Safety among the gum trees for Wye River

By Amy Edwards

17 May 2016

5 minute read

Starting on Christmas Day 2015, fire tore through Wye River and Separation Creek in Victoria. The left half of the photo is Wye River and the right half is Separation Creek.

Starting on Christmas Day 2015, fire tore through Wye River and Separation Creek in Victoria. The left half of the photo is Wye River and the right half is Separation Creek.

When the devastating Wye River fire burnt more than 100 homes during Christmas 2015, the community and authorities were determined to work together to build a safer future.

Now as the rebuild begins in the Victorian coastal townships of Wye River and Separation Creek, the community is discovering the fine balance between managing bushfire risk and living among a beautiful tree canopy.

We released a report earlier this month identifying the factors that led to the loss of a massive 80 per cent of homes within the fire affected area in the small community.

The report, commissioned by the Victorian Country Fire Authority (CFA), identified weaknesses in building design and materials, poor vegetation management and the storage of heavy fuels such as building materials under homes as the main factors leading to house loss.

Our leading bushfire risk expert Justin Leonard has been working with the community and a wider Advisory Panel to develop a set of voluntary guidelines that will help improve the townships resilience to bushfire.

The huge loss of homes and subsequent focus on rebuilding has been hard on residents in the close-knit community. Primary school principal and single mother of three Glenda Harry and her family have been part of the Wye River community since the 1930s.

“When my parents sold their property two years ago, I bought a holiday rental in the area,” Glenda said.

“Wye River was always a safe place for me and my family. Somewhere we could go and recalibrate and reenergise.”

However this changed dramatically at Christmas time when Glenda and many other residents not only lost their homes but any potential rental income.

“It was devastating,” Glenda said. “My home was totally destroyed. I couldn’t even find a sink or single piece of furniture in the rubble.”

Now Glenda is faced with the difficult task of rebuilding her home within a budget while adhering to Australian Standards for building in a bushfire prone area, which can add extra costs. This is where Justin and the Advisory Panel’s expert knowledge of bushfire risk to life and infrastructure has been able to assist residents and provide important advice in the rebuild process.

Glenda Harry and her brother Rowan as children in the early 1970s in the backyard of the family home at Wye River.

Glenda Harry and her brother Rowan as children in the early 1970s in the backyard of the family home at Wye River.

Rebuilding a community

A major concern for residents of Wye River and Separation Creek is their homes are situated among extensive tree coverage and steep terrain, increasing the likelihood of house loss and reducing the chance of survival outside a building during a fire event.

These factors make it particularly important for the community to aim for a much higher house survival rate than conventional regulations provide.

“Eighty per cent of houses within the fire affected area were lost in the Christmas fire event but thankfully, no lives were lost,” Justin said.

“Obviously in the context of what has happened residents understand that there’s a community-wide responsibility to drastically improve the performance of their houses.

“It needs to be a shared responsibility model including emergency services, all levels of government and individual property owners.”

Our report identified a number of matters worthy of further consideration when looking at the rebuilding process including building materials used, separation distances between buildings within the township and contingencies such as personal fire shelters.

A holistic approach to bushfire resilience

On the back of the report, a panel of fire and building experts has been convened by Emergency Management Victoria Commissioner Craig Lapsley for Wye River and Separation Creek.

The Advisory Panel includes world class experts from CSIRO, the Victorian Building Authority and fire safety engineers.

Glenda Harry with her dog Ruby at Wye River.

Glenda Harry with her dog Ruby at Wye River.

They believe the lessons learnt at Wye River will provide a valuable case study that many fire prone communities in Australia and internationally can learn from.

A key piece of work the panel is undertaking includes investigating the level and extent fuel management strategies, such Asset Protection Zones (APZs), may have on altering Flame Zone Bushfire Attack Levels. See the video for more information.

Another piece of work will focus on a combination of house design and landscaping factors that will further improve the survival prospects of houses beyond what the regulations provide. The process of working with the community to develop a set of guidelines to achieve this is now underway.

After speaking with Justin, residents such as Glenda are more hopeful that they can still build attractive and affordable homes that will fit in well with the environment.

“I was really concerned that I might have to walk away entirely from the property,” Glenda said.

“But the latest advice is that I could still build something affordable and bushfire resilient in my price range. It’s a case of watch this space.”

Justin Leonard is a leader in bushfire urban design research in Australia focusing on investigating the behaviour of buildings during unplanned bushfire events with a view to improving their prospects.

The CSIRO Wye River / Separation Creek Post-bushfire Building Survey Findings report is on the WyeSep Connect community website.