November 26, 2015 South Australia, George was driving from Clare to Adelaide at around 3 o’clock in the afternoon. About an hour and a half into the drive, George realised he was in trouble.
GEORGE HOOKER: Oh shit, shit!
POLICE: Take care going past these houses, go very slow.
GEORGE HOOKER: Okay, no worries. Alright.
JENNY BROCKIE: George, that's you?
GEORGE HOOKER: That's right Jenny, yep, it is.
JENNY BROCKIE: What's it like watching that?
GEORGE HOOKER: Ah it's quite strange, it's like a third person, it's not like I'm watching myself, it's like I'm watching someone else.
JENNY BROCKIE: Do you remember how you felt as you were doing the drive?
GEORGE HOOKER: Yeah, obviously that was a harrowing experience for me. It was something like out of Mad Max, that's the first thing I thought of as I come through, past the house that just burnt down, I watched it burnt down in ten minutes flat. I sat on the road and watched that house burn and the police come along and said ‘Hey look, it's okay to go.’
JENNY BROCKIE: Did you know about the fire when you set out from Clare to Adelaide?
GEORGE HOOKER: No I didn't.
JENNY BROCKIE: Because you do that trip a lot, don't you?
GEORGE HOOKER: I do that trip a lot, yeah. I travel that road at least once every two weeks. I woke up that morning, the wind was pretty blustery, I looked out my backyard and my outside chairs got blown over and I thought it was pretty warm and I knew, I live in the country, that it was pretty, it was catastrophic conditions for fires.
JENNY BROCKIE: Did you know there was a fire that close though?
GEORGE HOOKER: No, I didn't, no.
JENNY BROCKIE: No idea?
GEORGE HOOKER: It wasn't till I, I was into the drive probably 45 minutes or so and then I thought, I saw the smoke and I thought jeez, that looks like a big fire.
JENNY BROCKIE: Did you think you were gone for? Was there a point where you really panicked?
GEORGE HOOKER: No, look, I didn't have time to stop and think, it was just like wowee, so I just, just was thinking on the run.
JENNY BROCKIE: Why did you keep driving? Was there a point where you thought about stopping or turning around?
GEORGE HOOKER: No, there wasn't, not at all. I had a schedule that day. I had, you know, I was tunnel vision, I was like, I had some parts to pick up.
JENNY BROCKIE: So you had work to do?
GEORGE HOOKER: I had work to do.
JENNY BROCKIE: So fire or no fire you were just going to keep going no matter what?
GEORGE HOOKER: As you saw Templars, the cars there with roadblocks, I'm thinking oh yeah, that's pretty major, that's amazing, so I kept driving and I saw the fire front and I thought oh, yeah, that's cool, going to Adelaide, got to get to Adelaide, right I'm going to Adelaide and then I just drove through it. I didn't, I didn't stop to think about the danger or how dangerous it was or whether I was in danger. Look, the cars were still coming the other way, I mean look at the end of the day, you know, that fire had been burning for a couple of hours, right?
JENNY BROCKIE: Had you been in a bushfire before?
GEORGE HOOKER: No.
JENNY BROCKIE: What surprised you about it?
GEORGE HOOKER: Oh, okay, you know, you hear this story about fires, you know, a fire storm and I just assumed the fire was just a huge fire, you know? Massive flames, that's about all I thought. But when I hit that fire front, it was threefold. Like so what I realised afterwards that a fire storm is more than just a great big fire, it's the flames actually suck in the air around it and creates it’s own storm, it's only vortex for flames and stuff.
JENNY BROCKIE: Tim, you’re from Tasmania, you took this photo of your wife and grandchildren three years ago, tell us where they are and why?
TIM HOLMES: Well, that’s the jetty just down at the end of our property and on that day a fire storm had come through and we sought refuge in the water, so we were there to preserve our lives and shelter from the fire storm.
JENNY BROCKIE: The photo was taken in the afternoon. Let’s go back to the morning, were you aware of the danger in the morning?
TIM HOLMES: We were very conscious that it was a high fire dangered day and we also knew that there was a fire burning some fifteen kilometres away and we did know that there was a forecast for the winds to intensify during the day and so we were aware that the fire could come in our direction.
JENNY BROCKIE: What did you do to prepare?
TIM HOLMES: Um, all the things that I understood were necessary to give ourselves the best chance. Made sure all the gutters were cleared out, filled the gutters with water, cleared away any kind of combustible material from anywhere remotely close to buildings. We felt that we were ready to deal with the fire if it turned, if the wind pushed it in our direction.
JENNY BROCKIE: Did you think about leaving?
TIM HOLMES: At that stage, no, because we felt that, because we've got the water all around, our property's like a point that juts out into the bay, I thought the safest thing to do in the event of the fire coming onto our property was to retreat to the water.
JENNY BROCKIE: And you had the grandchildren with you for the day?
TIM HOLMES: We did, yeah, for the day, yeah.
JENNY BROCKIE: Tammy, how prepared were you for what happened that day?
TAMMY HOLMES: Well first thing in the morning, you know, we were obviously aware that there was a fire. I don't think I really prepared myself greatly, I mean you know, Tim was out doing everything that needed to be done outside, I had the children so I just made sure that I was with them, doing things with them, keeping calm, we had the radio on so we could listen.
