We can learn from the US to prevent bushfire devastation

bushfire sprinkler
Photo: Rainmaker Bushfire Sprinklers

US authorities have learnt from past natural disasters that retrofitting homes to protect against wildfires is an effective strategy. Australia should take note.

The US shares a heartbreaking bond with Australia, the all-too-familiar devastation wrought by bushfires and the catastrophic impact they can have on a community and a nation.

The 2018 Californian wildfires were declared a national disaster with 7,639 fires burning an area of more than 1.96 million acres and destroying more than 24,000 homes.

One lesson highlighted from the devastation that also rings true in Australia is that retrofitting homes is vital to help future wildfire resilience.

The Bushfire Building Council in Australia says 90 per cent of homes in dangerous regions in Australia are not bushfire resilient.

Bushfire Building Council CEO Kate Cotter has said, that “retrofitting is absolutely key to reducing life and property loss, yet that advice hasn’t reached communities or got into our policies or funding, and it’s absolutely critical”. 

The topic is now on the agenda for California governor Gavin Newsom, who announced a budget plan at the start of January, including a US$100 million (A$153 million) “home hardening pilot program” to help Californians retrofit older homes against wildfire risk.

California introduced strict building codes to address bushfires in 2008. However, the code only applies to houses built after its introduction. Yet, only 6 per cent of the state’s housing stock has been built since the building codes took effect.

After the deadly ‘Camp Fire’ in Butte County, California, more than half of the 350 single-family homes built after 2008 came through the fire undamaged, but only 18 per cent of the 12,100 older homes escaped damage.

Retrofitting in Australia

Australia’s National Construction Code (NCC) requires buildings in designated bushfire-prone areas be designed and constructed to reduce bushfire risk through the application of the Australian Building Standard AS3959.

Yet, the code and standard only applies to buildings constructed after 1994. The large majority of Australian buildings predate the requirements of these standards.

According to the 2016 Census, there were over 9.9 million private dwellings in Australia. If we account for the construction of new homes since the 1996 Census, there is a minimum of over 3.5 million older homes unprotected.

More homes, communities and lives will be saved if the Australian Government prioritises the conversion and retrospective application of ‘fire smart’ building methods and initiatives.

Wildfire mitigation policy

California’s building codes bring together the best parts of policy, building standards and innovation from across the US and dynamical update to make sure they are fit for purpose.

The Californian governor’s recent proposed budget aims to access UA$75 million from Federal Hazard Mitigation Funding provided by a division of the US Department of Homeland Security, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

FEMA developed a comprehensive Wildland / Urban Interface Construction policy for individual US states and local authorities to address the wildfire risks. The policy framework includes requirements to address wildfire mitigation for both new construction and importantly, upgrades to existing structures.

Active control and  suppression

For over a decade, FEMA has worked with states and counties to provide hazard mitigation grants, which includes funds towards the retrofit of houses. One such retrofit initiative that has proved effective is contained exterior sprinkler systems.

These sprinkler systems have been previously deployed across commercial and high-value properties in fire-prone areas, but were historically cost prohibitive.

In recent years, advancement in deployment techniques and provision of sustainable water reticulation supply systems, which are self-contained and not reliant on mains supply  (using existing water tanks, pools, dams etc.) have made the systems more accessible to the domestic market. 

Researchers from the University of Minnesota investigated the Ham Lake Fire in Cook County in 2007. They found that of the 188 properties with a functional sprinkler system, not one was lost to fire but more than 100 neighbouring properties without sprinkler protection were irreparably damaged.

The study noted that sprinkler systems appeared to protect structures along with their surrounding vegetation regardless of fire behaviour, intensity, fuels, weather/wind, or other fire resilient attributes of the property. 

FEMA grants provided 75 per cent of the funding for the sprinklers, reducing the cost to an average of US$3000 per domestic house installation. These systems are also compliant with the current building codes in Australia. 

Fire resilience funding

The Australian Bushfire Building Council is urging the Australian government for a mitigation spend that they say “needs to happen at a federal and state level – it’s very achievable, inexpensive and could be broadly adopted with the right incentive”.

In the US, FEMA has used federally coordinated and funded incentive schemes to successfully deploy increased wildfire resistance through use of innovative materials, technologies, measures of active control and defensible spaces to buildings old and new.

The investment is paying dividends over time. In the Big Bear Lake community of San Bernardino county, California, the Fire Department, submitted four grant proposals to the FEMA pre-disaster mitigation grant program to pay up to 70 per cent of the cost of re-roofing homes with fire-safe materials, with the first grant taking effect in 2008. They identified 525 wooden-roofed homes in need of retrofits in the community, now only 67 remain.

To qualify for the FEMA grant, a cost/benefit analysis must be completed. “Our analysis indicated that US$9.68 million would be saved in property loss for every US$1 million awarded in grant funds,” Big Bear Fire Department said.

With bushfires now an issue of national significance and urgency in Australia, a Household Resilience Program promoting bushfire structural protection initiatives, like the one in Queensland, should be considered by the Australian Government.

A combination of community education paired with financial mitigation strategies would be more effective to avoid mismanagement of government funds.

In 2018, the Queensland Government rolled out low or no interest loan incentives and co-contribution funding in the wake of damaging cyclones for homeowners of properties built prior to 1984 (building code amendments toughened in the early 1980’s as a result of Cyclone Tracy in 1974).

The Household Resilience Program provides a grant of 75 per cent of improvement costs up to a cap of just over $11,000.  The scheme was taken up by more than 360 households in the first two months and has reduced cyclone risk in older housing stock, also reducing ongoing insurance premiums.

Dealing with ember attacks

Retrofitting subsidies and grants could also help encourage the use of more material innovation. Great inroads have been made with the development and application of fire-retardant shields, glass, construction materials, exterior paints and coatings in both Australia and the US.

One researcher identified that the main cause of home destruction during a bushfire was an ember attack. Embers travel far ahead of a fire front, often starting new fires for buildings that are not protected against ember attacks. They identified the best way to help deter attacks is by using materials and coatings that don’t burn easily.

Fire retardant paints and coatings are already available in Australia and meet building standards. The approximate cost to repaint the exterior of an average four bedroom timber home can range from $5000 to $10,000, depending upon existing condition – a cost that could easily fit into a disaster recovery grant or loan.

Now is the time to firm-up Australian building requirements and consider mitigation fund initiatives to protect homes and structures for future resilience against bushfire, and looking to our US neighbours is an ideal place to start.

Dr John Sturgeon is a lecturer in real estate and development at the University of Queensland Business School.


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