12 February 2009
VU Fire engineer who saved his Glenburn home defends CFA policy
Victoria University fire engineer Professor Ian Thomas has challenged claims that the Country Fire Authority's fight or flee policy is untenable.
Professor Thomas and his wife protected his property at Glenburn, north-east of Kinglake, during Saturday's bushfire using bucketed water after the pump on his fire hose and sprinklers broke down.
"Preparation is the key," he said. "We have 30-40m of land around our house mostly cleared of vegetation other than low-cut grass. That made the task of protecting the house practical. With our protective clothing, we were able to work outside the house for several hours putting out embers and preventing the fire from coming in contact with the house and nearby trees.
"The fire approached our property from four directions as it passed through our area but there was no damage to our house or big shed. The radiant heat was intense at times when groups of bushes went up but we were able to avoid severe exposure.
"One next-door neighbour's house was destroyed, as were seven others nearby.
Professor Thomas said he and his wife were isolated on their 5.6ha (14 acre) property from Saturday until Monday morning, without power or phones (landline and then mobiles). His property backs on to part of the Kinglake National Park, which appears to have been severely damaged in the fire.
He said that protection of properties is possible, but only with adequate planning and preparation.
Professor Thomas is the director of Victoria University's Centre for Environmental Safety and Risk Engineering (CESARE), which studies fire safety (mainly in buildings) from a risk management perspective.
He said fire safety for householders is complex. There is no perfect plan, but residents should observe the following rules:
- Clear bush for at least 30m around the house and keep gardens away from the house as isolated 'islands'.
- Have a flexible protection plan in place, but recognise that even then it may not cover all contingencies.
- Test equipment and practise using it regularly, including in the dark, on very hot days and without the power being on.
Professor Thomas said his research on fire behaviour and risk management, together with his personal experience, showed that protection of property under threat from bushfire is possible. However, there is no way to guarantee the safety of every individual.
"Fire is vicious, often unpredictable and you have to be prepared to adjust to the circumstances.
"Conditions change and things go wrong. When that happens you have to reassess and adapt your plans according to the situation.
"If you do plan to stay you ideally need more than one person to effectively defend a property, although the experience of one of our neighbours shows even this is possible."
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