JENNY BROCKIE: So when did you decide to leave the house with the children and head to the water, how far away was the water?
TAMMY HOLMES: I had all the children sitting on the table and I was preparing lunch for them and all of them had their backs to the window and as I looked up ready to hand them some food I thought over their heads the fire caught the house across the hill and straight away I knew, I thought this is really serious and I just said come on, let's take our picnic down to the water, let's go down to the jetty. We go to the jetty quite a bit. You know, I go crabbing with the children, we have fun together down by the water. So I just…
JENNY BROCKIE: What were you feeling like inside at that point?
TAMMY HOLMES: Um, this is serious, thinking oh, gosh, this is really serious.
JENNY BROCKIE: But trying to stay calm for the kids?
TAMMY HOLMES: And stay very calm, very calm.
JENNY BROCKIE: And you went straight into the water? Or you waited?
TAMMY HOLMES: Yeah, we went to the fence line and then followed the fence line down towards the water, yeah.
JENNY BROCKIE: Tim, you stayed behind for a while to try to and protect the house?
TIM HOLMES: Yeah.
JENNY BROCKIE: When did you decide it was time to go and join them at the jetty?
TIM HOLMES: Oh well, there was a very decisive moment. After Tammy had gone and I was sort of there on my own thinking well, I'll still do my best to protect the property, three fire brigade trucks came up the driveway and I just thought oh, this is brilliant, I've got a chance now.
JENNY BROCKIE: Saviours?
TIM HOLMES: Yeah, exactly, knights in shining armour. Anyway, the small fire trucks came to a halt nearby to our house and the fire captain came out and we talked for a moment and we were standing on the front lawn and the wind was very strong and gusty and as we stood there a column of flame came through the air like something completely unreal. You just would never imagine it. It was almost like a tornado of just flame. The ground wasn't burning, the trees weren't burning, it was just gas burning in the air.
JENNY BROCKIE: What, just like a twister?
TIM HOLMES: Like a twister only it was massive.
JENNY BROCKIE: Like a flame twister?
TIM HOLMES: Yes, that's correct, and it passed directly in front of us and I don't know if we said anything to each other but we both knew this is not fightable.
JENNY BROCKIE: Justin, you're a fire scientist with the CSIRO, what causes that twister effect of flame and that idea of, you know, a huge hand of fire surrounding a building? I mean when you hear that description what's actually causing it?
JUSTIN LEONARD, CSIRO: Fire is just an incredible heat source. So it's pushing up and then the winds come around and wrap around it and create these, you know, crazy and unpredictable winds that have flame drawn into them.
JENNY BROCKIE: Do you think people have any idea what it's like before they're in one?
JUSTIN LEONARD: I think it's not something that could be easily described and of course every fire is different as well and the oppressive sound and wind, heat.
JENNY BROCKIE: What's the sound like?
JUSTIN LEONARD: Loss of light. It's sort of people describe it as like a jet engine, like it's just an insanely strong overwhelming noise.
JENNY BROCKIE: Was that it was like Tim?
TIM HOLMES: Mmm.
JUSTIN LEONARD: And I guess the smoke flumes can be so tall, they can just completely block out the sun and turn day into night.
JENNY BROCKIE: Therese, you've been caught in two bush fires in South Australia, what really surprised you?
THERESE PEDLER: I guess the second time round I couldn't believe I'd, I was doing the same I silly things again.
JENNY BROCKIE: What sort of silly things?
THERESE PEDLER: Just finding myself in the wrong place at the wrong time for the second time. I thought I would have learnt more from my first experience, they were four years apart. Up to that point whenever I heard that tomorrow was going to be a hot day all I ever thought about was great, let's go to the beach. I never had any interest, appreciation, awareness or anything of bush fires, I was extremely naive, ignorant even.
JENNY BROCKIE: What surprised you though, about the actual being in one? What were the things you didn't expect?
THERESE PEDLER: At one point everything almost went silent, like there was a lack of sound, almost like a void, as if someone had pressed the mute button. And then I thought someone had laid a train track down my road and a train was coming. Sorry.
JENNY BROCKIE: Are you okay?
THERESE PEDLER: Yeah, I'm fine. A jet engine is another, I guess, comparison but I've never been close enough to an engine but I have been close enough to a train. So the sound mag… everything's magnified.
JENNY BROCKIE: What about breathing?
THERESE PEDLER: I remember at one point leaving our home, we're surrounded by water, a little bit like Tim and Tammy, and we eventually left the beach in our tinny with people in the boat and I was remember having to lean down on the lee side of the boat to get a breath of air so that I could stand up to have another energy to push the boat and I was having to do that with each step. And it was like, not that I've ever done it but it would like sucking on the end of a hair dryer, as soon as you breathe in your whole mouth and your throat were so dry, so then it makes breathing difficult, it makes talking difficult and I guess then hydration sets in really quickly.
JENNY BROCKIE: Tammy, what did you and the kids do once you got to the jetty?
