Both Australia and the United States have been stricken by widespread bushfire occurrences and the devastating effect they have on countries and communities.
The 2018 California wildfires were a certified national disaster, encompassing a total of 7,639 fires burning a region of more than 1.96 million acres and wrecking devastation on more than 24,000 residences.
One lesson that emerged for all places and nations is the value of retrofitting homes to enhance wildfire resistance.
The Bushfire Building Council in Australia declares that 90 per cent of homes erected in perilous parts of Australia are not bushfire resilient.
Bushfire Building Council CEO Kate Cotter declares that the retrofitting of homes needs to be both soundly funded and government mandated.
The topic occupies the present agenda for California governor Gavin Newsom, who revealed a budget plan at the beginning of the new year that includes a US$100 million (A$153 million) “home hardening pilot program” to aid Californians in the retrofitting of aged homes against the risk of wildfires.
California debuted stringent building codes dealing with bushfires in 2008. Yet the code applies solely to homes constructed after its introduction. And a mere 6 per cent of Californian housing stock has been constructed since building codes came into effect.
In the wake of the severe Butte County Camp Fire, more than 50 per cent of the 350 single-family homes constructed after 2008 stood undamaged after the fire, but only 18 per cent of 12,100 older houses came through with no hindrances.
The National Construction Code (NCC) mandates that building structures in designated bushfire-prone areas be designed and built to lessen the risk of bushfires through the application of the Australian Building Standard AS3959.
However, the code and standard applies only to structures built after the year 1994. The vast majority of Australian buildings predate the mandates of these designated standards.
The 2016 Census indicates the presence of more than 9.9 million private homes in Australia. If one takes into consideration the building of new houses since the 1996 Census, a minimum of more than 3.5 million older houses stand unprotected.
More houses, cities and lives will be preserved if the Australian Government places priorities on the conversion and retrospective application of ‘fire smart’ building plans.
Californian building codes unite advanced policy and construction innovations within their context, to ensure that they are up to date and effective.
The California governor’s proposed budget intends to access UA$75 million from Federal Hazard Mitigation Funding supplied by a division of the US Department of Homeland Security, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).
FEMA formulated a comprehensive Wildland / Urban Interface Construction policy for US states and regional authorities to deal with the risk of wildfires. The policy framework includes guidelines to deal with wildfire mitigation for both new buildings and to cover upgrades to standing structures.
For more than 10 years, FEMA has collaborated with states and counties to supply hazard mitigation grants, which encompasses funds to cover the retrofitting of homes. One retrofit initiative that has proven successful is contained exterior sprinkler systems.
These sprinkler systems had been placed upon commercial and highly valued properties in fire-prone areas, but were traditionally prohibitive in cost.
Recently, the progression of deployment tactics and provision of sustainable water reticulation supply systems, which are independent units not reliant on mains supply (utilising standing water tanks, pools, dams, etc.) have rendered systems more available to the domestic market.
University of Minnesota researchers studied the 2007 Ham Lake Fire in Cook County. They discovered that of 188 properties sporting a working sprinkler system, none were lost to the fire. However, more than 100 neighbouring lands that lacked sprinkler protection were damaged beyond repair.
The study observed that sprinkler systems seemed to shield buildings along with bordering vegetation regardless of fire severity, fuels, wind conditions, or other fire-resistant characteristics of the property.
FEMA grants supply 75 per cent of the funding to cover the cost of the sprinklers, lessoning the cost to an average of US$3000 for every domestic house installation. These systems also comply with up to date Australian building codes.
The Australian Bushfire Building Council is requesting a mitigation spend from the Australian government, to be implemented at a federal and state level – one that is cost-efficient, easily achieved, and can be adapted with the proper incentive.
In the United States, FEMA has employed federally coordinated and funded incentive plans to deploy enhanced wildfire resistance through the application of innovative materials, technology, measures of control and defensible spaces for old and new structures.
The investment is resulting in paid dividends over time. In the Big Bear Lake community of California’s San Bernardino County, the Fire Department submitted a quartet of grant proposals to the FEMA pre-disaster mitigation grant program to cover up to 70 per cent of the expense of re-roofing residences with fire-safe materials, with the first grant going into effect in 2008. They specified 525 wood-roofed houses that needed retrofits in the community—at this point, only 67 remain.
To attain the FEMA grant, a cost/benefit analysis must be conducted. The Big Bear Fire Department declared that—according to their analysis–US$9.68 million would be saved in property loss for every US$1 million given in grant money.
With incidences of bushfires now a major problem across Australia, a Household Resilience Program that promotes bushfire structural protection initiatives, such as the program in Queensland, should be undertaken by the Australian Government.
A blended program of community education and financial mitigation plans is greatly in order, to prevent the poor management of government funds.
Two years ago, the Queensland Government introduced low- or no-interest loan incentives and co-contribution funding as the result of damaging cyclones for homeowners of properties constructed before 1984 (previously, building code amendments were strengthened in the early 1980s in the wake of Cyclone Tracy in 1974).
The Household Resilience Program gives a grant covering 75 per cent of improvement costs up to an amount just over $11,000. The plan was assumed by more than 360 households in the initial two months of the grant produced, and has lessened cyclone risk in more aged housing stock, also lowering continuously charged insurance premiums.
The retrofitting of subsidies and grants could promote the application of additional material innovation. Great progress has been made in the form and usage of fire-resistant shields, glass, building materials, exterior paints and coatings in the United States and Australia.
One researcher pinpointed the ember attack as the primary cause of home destruction during a bushfire. Embers fly in in advance of a fire front, frequently igniting new fires for building structures not shielded against ember attack. They said that the ideal way to avoid ember attacks is through the usage of materials and coatings that do not burn with ease.
Fire retardant paints and coatings are currently available in Australia and adhere to regulated building standards. The approximate price of repainting the outside of a typical four-bedroom timber home can run from $5000 to $10,000, dependent upon existing condition – a price that could be covered by a disaster recovery grant or loan.
To shield Australian homes and businesses from future bushfire danger, we must solidify Australian building standards as well as mitigation fund initiatives—drawing inspiration as we do from our friends in the United States.