Manage on-farm risks during unprecedented fire conditions with Achmea’s Bushfire Risk Mitigation Series by Risk Specialist Mark Vayro. Passionate about minimising risks, Mark is a volunteer firefighter in Queensland and shares his risk mitigation strategies to help you protect yourself and your farm.
This is one of the most dangerous bushfire seasons we have ever seen in New South Wales (NSW) and Queensland. NSW has now been declared a state of emergency, the second since the start of the fire season. During these unprecedented fire conditions, fires can quickly get out of control – even the most seasoned farmer can be caught out.
As a third-generation farmer with more than 25 years of experience in bushfire fighting and management, Mark Vayro knows first-hand how important it is to reduce bushfire risks and update bushfire plans. Mark said this fire season has been extreme and unprecedented in areas, including the regions he covers as an Achmea Specialist of the Lockyer Valley, Darling Downs, Granite Belt and Border Rivers.
He said the prolonged drought had compounded the fire risk. However, there are strategies farmers could implement to manage on-farm risks during unprecedented fire conditions
“Risk mitigation is at the heart of our approach here at Achmea, which was established more than two centuries ago by a group of Dutch farmers,” Mark said.
“Those farmers worked together to minimise risk faced by each other’s farms, not just their own.
“As an Achmea Risk Specialist and farm owner, I’m proud to continue this strong ethos of cooperative community support and risk reduction.”
In Australia, Achmea is completely dedicated to farm insurance. Committed to protecting and enhancing agricultural communities, Achmea Risk Specialists proudly visit every farmer they partner with so they can help protect their livelihoods.
Manage on-farm risks during unprecedented fire conditions with these five important strategies.
As soon as the fire danger becomes heightened, Mark goes through these five important strategies to help him manage his on-farm risks during unprecedented fire conditions.
Make sure you have your protective personal clothing and stay hydrated in the heat.
Move livestock to a safer zone.
Have firebreaks or asset protection zones around the house, sheds and other buildings, ensuring they are clean and clear. The bigger the better.
Check and test all equipment, including water pumps, generators, tractors and earth moving equipment to ensure they are all clean and clear of debris, with working fire extinguishers on board.
5. Change work activities
Avoid certain tasks in order to minimise the risk of starting a fire on your own property. No hot works like welding and grinding, slashing and reduce vehicle movements.“Fire can happen at any time, anywhere, so preparation is the key to minimising the risk of a bushfire on your property,” Mark said.
“As Australia’s specialist farm insurer we insure for the unexpected. We encourage all farmers to review and update their bushfire plans as well as their insurance.”
Protecting yourself during unprecedented fire conditions
Personal protective clothing is critical to providing basic defence from heat, smoke and flames. Mark said Queensland Fire and Emergency Services recommended a long sleeve shirt and long pants with the highest natural fibre content, boots (not joggers), preferably leather gloves, a hat, safety glasses or goggles, smoke mask and access to drinking water.
“Bushfires are dangerous, deadly in fact, and you and your employees, are the most important assets on farm,” Mark said.
“You cannot look after life, property or environment without looking after yourself. Adequate physical and mental preparation is critical to effectively managing on-farm risks during unprecedented fire conditions. And reducing risks is key to building resilience and protecting your business continuity.”
As at 11 December, the Rural Fire Service has confirmed more than 720 homes have been destroyed by bushfires so far in NSW this season, in which six lives have already been lost. According to Mark, there are five key steps in preparing your home to help protect it from fire and reduce the risk of devastation.
“Preparation is key to managing on-farm risks during unprecedented fire conditions. “Do not leave it too late,” he said.
“A lot of your blood, sweat and tears you have put into your farming operation to get to this stage.
“With a heightened risk of bushfires, it’s important to consider the impact of uninsured buildings, such as houses, sheds, machinery fencing and livestock on your business.”
1. House structure
• Evaporative coolers and whirly birds installed on the roof. Ensure installation of an ember guard which meets Australian Safety Standards.
• Roofing – ensure metal sheets are secured, repair or replace any damaged roof tiles.
• Gutters – block down pipes with gutter blocks and fill your gutters with water.
• Eaves and wall vents – cover all vents under the eaves and in the brick/timber work with fine wire mesh.
• LPG cylinders – ensure all are vented away from the house, smaller barbecue cylinders are stored away and not inside your dwelling.
• Doors and windows – if possible, install fine metal mesh on screens and doors, seal all window and door gaps with wet towels.
• High set houses – ensure there are no stockpiles of flammable material stacked underneath the dwelling.
2. Vegetation and flammable items
• Keep lawns mowed short.
• Shrubs/trees – cut back or remove if necessary, any trees and shrubs especially flora, that is hanging, or near your structures.
• Clean up leaves, twigs or debris around the property.
• Entertainment furniture – remove all outdoor furniture including door mats and store inside.
• Gardens and garden pots – place all garden pots well away from structures and remove garden mulch in flower beds.
• Ensure there is a prominent, easy to read rural number, property name or lot number in case it is required in an emergency.