TAMMY HOLMES: Um, when we first got to the jetty Matilda, I asked Matilda and the three younger ones to head to the jetty and then head into the water. They started to go on to the jetty and I said no, I think you better stay in the water, just walk into the water a little bit and as I got into the water with the children, the smoke was coming down very thickly and so we went deeper and deeper.
JENNY BROCKIE: How much could you see at that stage?
TAMMY HOLMES: Probably only a few metres in front of me.
JENNY BROCKIE: How were the kids?
TAMMY HOLMES: They handled it really well. They were amazing, absolutely amazing, I was really proud of them.
JENNY BROCKIE: Even the little ones?
TAMMY HOLMES: Yeah, yeah, in fact the little ones didn't show any fear. We had a few laughs, you know, they, Charlotte who is not quite two is quite a funny little one anyway and she came up with all sorts of things and she just had a chuckle and laugh at something and we'd all laugh.
JENNY BROCKIE: Could they swim, could they all swim?
TAMMY HOLMES: The three older ones could swim, yeah, but we were hoping we didn't have to do that.
JENNY BROCKIE: And what about your dog, Polly?
TAMMY HOLMES: Polly.
TIM HOLMES: It's the children’s dog actually.
TAMMY HOLMES: Yes. It was a springer spaniel, belonged to the Walker children and she absolutely loved the children and as we fleeing and running down the hill, Liam said my dog, my dog, and I said sorry, you can't go back for the dog. And then Matilda said my chickens and then someone said the rabbits and the budgerigar and I said I'm sorry, we just need to save ourselves. We need to get down to the water and just at that point Polly came running behind us. She'd either heard us or she was aware of something and came running sniffing the ground looking for us.
JENNY BROCKIE: So she stayed on the jetty?
TAMMY HOLMES: Yeah she did, yeah.
JENNY BROCKIE: Because treading water for a dog for two hours would be impossible?
TAMMY HOLMES: I was very grateful. I didn't even think about it but as we went into the water she went onto the jetty and as we were going out deeper she stayed on the jetty just walking out with us and at one point she laid down on the jetty with her head right down to try and breathe. So she was a smart dog, yeah.
JENNY BROCKIE: Tim, what was it like trying to get to Tammy at the jetty and the kids?
TIM HOLMES: Well, because I'd left it a few minutes later before I departed from the house, the bushfire had kind of progressed very, very rapidly and it wasn't only coming from the north-west, it seemed to be coming from the west and the south-west and so just about everything seemed to be on fire. Even as I ran and I did run and over that 400 metres it was incredible how quickly the fire took hold of everything.
JENNY BROCKIE: Could you see where you were going?
TIM HOLMES: That was the biggest problem, the smoke was so thick and black and I couldn't see a thing. In fact, I just ran on instinct knowing that if I kept running downhill I'd eventually hit the water.
JENNY BROCKIE: What did you do when you got there?
TIM HOLMES: Oh, well I was very thankful to see Tammy and the children in the water and we probably sort of considered our circumstances, decided that we were in the best place we could be, we didn't have much choice actually. We couldn't have gone anywhere else.
JENNY BROCKIE: And the jetty caught fire at one stage?
TIM HOLMES: Yes it did.
JENNY BROCKIE: How did you deal with that?
TIM HOLMES: Well everything was on fire, the boat shed was burning, the trees were burning, trees were falling, birds were dropping out of the sky and splashing around about us and yes…
JENNY BROCKIE: And the kids were still okay through all this?
TIM HOLMES: Well yes, yes, we were keeping them calm, Tammy in particular was sort of talking with them and reassuring them that we were going to be okay.
JENNY BROCKIE: Therese, when the first fire swept by your home near Port Lincoln in 2001, you headed for the water and you said, did you have any kind of bushfire plan?
THERESE PEDLER: No, nothing, zero, zilch at all.
JENNY BROCKIE: So what did you do to prepare?
THERESE PEDLER: Very little indeed. I went outside and placed anything that could hold water outside the front of our house. I tied some gates open so that people could find their way in and got some clothes that I thought would be sensible to wear in a fire like long pants, hats, boots but the unsafe thing that I did was I deliberately took them out and put them in the containers of water so that they'd be nice and wet, ready to put on when the fire came because I thought that that would be a really safe thing to do.
JENNY BROCKIE: And why wasn't it a safe thing to do?
THERESE PEDLER: Because radiant heat turns water to steam so you should never, ever, ever wear wet clothes in a bushfire.
JENNY BROCKIE: Is that right Justin?
JUSTIN LEONARD: Yeah, that's generally true. Your clothes when they're dry are more insulating than when they're wet. So certainly use water to recover but if the threat of fires coming, dry clothes.
JENNY BROCKIE: And you headed to the water.
THERESE PEDLER: Yes.
JENNY BROCKIE: To escape by boat and obviously you were the one pushing the boat out?
THERESE PEDLER: Yes, we popped the dog and the photo albums and our friends in the boat and escaped out, to try and get out from the smoke because it was just too hot to breathe, you couldn't see anything. So there was no point in staying.
JENNY BROCKIE: And when the fire was over and you were okay, and your house was okay?
THERESE PEDLER: Yes, yes.
JENNY BROCKIE: And once you absorbed everything that had gone on what were you determined you were going to do as a result of this fire?
