Rebuilding with resilience by industry and community in bushfire-prone areas

The recent fire season caused extensive damage and loss to Australia’s plantation and natural forest resources, and destroyed many properties. In response, Forest and Wood Products Australia (FWPA) has been working to extract key practical learnings and develop educational materials to help better prepare industry stakeholders and the community for future bushfire events. As such, we are undertaking a number of initiatives that aim to help ensure resilient homes are built — and rebuilt — in bushfire-prone areas.

Following the recent fires, FWPA Managing Director, Ric Sinclair said the organisation’s focus during the rebuilding phase will be on helping to ensure resilient homes become the norm in bushfire-prone areas.

“In line with the organisation’s mission, this involves supporting and encouraging collaboration across the value chain, improving availability of information, and educating on timber usage in construction,” Ric said.

Industry guidelines and research

As a priority, FWPA has worked to assist growers in minimising the amount of damaged timber that goes to waste. In addition to efforts to boost the recovery capabilities of future crops, one significant piece of work undertaken is the development of a set of guidelines for the salvage, storage and processing of fire-damaged logs.

The project commenced in January, with FWPA engaging the University of South Australia to develop the guidelines. It has been led by a team comprising Chris Lafferty (FWPA), Mike Sutton (Forestry Corporation of NSW), Braden Jenkin (University of South Australia), Gavin Matthew (Australian Forest Products Association) and Jim O’Hehir (University of South Australia) as chair and convenor.

In addition to this team, a Technical Expert Working Group was established to review all relevant literature and reports from major fires in the past, with a focus on plantations. This diverse group comprised around 25 members from all states, including representatives from softwood and hardwood plantations, as well as native forest managers. In the development of the guidelines, all aspects of forestry operations were considered, including products from across the supply chain.

A collection of references, based on the best available evidence, has also been compiled to support the guidelines. These resources are expected to be made available to industry this month (March).

Some of the key findings from the consultation and literature review include:

  • As fire impact scale increases, there is a need for greater coordination between growers and processors, underpinned by cooperation. Given the increased likelihood of large fires in the future, consideration should be given to whether fire contingency plans are to be outlined in contracts, so all parties know where they stand should a fire event occur;
  • Planning and implementation of fire salvage practices is not as time sensitive as previously believed. There is a larger window of opportunity to effectively triage this task based on factors including fire impact, pre-fire conditions and the market;
  • Log moisture content variation has the main impact on log utility. Variations might result in the over-drying of some boards, while in pulping, dryer chips may float or take up increased pulp liquors;
  • The problematic extra carbon associated with timber in a fire event can be managed by measures including quarantine, judicious de-barking, changing log specifications to increase debarking efficacy and reduce stowaway carbon, and identifying new markets that are more tolerant of carbon;
  • Blue stain fungi thrive on fire-killed timber, however, identifying impacted logs and the speed of the impact can be challenging. While blue stain is merely cosmetic from a strength perspective, it can impact on the treatment of boards, pulping and paper brightness; and
  • The application of machine grading will help identify any boards adversely impacted by fire and their subsequent treatment, to help consumers have confidence in their quality. The pulp and paper process, however, is less forgiving in that carbon impurities and/or blue stained fibres cannot be detected and removed, and can cause whole runs of a paper product to be rejected.

“The collaborative contribution of time and expertise by the Technical Expert Working Group members is greatly appreciated. We believe this is the first time a project on this topic has been undertaken with such a high level of national cooperation,” said Jim O’Hehir.

In the interests of knowledge conservation, FWPA has developed a report and database capturing historical information on larger-scale Australian plantation fire losses. The aim is to build a knowledge base that will assist with risk management strategic planning in the future.

Geddes Management was engaged to gather the data from Australia’s forest growers, who provided information on plantation fire losses for events whereby 100 ha or more was burnt. The information dates as far back as the early 1920s.

To access the report, click here.

Community bushfire workshops

Meanwhile, FWPA’s WoodSolutions program hosted half-day community workshops on Resilience, Recovery and Rebuilding in the bushfire affected areas of Bairnsdale, Tumbarumba and Bega in early March. These sessions included presentations by the RFS and CFA on preparing for and handling fire situations, with reference to property, pets and livestock. The line-up also featured architects with experience in designing to Bushfire Attack Level (BAL) requirements with timber, plus psychologists who presented on managing mental health following a bushfire event.

The workshops were hosted by TV personality, author, cook and craftsperson Tonia Todman, who recently lost her Kyneton home and home-based business to fire. Tonia shared her experiences and discussed what she has learned as a result.

“As representatives of our industry, we believe it is important to help assist communities affected by bushfires,” said Eileen Newbury, FWPA National Marketing and Communications Manager.

“The long-term sustainable rebuilding of appropriate infrastructure and housing to enable the community to become fully functional as quickly as possible is vital.

“Lowering future disaster risk by rebuilding to the bushfire standard and providing information and resources to do this will benefit rural and regional individuals, families and communities,” Eileen said.

The workshops were incredibly well received attendees. FWPA provided valuable information, including the WoodSolutions Design Guide, Building with Timber in Bushfire-prone Areas, updated in accordance with the recently released bushfire standard AS 3959-2018 Construction of buildings in bushfire-prone areas. This comprehensive publication provides clear, concise explanations of each BAL, and where and how timber may be used at each level.

Attendees were also advised of the online WoodSolutions BAL calculator, with which, by answering a list of questions, users can discover the BAL that applies to their site, and what measures can be taken to reduce it.

FWPA would like to acknowledge the devastation caused by bushfires in so many parts of Australia. On behalf of everyone at the organisation, we are deeply saddened by the loss of lives and homes. We are looking to help members and other stakeholders wherever we can.

Please do not hesitate to reach out to FWPA directly if we can provide assistance, or if you have suggestions for how else we can support you.