• Ensure adequate access to the property for fire trucks, for example, four metre-wide and 4m height access tracks with large turn around areas.
• Water – ensure access to an adequate supply of water.
• Power back-up – generators should be available and able to sufficiently run pressure pumps.
• Portable pumps – ensure that they are tested and primed, ready for action.
• Hoses – check for adequate hoses and have the capacity to reach around the dwelling.
• Fill up all containers, sinks, baths, buckets and wheelie bins with water. Have static water supplies strategically located around the home.
• Strategically place a ladder inside the home for fast access to the roof space with an operational fire extinguisher ready.
• Mentally and physically prepare to fight and defend your home.
• Wear protective personal clothing, as outlined above.
• Ensure a well-stocked first aid kit is on-hand.
Fire breaks are important to help reduce the risks of extreme and unprecedented fire conditions
Fire can spread extremely fast, impacting on people, property and environment that gets in the way. There have been significant home, stock and infrastructure losses during the 2019 fire season so far and Mark said with conditions predicted to worsen, fire breaks were an important measure that farmers could take to help protect assets. “Fire breaks, or asset protection zones, provide a buffer zone between the bushfire and an asset, which could be anything from a building to grass” Mark said.“They also provide an area of bushfire fuel that allows the suppression of fire and it is much easier to fight a fire with flames at ankle or shin-height than knee-height or above.”
Mark said firebreaks also provided a boundary for back burning to be completed, as well as safe access for fire services or farmers to defend and fight the fire.
“As a farmer, I cannot control what happens on the neighbour’s side or on Crown land, but I can put a risk mitigation strategy in place on my own property,” Mark said.
“For any grazier and fodder producer like myself, trying to protect what they have left is very important for cash flow and business continuity.”
On his own fodder and cell grazing property, Mark’s farm is split in the middle using a lane way system, which has a large holding paddock in the centre. This allows for ease in traffic/farming management, as well as stock movement.
The other benefit is that the system acts as a firebreak, minimising the risk of a total pasture loss on a heightened fire danger day.
“Most grazing operations have small to medium holding paddocks and these paddocks are generally heavy grazed and have access to water,” Mark said.
“These paddocks will not be immune to fire, however if they are grazed correctly will allow cattle to move through the sections of fire or seek refuge in those areas.
“On the days listed as severe and above on the Fire Danger Rating, I move my cattle to this location.
“So think about your property and your operation and remember, you don’t have to be an expert on this, don’t be afraid to talk to your local fire brigade and seek their important input in what is the best way to handle a bushfire and management of your livestock on your property.”
Manage on-farm risks during unprecedented fire conditions: familiarise yourself with the bushfire ratings
Australia has a nation-wide fire warning system, which is generally displayed on a sign displayed roadside, near a fire station and often mentioned in the media. According to Mark, while many people are familiar with the system at face-value, it is not widely understood what each category (outlined below) means and the impact it could have.
“Bushfire ratings are an early indicator and it is your first trigger point for action, giving you a warning of the consequences of a fire on any given day,” Mark said.
“The higher the fire danger, the more dangerous the conditions will be. It is a great prompt for you, your employees and your family to take action using your bushfire survival plan.
“Knowledge is power, so take time to understand what each rating means.”
• Low Moderate Fire Danger
Fire starts in low to moderate conditions and can most likely be controlled.
• High Fire Danger
Fires can be controlled and at this level, embers will be produced creating spot fires close to the fire front.
• Very High Fire Danger
Fires in this category may be difficult to control with flames potentially reaching treetops. A well-prepared home will still offer safety, but other spot fires may start from ember attacks up to 2km away.
• Severe Danger Rating
If a fire starts and takes hold, it will move quickly and be hard for fire fighters to bring under control. Expect hot, dry and possible windy conditions. Flames will be higher than rooftops and there is a good chance that structures will be destroyed. Spot fires can occur up to 4km ahead of the main fire.
• Extreme Danger Rating
A fire in this category will be uncontrollable, unpredictable and fast moving. Expect extremely hot, dry and windy conditions. Flames will be higher than roof tops, with ember attacks being very strong, creating fires up to 6km in front of the main inferno. Homes and sheds may provide safety, provided they are constructed or modified to withstand a bushfire, are well-prepared and actively defended. Fire Services recommend leaving early for the best chance of survival.
Classified as a code red day, this is the highest rating possible and signifies the absolute worst possible conditions for a bushfire. Many homes, sheds and businesses will be lost as they are not designed or constructed to withstand fires in these conditions. It is possible that lives may be lost. Ember attack is at its highest, with spot fires potentially occurring up to 20km away from the main fire front.
Leaving the bushfire zone as early as possible is the safest option, do not wait and see.
“Once you know what the potential fire behaviour will be, you can implement your bushfire survival plan, which should be suited to each category, regardless of a fire or not,” Mark said.
“Staying safe, reducing the potential bushfire threat through knowledge and understanding of the fire danger rating is key to managing on-farm risks during unprecedented fire conditions.”