Design For Catastrophe – FIRE

Dragon of climate change

Building Your Resilient Paradise

We have unprecedented fires raging across Australia. So, we are pioneering new methods of disaster preparation and re-discovering the wisdom of the elders.

Our first priority is to redesign communities and their gardens for safer shelter for all living creatures. Secondly, design to retard embers, absorb the radiation and protect water supplies. Thirdly, find ways to quickly restore food, water and habitat. Ultimately, we create a better design.

If you are planning to build a new home, stop everything now. Above all, design it to be disaster-proof. Set it well into the landscape, have a safe bunker and angle the roofline so embers can fly over and not get trapped.

Re-design your garden to withstand drought, repel heat and store water. Naturally hydrated soils are more resilient to disasters such as drought, flood and fire.

Shock often stuns us into inaction. Design a better future.
You can change your impact starting from today.

Preparation Helps Us Stay Sane

When we design for the worst, we actually reduce anxiety and get to live in a state of pleasant surprise.

Reduce anxiety by planning for the worst outcome. A design for harsh times doesn't mean we must be constantly negative about the future.
Reduce anxiety by design

Deeper Understanding = Better Preparation

Past catastrophes have taught us some methods of preparedness, but not everything. Last year was the hottest year on record for many countries. We are playing by new rules. This is not the new normal, this is a rude start to a big climate shift.

bureau-of-meteorology-chart-shows-how-temperatures-soared this prompts us to design for a cooler future
https://www.abc.net.au/news/2020-01-14/bureau-of-meteorology-chart-shows-how-temperatures-soared/11857404

Recent wildfires have set new design rules. These wildfires didn’t come from one direction like a wave of flames. They behaved more like storm clouds: tilting trees, turning them into flame throwers hotter than 1200k. Moreover, fire tornadoes known as Pyrocumulonimbus, shot live embers more than 30km ahead.

Combination of Threats

The Four threats during a fire emergency: Flames, Smoke, Heat and Noise

Ember attack, strong winds, thick smoke, severe heat and deafening noise combine to limit responses during a catastrophic wildfire. Burning roads and fallen trees trap people as they try to leave. In past years, some people have saved their homes by staying to put out the embers after the fire has passed. The intensity of recent fires has shown this to be dangerous unless you have a fire-proof bunker that meets the standard. In addition to the bunker you need enough oxygen, water, masks, food and the nerve to stay.

In fact, you will need food and water for days. The power will be down and you will probably have wildlife to tend and feed on your limited supplies. Best of all, be ready to share your limited resources with that neighbour who rarely talked to you.

Prepare to share your bunker with all your neighbours, pets and rescued wildlife
Get ready to share your safety plans

“Sergeant Shenton described driving through “8 kilometres of inferno” as he tried to make his way out on local roads “with 30 metres of flames on both sides of me. It was just a very poor decision to stay and I would never stay again.”

Prevention is always better than cure. Design a safer future.

Pebbles, a family cat in Buchan Victoria, sheltered in the outdoor pizza oven. His whiskers burnt, but he survived.

The combination of threats are met with targeted actions ranging from containment (in soil-wicking) through to shielding (inflammable thermal mass) and filters (for noise and ash)
Prepare. Alleviate. Recover. Targeted actions ranging from containment (in soil-wicking) through to shielding (inflammable thermal mass) and filters (for noise and ash)

Prepare Then Go

The traditional firebreak is not enough. At a minimum, we need to seal the building completely so no embers can get in. Firstly, the weakest points of a building are the roof and cavities underneath, especially under a wooden verandah. Secondly, shield the house from the intense radiation of the fire using either dense materials (big standing stones), rock walls or reflective shields (foil).

Model of Adobe and Pitt Homes in Mesa Verde
Model of ancient Adobe Homes – well insulated, fire resistant and made with earth. [Mesa Verde National Park]

Fireproof materials include simple materials such as earth. Fire proof homes fit the landscape to hide from the fire.

"The Fire Torment" by A Sampson-Kelly
Termites know how to build for cooling and fire-protection

Putting this knowledge together, we see a recurring theme: design with knowledge of the landscape.

Design Link

There is design link between passive housing, earthship technology and permaculture design practice. Passive housing insulates the home completely. Earthships connect with the dependable underground earth temperature.

Smart design looks different. It is possible to have a safe home. Fire safe homes fit the landscape, and positioned for good natural insulation and winter warmth.

Earthships are earth coupled, insulated and built with recycled materials. Author looking out of an Earthship in Taos New Mexico
Naturally warmed and cooled Earthship in Taos New Mexico

Re-Design or Retrofit Your Shelter

Design for bushfire resistant, earth sheltered house at Narwee
A bushfire resistant, earth sheltered house at Narwee, created by Baldwin O’Bryan Architects, which won the Bushfire Building Council 2015 Innovation Design award.

There are excellent designs by architects to reduce or deflect threats . These designs create homes with a smaller impact on the environment, and lower costs to build and use. Above all, they are durable and resilient.

Re-design Your Habitat

Forest Mitigates Climate

Forests mitigate climate. In fact, street trees help cool the hottest city in the world.

But during extreme fire threats, many people think if we remove the forests, we remove the threat. The common reaction is to increase back-burning, pull out shrubs and clear land with machinery.

