and vegetable gardens are largely fire retardant. They are usually moister areas and the plant species are not fire prone species. Placement of these elements between you and the likely fire front along with other firebreaks and strategies will greatly protect your home.
Road breaks around property fire sector
A Four-meter wide road around your property and house enable a firebreak and provide access for fire trucks. The road can also be a catchment for water is collected in a swale or pond and garden. Dry stonewalls are another barrier. The more barriers and fire safe elements between you and the fire the more you greatly increase the safety of your property and the safer you’ll be.
Fire safe house design, bunker and animal shelters
Our earthbag, strawbale and rendered animal houses were also a fireproof asset for us. During the worst days of the fire we were able to keep poultry safely locked in these cool fire proof housing which was a real relief of mind to me. We also considered sheltering in them if we had to. Earth covered or underground homes and bunkers with an escape door are also great for fire protection. We have seen certified above ground fire resistant homes burn down in these recent fires so earth covered or underground is a safer option. The fact that 85% of all houses burn down due to ember attack dictates we design for this. There are many styles of earth covered and underground homes today that include modern architect designed, hobbit homes and earthships.
For more info on the issue of designing your home for bushfires see David Holmgren’s book “Flywire house” and Joan Webster’s book “ The complete bushfire safety book”
Equipment and tools for fire fighting
A fire trailer (small enough for a young person to move) with ICB water tank and pump is great. (See pic)
Water pumps – the more the better. Diesel is often a safer option when refuelling as it doesn’t spark like petrol does.
Good quality fire hoses like the percolating canvas ones as they won’t burn like a rubber hose; and large size hoses are good for pressure and flow. The bigger the hose the heavier it is so consider this if weight is an issue.
Sprinklers on the roof like the wobblers and sprinklers for the area around the house and for specific structures like sheds and gas bottles and water pumps. A good tool to have is a Mcloud tool otherwise known as a rake hoe used by the fire brigade.
A diesel generator. Remember the power often goes out during a fire so prepare for this. ICB tank
Maintaining your property.
Pruning, tree falling and thinning, keeping fire/ fuel loads down and moist by using animals, swales water and nutrient. Cows, goats and other animals should be allowed to clean up fuel loads on properties and in national parks where properties adjoin. Policies that forbid non-native animals to access national parks for this purpose or that forbid thinning and clearing of native vegetation close to homes put lives at risk. They are negligent and should be challenged and changed.
Co-operation with community network.
Communication and co-operation is indispensable for preparing for, dealing with and preventing fires. The hands and help of others is the greatest thing fighting fires and ember attack as well as emotional support and practical assistance.
Safe clothing and gear
Masks, scarves, sensible wool or cotton clothing and closed in boots are necessary for fighting fires. An oxygen tank would be great is you can afford it. A fist aid kit with burn cream, bandages, bandaids, moisturiser and drops for sore and dry eyes is necessary. Water is essential throughout the whole process. Having a refuge with other clothes and needed items is wise. Bill Mollison says “ we survive better if we have planned ahead”. See Bill Mollison’s “Permaculture A Designers Manual” for more ideas on this and designing for fire.
I was compelled to write this article with the sincere desire to urge people into taking at least some of these practical actions. As Bill Mollison says, “recovery greatly helps if we have assisted others before, during and after the fire, as we know we did our best”. Hopefully this will help my recovery and others.
References recommend for further reading and information on this topic:
Bill Mollison “Permaculture – A Designers Manual”
Joan Webster “The complete bushfire safety book”
Steve Pyne “Burning Bush – a complete bushfire history of Australia”
David Holmgren – Flywire House
Permaculture Strategies for Drought Prevention.
Drought occurs cyclically in our country and we need to design for it. Designing for droughts and floods will help to protect us, our animals and our properties. There is a lot you can do and often the only thing that limits you is funding. Currently there is a lot of funding going towards drought assistance and it would be great if it could assist farmers not just with their immediate needs but also well into the future by using some of it in the following way:
Government funded Permaculture Design Courses, Regenerative Farming Ag Courses and Natural Sequence Farming Courses – all which will assist farmers with new ideas and practical solutions into the future
- Funding for farm water storage facilities like water tanks and small dams
- Funding for earthworks on farms that help to hydrate landscape, increase water holding capacity, storage potential and improving pastures and soils
- Planting strategies that will help with feeding stock in tough times – wind breaks and shelter belts, drought tolerant species.
- Funding for low maintenance food gardens like wicking beds and aquaponics. • Design consultancies and local forums and networks that provide practical and new ideas for farm planning into the future.
- Alternative business ideas and training to keep farmers’ livelihood and them on the land
The drought is forcing farmers to change and try different strategies and new ways of farming. Assistance for these practical things they can do for and by themselves could turn things around for them or may keep them on the land. The government needs to reexamine the thinking and policies relating to water storages on the land to enable farmers to hydrate and regenerate the land and buffer themselves for drought and fires.
Recommended further reading:
PA Yeomans “Water for every Farm” and all Yeomans’ other publications Bill Mollison “Permaculture A Designers Manual”