While this year’s bushfire season has already been harrowing in its effects, it’s horrifying to think that we’re only at the beginning. With a brutal bushfire season predicted for the weeks and months ahead, we caught up with landscape designer Matt Leacy, of Landart Landscapes, who shares his top tips for mitigating fire risk around your home.
“I love the Australian bush, and live near bushland myself, so I would never want to seem alarmist in my approach to fire-prepping. However, the reality is that we’re already experiencing devasting fire conditions in many parts of Australia and signs are pointing to a long, dry summer – so we’ve got to be as proactive as possible when it comes to mitigating fire risks to our homes and outdoor spaces,” says Matt, who is also resident garden guru on Channel Ten’s The Living Room.
“While there’s no way to entirely fire-proof your property, property owners shouldn’t underestimate how much a good garden clean-up, prune and some clever plant choices can potentially make in reducing bushfire risks to your home,” says Matt.
1. Tidy up and trim back
“As much as it may seem an obvious and tedious task, one of the best things you can do is to thoroughly prune and tidy up around your gardens and property,” says Matt.
This includes cleaning gutters (especially if your house is surrounded by large trees) and ensuring that all of the old dry leaves from autumn and winter are cleared away from your property. “You should also ensure that dead branches are cut away, and trees and other plants are trimmed right back away from your house,” says Matt.
For some properties, installing fire irrigation on the roof, or some extra hose points, might be worth considering. “If a fire borders your property, it could make a critical difference to be able to wet your house down and put out spot fires from embers from multiple angles,” says Matt.
2. Know what is in your garden
“It’s useful to have at least some knowledge of how flammable the plants and trees on your property are – and if you’re unsure and surrounded by lots of gardens and bushland, it might be worth engaging a professional to help inform you,” says Matt who explains that plants that are known to ignite quickly (and some will even explode) include tea tree, Cyprus, pines, eucalypts and various other natives.
“Obviously, if you have a beautiful, well-established eucalyptus tree – which is also an important wildlife habitat, you aren’t likely going to want to remove it entirely. But if you can prune it back and maintain it – especially the branches that are dying off – as well as control what’s around it, you’ll help to reduce associated fire risks,” says Matt who adds that you must check with your local authority as to how much of the tree you can remove each year.
3. Landscaping choices
“When introducing new varieties into your outdoor spaces, choose plants that are fire retardant – that is, plants that don’t ignite and therefore make areas less flammable,” says Matt.
Plants that have a high moisture content in their leaves, as well as big thick leaves rather than fine hard leaves, will help protect your home from falling embers. Some of these plants include, saltbush, lavender, hydrangea, white cedar, succulents, grey or silver mulga, wattles, lilly pilly, kangaroo paw, palms, Moreton bay figs, Scaevola – fan flower, Cyathea, Dianella, Hymenopsermum – Native frangipani, Myoporum, Senecio, Syzygium viola and various species of flax and pigface.
“Keep in mind that if some of these plants dry out, they may then burn. But vegetables (especially if you have a patch bordered by a pathway or pebbles) are also a great option,” says Matt who suggests choosing plants with smooth bark, rather than rough bark, and checking with your local nursery to check which plants are suitable for your area.
“Also, do your best when designing your garden to plant fire resistant trees and plants in a shield format, particularly if your property is bordered on any side by bushland. Lower shrubs and ground covers are a better choice than big tall trees or hedges,” says Matt who also recommends stones, gravel and pebbles as an alternative to ‘fire fuel’ such as wood chips.
“From a design perspective, if you are starting fresh with a new garden, or can adapt what you already have, I’d suggest planting trees at least 10 metres from you house. Also, include pebbled, paved, tiled or concrete pathways to help create fire breaks,” says Matt. And for anybody whose property backs onto a national park, from a pool to a tennis court or large stretches of lawn, it’s a good idea to put something between the bushland and your home.
You should also avoid clumping too many trees together (a tight canopy can carry fire), and avoid having trees that grow over, or onto, your house.
4. Lawns and water provision
“Lawns can act as a physical barrier, if you’ve been able to keep them green during water restrictions and very dry conditions,” says Matt.
While not possible for everybody, Matt suggests pre-planning for upcoming rainfall and installing water tanks. “When we do eventually get rain, these tanks can be used to maintain a green garden, which can help to ward off the severity of bushfires later down the track,” says Matt.
Sinking a bore, for watering, might be a feasible option too but you must obtain approval and licensing to do so so.“Drip watering systems are also a great, simple and cost-effective way to transport water into your garden in an eco-friendly manner,” says Matt.
5. Help local fauna find refuge
“If you’re in the sad situation of being hit by fires (and hopefully it’s just your garden you need to re-build), or you live in an area with bushland that’s been ravaged by fires, look at how you can help support the animals in the area,” says Matt.
You can support local animals by leaving out buckets of water, or incorporating water features with fresh water, or bird baths into your garden. “If you know what animals are in your region, you might look at establishing plants and garden features that wildlife could seek refuge in and use as a food source,” says Matt who suggests purchasing seed to feed birds and other animals in extreme situations.
“Note that if you’re encouraging wildlife into your garden, you should be more vigilant with cats and other domestic pets that may hunt displaced fauna seeking refuge in your outdoor spaces.”
Photography: Jason Busch