Home, not-so-sweet Home

There are ways of making homes less burnable, but then there’s nature — especially human nature. [26 February 2013 | Peter Boyer]

Rick Leighton shows off the magnesium oxide panels he believes can revolutionise home-building in the bush.

Some rain has come and, fingers crossed, the bushfire season might just be over — a good time to consider lessons from this fraught summer of heatwave, fire and (in the case of Queensland and NSW) flood.

The first thing to say is that Tasmania’s professional and voluntary fire teams, emergency workers and police performed with great distinction in handling the fire crises. That’s also a credit to the communities that support them and (it must be said) to the government.

Though it’s little compensation for those whose lives were torn apart by the January 4 fires, it’s reassuring to know that there are many among us who know how to manage themselves and others when the chips are down and the embers flying.

But it wasn’t just good teamwork that saw us through. There was also some very good luck.

Dunalley’s unhappy fate might well have been Hobart’s — or at least large swathes of its outer suburbs — had the stump fire that ignited the bush near Forcett early in January been to the north-west of the city, somewhere round New Norfolk, Collinsvale, Granton or Brighton.

Or if early this month, instead of the settled conditions that enabled fire teams to bring the ominous Molesworth fire under control, we had a repeat of the fierce north-westerlies of January 4. Less than an hour of such winds could have carried that blaze to the city’s outskirts.

David Bowman, the University of Tasmania’s professor of environmental change biology, wrote in the Sunday Tasmanian on February 17 that after many years studying the behaviour of wildfires, recently he has encountered “fires that simply did not play by the rules”.

He wrote of a rising danger from “megafires” whose behaviour “confounded old hands who have fought many fires”, of fires tearing through containment lines at “extraordinary speeds”, and of landscapes burnt three times within a decade.

Despite this growing threat, we persist in living in the bush — and for good reason. When conditions aren’t hot and windy, which is nearly all the time, it’s a damn good life.

Just as it’s good living near a river so long as it’s not raining too hard. A storm that hit Bundaberg last month dropped so much water that people who thought they’d seen everything were astonished to find their homes gone, washed away. Water, they discovered, can be as devastating as fire.

By now, the impact of fire and flood should be triggering some serious twinges in the hip-pocket nerves of ordinary Australians.

Aussie legend has it that our big dream from the day we’re betrothed is to own a home. We can put the pain of ever-rising rents behind us and fulfil our dream (as the banks would have it) when we get the nod for a mortgage. Or more realistically, when we’ve paid it off.

But the bottomless mortgage hole that swallows our hard-earned squillions isn’t the whole story. With what we now know about the hazards of future climate change, every mortgage agreement ought to spell out the full cost of home ownership, beyond paying off the mortgage.

Owning a home is a bit like a marriage — a lifelong investment in an asset that if you choose unwisely at the outset can become a liability. Some home owners in communities once considered safe from flooding are now being charged upwards of $10,000 annually just to insure their “asset”.

An owner must stay and pick up the pieces after flood or fire. A renter can move on, like the nomads that once wandered over this land. Aborigines lacked our medical care, longevity and home comforts, but they sure had an advantage when waters began to rise or smoke filled the sky.

Glenorchy-based builder Rick Leighton wants to take the worry out of home ownership. He’s found a way to make cheap energy-efficient homes; now he’s putting his mind to fire resistance.

One of his projects nearing completion in South Hobart involves use of magnesium oxide, a Chinese-sourced material that comes in panels like plaster board.

If we want to live among the trees, says Leighton, our homes must be able to cope with bushfires. He believes he’s found the ideal affordable cladding: strong, weatherproof panels, easier to handle and apply than traditional cladding, with A-grade fire resistance.

Building fireproof homes is one element in David Bowman’s list of things we need to have if we are to live in flammable landscapes. Another is to reduce potential wildfire fuel — but only close to homes — using planned burning and grazing animals.

But as Bowman points out, the most important need is to find common ground between a plethora of interests, so that divisive political and public debate isn’t allowed to get the upper hand, and this will require political leadership, bipartisanship and high-quality scientific information.

If that sounds familiar, it’s because I’ve been banging on for years about the crying need for exactly these things if we’re ever to make serious inroads into our carbon emissions, with (I calculate) little to no effect.

Whether we’re talking about climate or wildfires, the bottom line is the same. There are always some good ideas out there, like David Bowman’s and Rick Leighton’s, that deserve our attention. But the big changes have to come from within us.

Nothing will happen while we continue to skate across the surface, sliding from one manufactured crisis to another. Our problems will continue to mount until we can find it in us to give up the high life and acknowledge the suicidal stupidity of endlessly growing economies.

Maybe it’s human nature to ignore the big, tough problems. Maybe I should stop bleating and join the party. I’ll begin by soaking up the Christopher Monckton circus act. More of that next week.

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