THERESE PEDLER: About twelve months later I was invited by the CFS which is our rural volunteer fire service in South Australia to go and speak to two groups of people who were considering starting a program that we run in South Australia called Community Fire Safe. What I learnt about the community fire safe program over those two visits, talking to residents who were preparing for bush fires, I couldn't understand why a program like this wasn't compulsory. I learnt so much from that program and I just thought that everybody who lives in a bushfire prone area should be made to do this. It's just invaluable information. I liken a little bit to like if you have a swimming pool, you have to have it fenced, you know, you do first aid, you learn CPR. If you live in a bushfire prone area, or basically three quarters of Australia, why doesn't everybody have to do this and learn about bush fires?
JENNY BROCKIE: So did you have a plan by the time the second fire hit four years later?
THERESE PEDLER: No, I didn't Jenny.
JENNY BROCKIE: So you'd talked to the people, got all the information, no fire plan?
THERESE PEDLER: No, still none. Like I said …
JENNY BROCKIE: Why do you think that was? I mean this is really interesting because you'd not only been through the fire but you'd had all the information given to you?
THERESE PEDLER: I guess priorities and life and things just got in the way. I suppose I'm of the generation now that if my car breaks down, I ring the mechanic. If I've got a toothache, I ring a dentist. If there's a bushfire you ring the fire service. I'd never thought that I would actually have to fix my own car or do my own dental work or fight my own bushfire.
JENNY BROCKIE: So you thought the firies would save you?
THERESE PEDLER: Yeah.
JENNY BROCKIE: Bit like you Tim, when the firies arrived you thought it's all sorted now, they're here?
TIM HOLMES: Yeah.
JENNY BROCKIE: John, do you know how many people have bushfire plans?
JOHN SCHAUBLE, EMERGENCY MANAGEMENT VICTORIA: It would be less than 10 percent in most communities, even in high risk areas, very few people have a written plan or have thought much about it at all.
JENNY BROCKIE: You've been a fire fighter yourself for thirty years?
JOHN SCHAUBLE: That's right.
JENNY BROCKIE: And you're with Emergency Management Victoria. When you hear these stories, I mean how common are they and common are the responses?
JOHN SCHAUBLE: Pretty common. I'm not surprised by the stories I've heard tonight. One of the issues for Australians generally is we've spent the last century retreating from the bush and so our learned knowledge about bushfire is not what it used to be. It's no longer something that we deal with routinely. We don't think that much about the weather, a lot of people move from an air conditioned house to an air conditioned car to an air conditioned workplace.
JENNY BROCKIE: We're dealing with them more though, those fires?
JOHN SCHAUBLE: Absolutely, absolutely, and the number of fires and the severity of those fires is increasing every year and so whereas thirty years ago when I started as a fire fighter you wouldn't expect a big fire more than once every decade. Now that gap between the next big fire and the one that's just gone is increasingly smaller so two, three, four years.
JENNY BROCKIE: Therese, you now work for the Country Fire Service in South Australia so clearly you did get motivated eventually, the second fire kicked you into action. Given that fires have been through your area, are people interested afterwards in planning, in getting or do they do what you did which is, life just gets in the way and they go on?
THERESE PEDLER: After the fire, after fires is usually when we have a really high attendance, which is unfortunate because you're already preaching to the converted by then. But there certainly has been a gradual increase in the uptake of the information that we provide. We talk to them about their options of staying or going and preparing their houses obviously preferred to be a non-negotiable because regardless of what you want to do, it's nice, your best chance of surviving is if your house is well prepared. And then hopefully by the end of the sessions that we run people have a written and then a practiced bushfire survival plan.
JENNY BROCKIE: Okay John?
JOHN SCHAUBLE: When we talk about plans there's a bit about planning before there's a fire, during the fire and after the fire. So that the gathering together of possessions, the gathering together of your jewellery and your passports, you do that before the fire season and you take all that stuff and you take it off to somewhere that's not going to be affected by fire. So you generally find the really important things in your life you can compress into three cardboard boxes, photos, a bit of jewellery…
JENNY BROCKIE: Apart from the people you love who don't-- yeah, go on?
JOHN SCHAUBLE: So the possessions, the possessions is easy to deal with and then it's about your own safety and that's the during and so a check list is a great idea. There's an essential decision here about staying or going and you have to make a decision about that.
JENNY BROCKIE: Why wouldn't everyone just go, that might seem like a very naive question but…
JOHN SCHAUBLE: We encourage everyone to go, particularly on high risk days, but what happens is that people wait and see and so, you know, the leaving early means leaving before a fire has even started, before anything's happened and to get people to do that is actually quite hard because it's very disruptive to their lives. And…
JENNY BROCKIE: And fires can behave very unpredictably too, can't they?
JOHN SCHAUBLE: Of course, so you need a plan A and a plan B and probably a plan C.
JENNY BROCKIE: Alan, you're an urban planner, what about people who say I've been through one bushfire, I can defend the house again if I need to. My garden was fine, you know?
ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR ALAN MARCH, UNIVERSITY OF MELBOURNE: Well, I guess there's two sort of main things that can change that immediately come to mind. The people can be the same people but older, or maybe they're infirm and they weren't in the last fire. And I guess the other thing that can change is the house, the garden, the house next door, the level of fuel management in the area.
