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CSIRO building handbook provides measures to protect homes from bushfires

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QUENTIN DEMPSTER: One hundred and fifty houses were destroyed in the Sydney bushfires and now their devastated owners need all the help they can get to rebuild them safely. The CSIRO has put together an illustrated handbook and a building code for this very purpose. But the New South Wales Government has rejected these as unsatisfactory. Why? And where else can people go for help and advice? Justin Murphy reports.

JUSTIN MURPHY: To invade the shattered lives of bushfire victims with TV cameras, yet again, seems cruel and unnecessary. But today, there is a reason. Many thousands of families, in every State of Australia, live in bushfire-prone areas. They need to know how best to build and proof their homes against fires and research has shown there's a lot you can do. And Sydney's victims need to know how best to rebuild.

After a decade of research, the CSIRO and Standards Australia have produced a building code and a detailed handbook. But most State governments have not adopted the measures and New South Wales has actually rejected them.

GARRY WEST: I wouldn't want to say there's something wrong with the CSIRO's standard. What I want to say is that it is too simplistic in what it's addressing. It addresses only fires where homes may be potentially burnt from burning debris; whereas, clearly, as we all now know, from the intensity of the fires that we've now suffered in New South Wales, it was radiant heat and direct flames that also caused the burning.

CAIRD RAMSAY: I would agree that it is a minimum level of protection and it is only for protection against burning debris. But that's the first step.

JUSTIN MURPHY: Yes, it's only a part of it.

CAIRD RAMSAY: That's right. The handbook is over 80 pages and a large amount of that is on protection against the other modes of attack.

JUSTIN MURPHY: Arguments aside, the CSIRO wants to be practical. Its message is: yes, there will often be flame contact and intense radiated heat, but in every bushfire, there will always be attack by embers and flying debris. So, why not start your advice and regulations with that bottom line?

In one of Sydney's most devastated streets, Dr Ramsay illustrates why one house stands where others fall.

What are the good features of this house that have obviously helped it survive?

CAIRD RAMSAY: Well, near the ground, we can see that the underfloor space is, in fact, enclosed with the brick and that stops embers and burning debris getting underneath. We can also see that this balcony up here is made of concrete and, in contrast to the deck below, of course, that is a very good feature for the house.

JUSTIN MURPHY: Right. So, in other words, in this evidence here, the thing that's wrong and dangerous is the timber deck.

CAIRD RAMSAY: The timber deck, the large unprotected windows. And this appears to be a feature of a number of the houses in this particular area that are looking out into the bush.

JUSTIN MURPHY: Because of the view.

CAIRD RAMSAY: That's right.

JUSTIN MURPHY: They've got big picture windows, and when you say 'unprotected', ...

CAIRD RAMSAY: Well, there is some protection.

JUSTIN MURPHY: This flywire?

CAIRD RAMSAY: There is flywire there. However, it is a fibreglass flywire . It's not a metal flywire, as the standard requires, and it's only across the opening sashes.

JUSTIN MURPHY: Okay.

CAIRD RAMSAY: There's no protection for this particular pane here at all.

JUSTIN MURPHY: Many homes in Lincoln Crescent, Jannali, were destroyed. The contents of this one went up, but the house itself survived, even though it wasn't defended by firemen. Trivial details, though, could have consumed it.

CAIRD RAMSAY: Well, presumably this was a coir doormat here, which would be ignited by burning debris and embers, has burnt away a good deal of the deck. If this had been a timber step, for example, that would have provided an avenue into the house.

JUSTIN MURPHY: So, this could have been disastrous as well?

CAIRD RAMSAY: Could have been, yes.

JUSTIN MURPHY: Right. So, a lot of the damage that we're seeing here was because of embers, not radiant heat necessarily, or the so-called fireballs?

CAIRD RAMSAY: Certainly, that's the way it appears. It certainly wasn't due to fireballs.

Well, you can see here that there was a timber infill in this space between the windows, and that has ignited, perhaps from the house next door, and then has been carried up and in through the windows.

JUSTIN MURPHY: So, a one-line summary, then, for this house?

CAIRD RAMSAY: Well, has some poor features, some good features. Mostly good features.

JUSTIN MURPHY: Which is why it's standing.

CAIRD RAMSAY: That's right.

JUSTIN MURPHY: Though the house next door was razed, this one, also in Lincoln Crescent, was saved by firemen. It was very lucky. One feature could have been its downfall.

CAIRD RAMSAY: There was a bush here that ignited - and that could well have been ignited by burning debris - and that fire transferred to the timber and to the plastic sheeting underneath the deck. Now, that, if unchecked, would have gone into the house and could have been responsible for the house burning down.

JUSTIN MURPHY: So I mean, this deck, however, breaks the rules, doesn't it? I mean, this deck is imminently combustible. The house should have gone up, in fact.

CAIRD RAMSAY: Yes, in all probability, the house would have been destroyed, except for that firefighting activity.

JUSTIN MURPHY: Okay. So, this deck does not conform?

CAIRD RAMSAY: Not to our recommendations.

JUSTIN MURPHY: The people of Sydney who face the awful task of rebuilding their ravaged homes, and the people of Australia who live alongside the fire threat, need the very best advice. The CSIRO say they deliver it in a handbook that's both detailed and easy to understand.

CAIRD RAMSAY: It's the most comprehensive and up-to-date manual on the sort of measures that one can take, both in building the house and improving the surroundings of the house.

JUSTIN MURPHY: In New South Wales, the Government say they've got it covered.

GARRY WEST: The local council will be the one who will then consider, having regard to these fires, whether in fact the way in which that house was previously constructed is safe, and whether some other standard needs to be ...

JUSTIN MURPHY: So it's up to the council?

GARRY WEST: It's up to the council.

JUSTIN MURPHY: But what's guiding them?

GARRY WEST: Well, what is guiding them is, in fact, that planning manual by the bushfire services.

JUSTIN MURPHY: Our advice: the books are free, so get them both.

QUENTIN DEMPSTER: And the CSIRO handbook is available from the CSIRO on (02) 888 8888.