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Choosing plants and landscaping to reduce bushfire risks


 
Play  Cuong Tran discusses fire wise decisions for the garden.  cuongtranplantings.mp3  
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In response to a listener’s request, Dr Cuong Tran talks about how to make gardens more fire resistant.    
One important aspect of having a more fire resistant garden is the plant species that are used. While there is no definitive list of plants (native plants from other parts of Australia can become weeds, like the Rolling Pittosporum in Sydney), there are particular characteristics that make some plants more fire resistant.

 
* Plants with large, thick, smooth-edged leaves are less flammable, needing more heat for them to self combust.

*Species with smooth bark don’t produce a lot of leaf litter, reducing fuel sources.

*A plant that can be pruned to maintain a gap between the ground and its lower foliage is also a protective asset, decreasing the likelihood of a ground fire reaching the canopy. Canopy fires run along the canopy but are associated with a ground fire so reducing the understorey is insurance against a canopy fire.

*Sedges, like dianella and lomandra, have large, smooth thick leaves and would be useful in pockets and selective plantings.

 
*Many creepers and vines can assist fires into getting into the canopy, however, species like Hardenbergia violacea (false sarsaparilla) are very fire resistant, as they will crackle and spit without actually catching fire. With pretty purple flowers, it can be grown as a groundcover or over a fence.

*Some deciduous plants are very good in terms of flammability. Plants like cypress have more resin than oil, making them harder to burn.

 

Left: Maintaining a ‘defendable space’ is essential if you want to maximise your level of fire protection around your home. 

This picture shows a stark contrast between what burnt and didn’t burn …  defendable space (as well as a properly prepared home) helped save this family and their home.


 
An even more important aspect of fire resistance is the way the garden is designed and managed.     
Place the tallest plants as far away as possible from the house and stratify as you get closer to the house with smaller and lower growing species. A watering regime should be established, with the aim to ensure luscious growth. Neglected plants are a fire hazard.
Read the landscape and know where the fire risks are. Neighbours and local brigades are a useful source of fire risk knowledge.

 
Above: This could be just a home burning from some electrical fault, but this house is alight because of embers from a bushfire… notice that the vegetation around the home and the neighbour’s homes seem undamaged and unaffected by the actual bushfire… the majority of homes are lost because of embers, not from direct flame contact. See that the lawn of the neighbour’s home is also burnt (also from embers).

 

A Queensland project, Fire and Biodiversity, has produced a number of fact sheets (download from the website www.fireandbiodiversity.org.au) about general fire resistant plant characteristics. Other projects, like the Hotspots project in NSW, run workshops for landholders (through the Nature Conservation Council) on fire risk management and biodiversity.

Future projects, such as the development of plant tagging (in terms of fire risk) will be useful when operational. Dr Tran says that Australia is a very flammable landscape and emphasise this point with a quote. “Rather than fight the inevitable tide of bushfires, Australians need to adapt more effectively to their fire-prone land.”

Text: V.B. March 2009  Images from Cuong Tran

 

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