JENNY BROCKIE: John, you said you encouraged people to go to leave their properties, if they do decide to stay and defend, what should they do?
JOHN SCHAUBLE: The first thing is exactly that about are you physically and mentally capable of defending your home? You won't be able to do it by yourself so you'll need to have at least two people doing it. There are a whole lot of preparatory things, you'll need water, you'll need some equipment, you'll need to have a house that's prepared so that you know, as ember proof as possible.
JENNY BROCKIE: Justin, what are the most common mistakes people make when they decide to defend their houses?
JUSTIN LEONARD: They, they sort of retreat to a place in their house that feels relatively safe, something like a bathroom, and that's sort of shown time and time again to be one of the worst strategies because you've isolated yourself from knowledge of whether the fire's passed, whether the house has started to burn and what your prospects are of potentially leaving that house if it becomes unsafe.
JENNY BROCKIE: So it's the worst place to go?
JUSTIN LEONARD: Yeah.
JENNY BROCKIE: And there are statistics that show that people are more likely to die if they go, if they go into that particular room?
JUSTIN LEONARD: Yes, so in fact most people who have died in house fires and bush fires have died in bathrooms and in areas where there's one exit to the rest of the house, not an exit to the outside.
JENNY BROCKIE: And are people more likely to die if they stay and defend their houses or if they flee? Like if you've got a fire on top of you, do we know what's safer to, you know, try and seek shelter or to try and get away?
JUSTIN LEONARD: Well I guess what's in the past about 30 percent of the people have died in their house. Another 30 percent have died within 50 metres of their house, just outside their house, and about 10 percent of people have died in their cars, not a long way away from their house.
JENNY BROCKIE: Tim, would you stay and defend your house again if there was a fire?
TIM HOLMES: I think…
JENNY BROCKIE: Because your house didn't survive?
TIM HOLMES: No.
JENNY BROCKIE: But you've rebuilt?
TIM HOLMES: Yes.
JENNY BROCKIE: Would you stay and defend the new house?
TIM HOLMES: I think the thing that you tried to do or what I tried to do was assess the magnitude of the fire. If I thought it was going to be a fire storm such as we experienced, no. If I had any notion that that was what was going to befall us we would have left a long time in advance.
JENNY BROCKIE: Tammy, what would you do?
TAMMY HOLMES: Leave.
JENNY BROCKIE: Any kind of fire?
TAMMY HOLMES: No.
JENNY BROCKIE: Would you go?
TAMMY HOLMES: Certainly if I didn't have the grandchildren I would stay with Tim and do our best to fight. But I wouldn't put myself through a fire storm or certainly wouldn't like to put my grandchildren through that again.
JENNY BROCKIE: You're still living on the same block?
TIM HOLMES: Yeah.
JENNY BROCKIE: In Tasmania, let's have a look at what you've done since the fire.
TIM HOLMES: Where we are standing now was actually the front lawn. Tammy is very keen on her garden so we had a lovely garden and a fence and lots of flowers in this area here. We knew almost intuitively that we would stay here.
TAMMY HOLMES: We were doing our best to plant fire-resistant plants, have non-flammable materials around the house. We will pick some beans for our dinner, shall we? Because we like more rustic, artistic timber things, obviously we have to balance it a bit.
TIM HOLMES: This time we have got an irrigation system buried underground and that was one of the first things this we did. So we have got a row of taps all around here and then a row of taps further out that takes water all around the property, around the parameter and then close around the building before we just had the odd garden tap.
TAMMY HOLMES: We live in a dry coastal area. Things that naturally grow here just seem to burn very easily. We've gone more for deciduous and evergreens and more fire-resistant plants.
TIM HOLMES: Well we made a point of putting sandstone paving around the building, so even though there is a little bit of exposed timber, if fire comes up against this with the taps and sprinklers we should be able to protect this okay. We have removed the combustible material that was fairly straightforward. To have taken all of the timber windows out and to have replaced them with steel or aluminium was prohibitive. On the house that we had before, we had a timber deck around it and I suspect the deck would have caught fire and everything else would have followed pretty quickly. We have got a far better knowledge of knowing how to reduce the risks. Life is a risk, isn't it? There are risks everywhere.
JENNY BROCKIE: Do you think those things would make a difference if you were faced with the same situation again?
TIM HOLMES: We're better prepared now. We've certainly taken measures that would reduce the likelihood of our buildings catching fire.
JENNY BROCKIE: What other things?
TIM HOLMES: Gutter guards, using materials, that out building is actually rammed earth so that's not going to burn.
JENNY BROCKIE: So if you were faced with that same situation again, do you think that you'd have a much better chance of surviving or do you think it would be the same?
TIM HOLMES: No, I think that previous situation was beyond our ability to defend ourselves.
JENNY BROCKIE: Justin, will those sorts of things make a difference? Do they make a substantial difference to your chances?
JUSTIN LEONARD: I think that's, that will make a massive life risk improvement, to the scenario. And I guess if it comes down to sort of determining whether your house is far less likely to burn down, it really comes down to the little details of what you've used around your eave linings and how you filled up all the little gaps and what type of timbers you've used in your windows. So…
JENNY BROCKIE: So these things really matter, like they make a big difference?
