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California’s wildfires and what Australia can learn

gerard butler
Gerard Butler lost his house in the 2018 California fires

In 2018, the US state of California saw its worst-ever bushfire season on record. The Fifth Estate spoke to US architect and sustainable design guru David Hertz about what the region learnt about designing and managing infrastructure in the face of ever-increasing fire risk.

Hertz speaks from first-hand experience, with his ranch in Western Malibu one of few homes that survived the fierce Woolsey Fire, which took three lives and over 1600 buildings. It also saw the evacuation of around 250,000 people, including celebrities such as Lady Gaga and the Kardashians as it swung through the ritzy coastal suburbs.

David Hertz

Hertz’s home was something of a fire trap thanks to the fragments of film set left behind by a former owner, a Hollywood set designer. He went to great lengths to fireproof the ranch, and was able to protect it by drawing on large stores of water, including his pool, and also by spraying a flame-retardant coating on the buildings and trees.

He’s not an advocate of staying behind in an evacuation zone but he says this event served as a wake-up call to build homes and communities that are more resilient to wild fires. 

Although pretty much everything burns when it’s hot enough, there were some key takeaways about building materials (timber framing didn’t perform as well as steel framing) and landscaping, with wood-chip mulch now better recognised as a fire risk.

Homes surrounded by greenery and healthy, moisture-retaining soil fared better, as did homes surrounded by native oaks. These trees are sometimes called “fire catchers” because they filter embers from the air before sparks reach the roof. They also thin out the shrubbery and undergrowth underneath them.

Hertz pointed out that Australia is actually the global leader in fire resilience, and much of the leading edge research comes out of Australia’s fire-prone regions.

The long term fallout: Shifted demographics

The Woolsey fires have also shifted the demographics of the region. Although Malibu is typically associated with Hollywood stars and the wealthy, the region also has, or had, significant middle- and working-class populations.

But Hertz says the insurance premiums have become so high in the wake of the Woolsey fires that few of these former residents have been able to rebuild or return to the area.

Because Californian energy providers now shut down their operations during times of high fire risk to prevent the chance of electricity infrastructure starting a fire, Hertz says people are also starting to think about back up and decentralised energy sources, such as solar and batteries, if they want to be able to run equipment like water pumps to help protect a property.

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