But the truth is, the forest is one of the most important tools we have to fight heat, hold water in the landscape and fight climate change. Getting rid of the garden is not going to help keep the temperature down or maintain moisture. People who had only grass around their homes had it burst into flames. A home surrounded only by rock may be more fire-proof but it will also be extremely hot, devoid of wildlife. Jane Goodall warns about the dangers of humanity being divorced from nature.

Australian aboriginal people have specialised fire management techniques called cool burning where the fire extinguishes itself, and the grasses and trees are not structurally damaged. Not all the area is burned at once, it is burnt in small strips at a time. Even insects can escape the burn.

What Plant is Truly Fire-Retardant?

For years people have talked of ‘fire-retardant’ plants. But, anything that was once alive, will burn in extreme temperatures. As the fire intensity rises we need to re-design food gardens, add radiant heat blocks (these can be mud-brick or cobb walls). We also need more areas for wetlands. Surprisingly, wetlands and boggy soils sequester greater amounts of carbon than forests.

Design to quell embers. Living much can also be edible. Sweet potato has edible tubers and the fleshy leaves are edible.
Sweet potato has fleshy leaves that are edible

We have to question everything and, due to the urgency, we need to collaborate. Whilst we know “Plants with high moisture or salt content and/or low oil content will burn more slowly“, we must now devote funds and time to plant research.

Can succulents and living ground covers help extinguish embers? Lets explore further how deciduous trees with low oil content absorb radiant heat at these unprecedented temperatures.

Consult with your community to prepare and respond to a warming future.
Community Consultation

Involve Your Community

Members of your community doesn’t have to understand the likeliness of a catastrophe for you to help to prepare for them. Consultation builds better preparation. Help your community to find ways to prepare that are simple and effective. For some people, this means trailing ideas, for others it means facilitating conversation. For researchers, it means building the body of knowledge for survival.

Coordinate a working group to help prepare homes helps the elderly and less-abled. Prepare to act when others are busy elsewhere. Some preparatory works, when booked by a neighbourhood, cost less than for individual home call-outs. Furthermore, community consultation enables us to develop strategies for local adaptation

every successful individual knows...achievement depends on a community

During a disaster, a resilient community is able to:

  • reduce the negative effects of hazards on people, ecosystems and property
  • Establish coping mechanisms in stages (safe zones, evacuation centers, temporary accommodation and long term recovery support

After a disaster, a resilient community is able to:

  • recover from the hazard with minimal disturbance to the health (including mental health) of the people and animals
  • rebuild a functioning community system, including power, water, food, fuel, health and education provisions
  • develop from experience
  • design with experts and in consultation with community

Design builds security for a community and the natural world that supports them.

Paul and Padma at International Permaculture Conference in London
Collaboration is vital for survival

Tiny Joys

Little goes a long way

One tiny change can be a fun way to reduce waste, provide food, and connect with nature. Small solutions may appear to be whimsical yet they are inherently robust when well-designed. These tiny designs have the capacity to give you the tools, skills and understanding to make a lasting change. Starting small and feeling successful is a critical step in building resilience.

Observe and Interact

One of the core principles of permaculture is to turn the ‘problem into the solution’. For us there are some persistent little challenges. One of the greatest challenges is the bird-life. We love being close to nature but we also want to grow some food for ourselves.  Generations of wild-life enjoy easy pickings from our permaculture garden.  With good design tools we out-smart them. We get to benefit from their manure and let them eat the foods that grow outside the cages.

Whimsical World of Waste-Not

Boundaries and constraints often give rise to creativity.  For years, we have used re-purposed bird-cages to protect delicate plants.  In the intensive-care corner of the garden we often made wicking pots to nurture young rare plants.

In a whimsical moment recently we wondered: what it look like if we bundled these powerful features?

So, we made some wicking beds inside the bird-cage.  The tray is the water reservoir, the base holds our bio-char and compost which we mounded in the middle to increase surface area. (In a miniature way that Emile Hazelip used mounds to great effect.) Small gardens can be highly intensive. If you find a weed you have simply found a wasted space.

The cage acts two ways: as a support for young shoots and protection from wildlife . You can even use it as support for a cover if you wish to convert the whole thing into a tiny greenhouse. This concept of multiple-uses is another principle of permaculture.

Everlasting foods

New plants, like ginger, grow from selected green buds on fresh pieces at the grocery store. Set them to sprout in a warm place like a bathroom or kitchen window. The effort we spend in observing and caring for their development is well rewarded. We see the true value of the foods that we love.

Sprouts and Micro-greens are small but powerful

High levels of nutrition in a small space with little effort comes from sprouts and micro-greens. Within days, you have fresh food ready to eat raw or cooked. This food can be grown inside, even during winter. As long as they do not get too cold over night and are rinsed in luke-warm water each day, they supply nutritious fresh food.

Balconies all around the world connect people with the outside world. Imagine if these balconies grew some of their favourite foods, gave them more privacy and a mini sanctuary. What joy they would find in their tiny food forest.

If you want to learn more about Balcony design, tiny bird-house gardens, bio-char, wicking or Permaculture living you can join a workshop, sign up as a hybrid student (online and on-site) or enrol with us online. Drop us a line.