JUSTIN LEONARD: They are, the fire really looks for the weakest link it can find and it will burn it down for the smallest reason. Once the fire takes hold in a building cavity or inside the house it will burn the house down completely.
JENNY BROCKIE: Kate, you head up the Bushfire Building Council of Australia. How do people know if they're in a bushfire zone in Australia?
KATE COTTER, BUSHFIRE BUILDING COUNCIL OF AUSTRALIA: So states have different ways of doing it about but there's either state wide mapping that shows bushfire prone areas, so you can put your address in and it will say yes you're in, or no you're not. So it doesn't give you a level of risk, it's just yes or no. And if you want to find out what your level of risk is then you need to go through a BAL assessment process.
JENNY BROCKIE: A BAL assessment process?
KATE COTTER: Yes.
JENNY BROCKIE: BAL stands for Bushfire Attack Level?
KATE COTTER: Yes.
JENNY BROCKIE: Justin how easy is it to find out whether your house is in a bushfire prone area in Australia?
JUSTIN LEONARD: Well there's no automatic thing to say yes or no, so you actually have to actively seek it out. Every state has a different system and so I guess you've got to start door knocking, ask your neighbours, ask the local fire authority.
JENNY BROCKIE: So there's no system, we're facing bush fires, you know, most summers and we've got 40 percent more of them in a five year period that we've just found out about, there's no national system that you can just go bang, that's where I live, that's my bushfire risk?
JUSTIN LEONARD: No, that's completely true.
JENNY BROCKIE: Simon, you recently built in St Helena on the urban fringe of Melbourne?
SIMON WARDELL: Yes.
JENNY BROCKIE: You've embraced the building fire standards totally, why?
SIMON WARDELL: It's not a primary reason, there's a few reasons, I've got a very energy efficient home, fire standards were a subset of the reasons but energy efficiency, different construction, and wanted to invest in a future of the future house for my young family.
JENNY BROCKIE: Marcus, you built the house, now you set up your company after the black Saturday fires?
MARCUS PHELAN: Yes, so Refuge Homes, we started that in 2009 with the intention of finding a building system that actually is driven around the fire rating of a home.
JENNY BROCKIE: What makes Simon's house different to the other houses in the street?
MARCUS PHELAN: Oh, our homes are fully integrated concrete systems, slabs walls, roof, eaves, fascias all concrete. So there's no convection through the eaves, there's no materials that will burn on the outside.
JENNY BROCKIE: Simon, do you think your house is fire roof?
SIMON WARDELL: Hearing the stories tonight, probably not.
JENNY BROCKIE: Did you think was before tonight?
SIMON WARDELL: No, I've think it's safer. Would I sit there in a fire storm? I don't think so. I certainly think it's built to a higher level of construction.
JENNY BROCKIE: Is there any evidence that houses built to these standards survive better than other houses?
JUSTIN LEONARD: Yeah, so not that many houses that been built to these new standards have been impacted by fires, but the fifty odd that have tended to survive about, they’re four times more likely to survive than ones that haven't.
JASARN, GUDAGIL RANGER: As you can see, it is mixed tree country here. As you can see, all of the little trees have survived the slow burn. The temperature in here is real cool. There is no hot flame and heat in here. Because it is nice and cool in here, it is good for the vegetation and the trees.
JENNY BROCKIE: Victor, that's not what people expect to see with a bushfire, it looks very automatic and your colleague there is talking about a cool, it being cool near the flames. What does he mean?
VICTOR STEFFENSEN, INDIGENOUS FIRE PRACTITIONER: Well, he's meaning that, well, that fellow there Jasarn, he's a Gudagil ranger in Bundaberg and basically what he was doing there was fire workshop and teaching him and what I do, I go around and work with different communities. Not just indigenous but also rural and fires and also pastoralists and residents as well.
JENNY BROCKIE: What do you do? How is what you do different to the way you know the rest of the fire fighting community operates?
VICTOR STEFFENSEN: Completely different, it's totally opposite to what everyone's doing here. Like everyone's talking about the aftermath and it's always the way western, you know, society works is really based on the aftermath of things and always acting when things are too late. Whereas all the work that I do is in the prevention of that and it's really about putting fires and not to save your house, just your house, but to save the bush lands, look after the environment as a whole and above all teach people what they should know about the country in terms of understanding fire properly.
JENNY BROCKIE: When you light a fire, how is that fire different to say traditional back burning?
VICTOR STEFFENSEN: Firstly the biggest problem in this country is that everyone's confused and that's been done by different groups. Some people would go oh, you know, like we call this a fire for hazard reduction and then they'll say this is a fire for biodiversity, oh this is a fire for traditional burning that indigenous people do, when in fact there is only one fire and that is the right fire and fire for your country, for your environment and a fire that is there more frequently and what I do with the burns that I do, I teach people in their own regions to read the country, understand the land, and be able to see the indicators and the signs on how to manage the country so we prevent wild fires.
JENNY BROCKIE: Explain to us what fire circles are?
