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20 Jan 2020

Time to Rethink Building Materials to Combat Future Fire Seasons

Time to Rethink Building Materials to Combat Future Fire Seasons

Standing in a pile of rubble, Faith Gordon is still coming to terms with seeing her house destroyed by fire.  Her house was burnt down in the fire in Central Queensland in November.

"It's just as shocking as it was in the beginning," she said.

"Until it's cleaned up and gone from here, it's going to be really hard to come here and look at it."

Despite the fire threat, Ms Gordon and her husband Darren are committed to rebuilding, but the next house will hopefully survive any bushfire that comes their way.

"We love this property — we just want to make it safer for us to stay in," she said.

There will not be any gardens around the new house and the structure will have a steel frame. Ms Gordon said she would have sprinklers installed and a fire pump for the pool.

"There's 100,000 litres right there at our disposal, instantly."

Time to rethink building materials

Architect and Queensland University of Technology (QUT) academic Dr Ian Weir said when building a house is managing fuel.

"It's really a chance to rethink, to eliminate combustible materials," he said.

He said when the fire danger index rose, the combustibility of our houses, increased dramatically.

The architect said it was only in parts of Victoria, the ACT and New South Wales where people needed to build houses to withstand catastrophic fire conditions.

"In Queensland, we only have to design houses to FDI40, which is just on the very high level," Dr Weir said.

He mentioned a lot of new houses in Queensland were being built with low-density timber materials.

"We've got a lot of room for improvement in our legislative framework around bushfire both in the building standards, which are mandated in the national construction code, and our planning regulations," he said.

He said the building design standards were targeted at the most cost-effective solution, instead of the most bushfire-proof solution.

"The gold standard really starts with just rethinking the kind of paradigm we've had in Australia, which is this idea of the house in the bush with lots of timber — that just doesn't work," Dr Weir said.

Looking at the house, surrounded by Karri eucalyptus trees, you would not think it would meet fire standards.

"The idea with the Karri Fire House is let's put the innovation into the house, rather than the management into the landscape," Dr Weir said.

It has been made of non-combustible materials and exceeded the fire rating needed to build in the area when it was constructed six years ago.

"If we were building a conventional house with lots of combustible materials, a lot of those Karri trees would have had to be removed," Dr Weir said.

The fly screens are made of steel mesh, which acts as protection for the glass windows during a fire. The owners of the house can lock it and leave at any time.

"If we want to go away in summer, we can just close everything up, make sure everything is across, and we know the house has got a very good chance of still being here if something happens while we are not here," Mr Ausma said.

Ms Ausma said having a fire-resistant house gave her a sense of reassurance.

"For me, when you don't know what fires are like, I'm just quite fearful," Ms Ausma said.

"The house might not be fabulous on the outside, but our belongings are going to still be there when we come home if a fire comes through."

Facing more extreme fires

Former Queensland fire commissioner Lee Johnson agreed people needed to change the way they lived.

He said the current Australian building standards needed to change and people must build better infrastructure, improve town planning, and make more resilient housing developments.

"The last two fire seasons are an indicator of where the future lies for us," Mr Johnson said.

“What we appear to be facing is more extreme fires."

There have been heated debates over burning management strategies and whether enough hazard reduction was done ahead of this fire season.

"Many people make the mistake that it is the fire service's responsibility to burn [off] — it's not," he said.

Mr Johnson said the conflict between landholders, farmers and government agencies needed to be sorted out for better land management.

Volunteer firefighters under strain

Mr Johnson is one of almost 30 former fire chiefs pushing the Federal Government to develop a bushfire strategy and battle against climate change.

"Today we're talking about bushfires, but I can guarantee we'll also be talking about floods and cyclones that are extreme and intense," he said.

He said since Cyclone Larry in 2006, Queensland had been hit by a string of major disasters.

"There is a tremendous cost and it is not just dollars and cents, it's to people," he said.

Mr Johnson contributed a lot with the volunteer fire service during his time as chief.

He remains concerned about the impact the fires were having on communities with the strain it was having on volunteers.

"It's an enormous strain on these people and the work they do for free, it's the cheapest form of labour you can get — they are putting their lives on the line." Mr Johnson said.

Source: ABC News