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September Fires, Wild Winds and Subdivision Design

The weather is crazy here, there are two people dead, houses have burnt to the ground, people have been evacuated, and wild winds have whipped across the state as fifty bushfires remain burning at the end of the day. The temperature here in Newcastle was as high as 35 degrees this morning, we were in air-conditioned comfort for most of the day, but its still 28 degrees here at 7pm tonight, as we try to get the girls asleep.

Robyn quoted a news report today that said that it is predicted that this summer there will be twice as many days above 35 degrees Celsius compared to last year. This is a worrying statistic for bushfires, drought conditions, water supplies, and energy consumption for air conditioning.

We live in a hundred year old weather board house just kilometres from the coast. The house is sturdy, but not well sealed against this sort of wind, and these temperatures. Our house is typical of many in the city of Newcastle, poorly designed against increasing temperatures and severity of storm conditions that are expected with Global Warming.

Bushfires in September are rare, deaths and property loss from early bushfires are even rarer. The rural fire service planning regulations for prevention of fires are hotly contested by developers who feel that land dedicated to provide an asset protection zone against fires is land lost from sales potential. Similarly new home owners who are required to install 10 kilolitre firefighting tank feel hard done by, compared with residents living in areas with better fire service. Living in an area the could be under threat from fire should give residents cause for concern.

When I was a teenager, several fires ripped through the northern suburbs of Sydney, many residents were evacuated, several houses were lost. While our house was never in immediate danger, we could see the flames from our front verandah, and we had a significant bushland reserve fronting our property. It was by chance that the wind never blew towards our house, but other people were not so lucky.

Today, as we looked north to the smokey haze forming to the north of us and we willed the cool change due tonight to arrive and provide some relief, I considered how much better living in a well designed subdivision is. Not everyone can or wants to live in a bushland setting, but many subdivisions do back onto retained bushland, (often retained for environmental reasons with little regard to the increased level of threat to the residents fronting these reserves.

A good subdivision in a bushland setting should have a good network of roads that are always open to the public, in this regard, firetrails as the only loop road access are a poor design from an emergency accesibility perspective. Also, theses roads should be designed so that it is unlikely they would be blocked by falling trees in wind or fire conditions.  The current rural fire service requiremetn for a firetrail is a six meter wide and high corridor must remain clear of canopy type vegetation, however some subdivisions havetrees boardering the access roads in which these conditions are not maintained.

Mike is currently living in Newcastle, NSW, Australia, has fought bushfires and currently designs subdivisions as a consulting engineer. 

For more information on the current state of bushfires in NSW check out the following links and articles.

NSW Rural Fire Service – Major Fire Updates
NSW Rural Fire Service – Media Releases
NEWS.com.au – Wild Weather Claims Homes and Lives

I’m not really looking forward to a hot summer here in Australia, hoping to move to Canada soon!

Mike Thomas

Mike Thomas P.Eng. ENV SP, is the author of UrbanWorkbench.com and Director of Engineering at the City of Revelstoke in the Interior of British Columbia, Canada. If I post something here that you find helpful as you navigate the world of engineering, planning and building communities, that’s wonderful. But when push comes to shove: This is my personal blog. The views expressed on these pages are mine alone and not those of my employer.