VICTOR STEFFENSEN: When we light fires we just don't light fires anywhere. When I teach someone about burning the land, we'll go to the ignition point on that country and there's a lot of reasons why that ignition point is there and we burn out and so the fire burns like a circle outwards and when it does that it's a single point and the fire goes in a 360 degrees radius, everything can smell that smoke and everything can escape from that 360 degrees.
JENNY BROCKIE: So it protects the animals?
VICTOR STEFFENSEN: That's right. That is the primary thing that we need to be doing is protecting the environment because we can't keep doing what we're doing. We can't continue to sit back and watch hundreds of kilometres of land being annihilated and yet just sit down and just think about ourselves. But in due respect we need to be looking after our residents and we need to be looking after our houses, but what's the point in doing that if we're not looking after the land?
JENNY BROCKIE: What was interesting for me watching that footage was the trees weren't burning and the canopy wasn't burning.
VICTOR STEFFENSEN: That's right. That's right. Those are very fire prone trees but we burnt at the right time of the year and to make sure that they are protected. Those trees need fire. We live in a country that needs fire and what happens is that we've stopped evolving with fire. Our fire culture in Australia is totally flawed to nothing. As before, even if you go back 100 years, pastoralists and people who were historically a part of land can tell you themselves there used to be fires all the time and even indigenous people would work in with them and burn country regularly, but we've backed up to a point of regulations, land tenures.
JENNY BROCKIE: So how often are you going around that kind of work?
VICTOR STEFFENSEN: Full time, I’ve been doing it for nearly twenty years.
JENNY BROCKIE: And are you doing it in cooperation with government or…
VICTOR STEFFENSEN: No.
JENNY BROCKIE: Or agencies, or are you just…
VICTOR STEFFENSEN: Not so much in cooperation with government and agencies. I mean agencies are my clients as well. Just recently I had National Parks of New South Wales get me involved in training some of their rangers down there and people as well.
JENNY BROCKIE: So how do you compare to the average fire fighter in Australia do you think, to someone like John?
VICTOR STEFFENSEN: Oh, well for John and you know, a lot of guys like John are great blokes, but you know, it really is about understanding and they understand, like I said it's about fighting a fire. You know, or reducing the fuel load. But there's more, like for the future of a fire fighter like John in fifty years’ time, if we do the right thing, is going to be someone who knows the soils, who knows all the trees, knows all the animals, when they're breeding and the other thing is we need to be burning a lot more regularly. We're not burning enough and they talk about 90 percent of Australia that are prone to bush fires, well I reckon there's only 10 percent that actually gets burnt through hazard reductions.
Australia is a really big area and a big country and unfortunately this government has got to realise that there's a lot of work to do in making sure that we have management teams out there and that we're educating the community and involving the residents and involving communities in understanding fire. Not in its vicious form or its threatening form but understanding fire and it's nurturing and it's beautiful way of, how beautiful it really is.
JENNY BROCKIE: John, your reaction to that?
JOHN SCHAUBLE: I think we have an enormous amount to learn from indigenous fire practices and you know, until now governments and agencies have burnt for mass and for area. It hasn't been cool burning, it's burn to, you know, to scorch the canopy now if not clean it out completely so there's an enormous amount to earn. Unfortunately in the southern States, in Tasmania and Victoria, a lot of that indigenous knowledge has been lost so we are having to rely on people from outside of those states to come and teach us about these things.
JENNY BROCKIE: It sounds so thoroughly sensible?
JOHN SCHAUBLE: One of the things that has happened I guess over the course of European settlement is the landscape has changed quite considerably and so Europeans have introduced a whole range of different plants and pasture and that sort of thing. So how applicable some of the traditional practices are in those landscapes I'm not sure.
JENNY BROCKIE: How applicable do you think they are Victor?
VICTOR STEFFENSEN: 100 percent applicable. It doesn't matter, we still live in Australia, we still have the same climate, we still have the sun beating down on us and what the challenge has been in the last fifteen years for me was applying actually traditional knowledge into contemporary landscapes.
JENNY BROCKIE: Could you apply those principles to built up areas like part of the city outskirts where there are houses side by side?
VICTOR STEFFENSEN: Yes.
JENNY BROCKIE: And back yards backing onto the bush?
VICTOR STEFFENSEN: Yes, I've done that before and I've worked with many of those projects, and of course you need to have rural fires involved and you need to have the community involved when it comes to that point.
JENNY BROCKIE: How different would people's back yards look, looking out onto the bush if it was being managed the way you want manage it?
VICTOR STEFFENSEN: Well the bush would be a lot more clearer from head height. So if we're able to describe what it would look like, it would be green, it would be clean right through and there'd be a rich green canopy along the top as well. So the country would like quite beautiful. It doesn't matter how big the fuel load is and I'll be very bold and I'll say it doesn't matter how big the fuel load is, we can always protect the canopy and I've proven that so many times from as far as north Queensland to Tasmania.
JENNY BROCKIE: And why is that so important to protect the canopy?
VICTOR STEFFENSEN: Well the canopy is whole other world. The canopy is so important to us because it has, that's the life of the flowers, the fruits, the birds, the animals, that's a whole other place up there that we can't walk up there, just like we can't walk on the water, you know? So that top canopy is very, very sacred and the simple rule that it never burns and if you burn the canopy, then you have the wrong fire. And so teaching how you can burn where fire behaves like water and it trickles through the country and it doesn't burn everything.
JENNY BROCKIE: Justin, how applicable do you think what's Victor's talking about is to the whole of Australia?
JUSTIN LEONARD: Universally, I think that that is the perfect explanation of how the bush could be managed on the other side of the interface and there's so many synergies between the concept of a fire adapted community that where someone's back garden enjoys a bit of fire activity, the…
JENNY BROCKIE: Do you think people are ready for enjoying a bit of backyard fire activity?
JUSTIN LEONARD: I think it's an evolutionary process, but what they'll realise is their backyard isn't to the back fence, it's this incredible forest that you can once again interact with. And a forest that won't bring problematic fire to the house and threaten it with incredible ferocity.
JENNY BROCKIE: But that is cultural shift for a lot of Australians to accept the idea of the backyard burn?
VICTOR STEFFENSEN: That's right, and that's what's going to have to happen. There needs to be a cultural shift. We need to evolve our culture with fire.
JENNY BROCKIE: Well you don't need to evolve, the rest of us need to evolve.
VICTOR STEFFENSEN: Yeah, basically, yeah. It's very frustrating, it's very frustrating when I sit at home and I watch the news and I see masses of country just going and it brings a tear to my eye to see that country just being annihilated and then I go down and I work on that country and have a look at the land and see all the signs, everywhere I go there's just continuous signs of country just being just totally devastated.
JENNY BROCKIE: What do you think is getting in the way mostly or who is getting in the way mostly of you being able to do the kind of things you're talking about?
VICTOR STEFFENSEN: Well it's not hard, I mean, to know that. It really is, you know, the multiple amounts of environmental agencies and red tape and attitudes.
JENNY BROCKIE: Environmentalist attitudes?
VICTOR STEFFENSEN: Above all, you know, like not just environmentalist attitudes.
JENNY BROCKIE: By saying that, that's a big umbrella but some environmentalist’s attitudes?
VICTOR STEFFENSEN: Yeah, some of the attitudes in terms of just accepting indigenous knowledge for one and then also just other attitudes of where agencies more or less want to do their own fire program so they can seize funding and run their own programs and so we have all these different people doing different things and delivering different concepts of fire.
JENNY BROCKIE: Why do you think the things Victor's talking about aren't happening in a more widespread way?
JOHN SCHAUBLE: For all the reasons that Victor's just mentioned. I mean we have multiple agencies with control over various bits of landscape and you look at any piece of landscape anywhere in Australia, you move from one agency to the next agency to the next agency into private property.
JENNY BROCKIE: Justin, do you think there are places that just shouldn't be inhabited in Australia? I mean, what's the message you want to get out about fire?
JUSTIN LEONARD: I'd say that there's, there's a way to live in every part of the landscape and it's this integrated way of understanding what, what fire is in that location, how to find the balance and manage the bush in the right way, and that easily unlocks how you build and live and behave and understand.
JENNY BROCKIE: What are the best things people can do?
JUSTIN LEONARD: They have to start with understanding the land and the landscape. It's this, it's this complete connection. I think if they're not willing to buy into the idea of completely becoming part of that location, you know, pick another place.
JENNY BROCKIE: Tim and Tammy, do you think you understand the landscape around you?
TIM HOLMES: Yes, I think we do, and I think a lot of the things that Victor said, while the indigenous practice may not have been happening in Dunalley, I know that when we first moved there in the mid '80's, the last generation of farmers were doing cool burns on a regular basis every year and that stopped about twenty five years ago, which enabled this big fuel to build up which caused the destruction that it did.
VICTOR STEFFENSEN: And that's basically the amount of time it's taken for your statistics to show that there's more bush fires now in the last 15, 20 years, it all fits in perfectly.
JENNY BROCKIE: It all fits?
VICTOR STEFFENSEN: In practice.
JENNY BROCKIE: Why did the two of you decide to rebuild on the same block?
TIM HOLMES: The fuel had been burnt so we're now in a relatively safe place.
JENNY BROCKIE: Did your daughter Bonny and the grandchildren stay because they were living on the property, did they stay?
TAMMY HOLMES: They did for the first year or so, wasn't it?
TIM HOLMES: Yeah.
TAMMY HOLMES: But no, they chose to take the opportunity to buy a caravan and 4 wheel drive and go travelling. So they haven't rebuilt and they're still waiting to see what they might do.
JENNY BROCKIE: Well the kids visited you recently, let's go out with them tonight and thank you all very much for joining us.
BOY: I love the water, the space and just the mountain bike tracks nearby. I like that, too.
GIRL: I don't know. I like Dunally because it has all of my family here but I don't think I would like to live here again. I don't know. It is just not the same as it was before.
YOUNG BOY: I do like it here. I guess I have lived here my whole life and it is kind of fun here.
TAMMY HOLMES: They are not afraid. They are not - we can go down to the jetty and play and hang out there and they fish and swim and there is no issues. Can you do a nice photo? That's right. Can I have one. Ready.