Tips on bushfire preparedness

There’s a new post at the Helidon Hills Smokespotters website summarising some tips coming out of newly published research from some major wildfires in the western United States and from Ignite Change, a relatively new Australian blog on bushfire awareness.

If you are living in Australia with any kind of bushfire threat, this would be a really good time to start updating and upgrading your bushfire protection, and the links above might just give you some ideas that will increase your property’s survivability.

Other relevant posts:

Fire Danger & Weather Conditions:      My other blog is the website for the Helidon Hills Smokespotters, an informal community group with members located at over 20 locations around the Helidon Hills in the Lockyer Valley.  You can find out about the Smokespotter group here.  The group’s motto is: when it comes to bushfires, we are all neighbours.  Though the group […]

The Fire Danger and Weather Conditions Tab above

Living with and understanding fire risk     Those of us who live on rural properties face varying degrees of fire risk.  Most of us are aware of the risk in a general sort of way, and many of us take active precautions to reduce the risk to some extent.  Few of us, however, think about how the reasons for living where we […]
An unexpected bushfire      The weather last Friday morning was quite unusual.  In fact I was commenting on it at the time in a blog post I was writing over at the Helidon Hills Smokespotters web site.  The general feel of the morning said “Fire Danger”, even though the actual Forest Fire Danger Rating was only High (we have […]

It must be Spring

DSCF4777 copy_crop_small

Native bee (Tetragonula carbonaria) on a Radish flower. Note the full pollen sacks on its hind legs.  These radishes have taken ages to actually get to the flowering stage (with bulbs now the size of small pumpkins) but with the help of these bees we look like getting plenty of seeds.

I was out in the vege garden early yesterday morning and suddenly realised that I was seeing far more bees than I had for a long time.  It was early enough that the native bees greatly outnumbered the European honeybees.  Our social native bees get up much earlier than the foreigners.  I think it was Tim Heard (“Mr Native Bees” in this part of the world) who first put me onto this at one of his one-day workshops.  Whoever it was told the story of the researcher who was looking into the pollination of the vast Macadamia nut orchards in northern New South Wales and discovered that by the time the European honeybees had got out of their (expensively rented) hives, the Macadamia flowers had already been pollinated by local native bees.

The bees I was watching yesterday were Tetragonula* carbonaria, one of more than 2,000 species of native bees in Australia, and one of only ten social species among the Australian native bees.  We also regularly get Blue-banded Bees (Amegilla cingulata) in our garden (a solitary species), and I’m sure there must be many more that I haven’t noticed yet.

There were a lot of flowers for them to choose from because I’m letting a lot of things go to seed, like Loose-leaf Lettuce, Radish, Amaranth, Ceylon Spinach (can you stop it from going to seed?), and a whole range of Asian Brassicas.


Working hard in the jungle world of a Spring Onion flower (the bee’s colours may be a little off – I was pushing the image to its limits in early morning light and using a hand-held camera)

You can find useful links to information about Australian native bees here.  If you are interested in the reasons for the recent change of the name of the Trigona genus (to which our small native bees used to belong) to Tetragonula there’s an account here, with links to even more information.


Living with and understanding fire risk

Why do we live here?  What are the risks?

Why do we live here, and how does that relate to the key fire risks and our perception of those risks?

Those of us who live on rural properties face varying degrees of fire risk.  Most of us are aware of the risk in a general sort of way, and many of us take active precautions to reduce the risk to some extent.  Few of us, however, think about how the reasons for living where we do and the things we value about our surroundings affect both the degree of fire risk we face and, often, the extent to which we act to mitigate risk.

Continually reviewing the values that lead us to live where we do, and the risks we face (whether from fire, flood, or just failures in our food production activities), is a part of ensuring sustainability and resilience in both our lifestyle / habitation  the communities in which we live.

The connection between bushfires and our landscape and community values is highlighted in the latest Fire Note (Life on the Edge – Living with Risk) from the Bushfire CRC (Cooperative Research Centre).  This Fire Note summarises some outcomes from the Social construct of fuels in the interface project 1 which was conducted by the Bushfire CRC uner one or their activity themes, Understanding Risk.

Part of the research involved working with property owners to understand what they value in their surroundings, how they perceive their fire risks, and whether these are related. It used the technique of “social-ecological place mapping” to assist landowners to understand what it is that they relate to their landscape

The second part of the research applied a model of factors affecting house losses in NSW bushfires (in much milder weather conditions than those leading to Victoria’s Black Saturday losses) to the 65 properties of the residents who did the place mapping, to calculate a relative estimate of their risk of loss to bushfire.

According to the model, the risk of loss increased: with increasing steepness of slope; where houses were closer together (seven metres apart – but this effect was minimal where houses were further (50 metres) apart (and of course this applies to the buildings on your property too); as the distance to the nearest water body (swimming pools, ponds, dams) increased; and when vegetation cover within the garden (within 20 metres of the house) was high.

The mean predicted probability of house loss for the 65 houses was 0.43, indicating a substantial potential risk should a fire occur (there was considerable variation among the levels of risk of the various properties).  Community and lifestyle values identified by the participants were found to be possible key factors influencing the relative risk of house loss.

There’s a lot more in the report than I can summarise in this short blog post, and I encourage you to read it and the associated reports which are linked here under the heading Key Resources You Should Know About.

This is the 129th Fire Note that the Bushfire CRC has produced. They make informative and compelling reading.  They can be downloaded here, from a list of titles with brief summaries of contents.

And on the home front, it’s time to review and update our fire strategies, and to make sure that they are well documented.  I’ll do a separate post on our strategies in a few weeks.

Nicole Foss and a Powerful Owl in the one evening!!

Just two quick bits of news.

First, Nicole Foss was on ABC Radio National’s Big Ideas earlier today.  I missed it but downloaded the mp3 of her talk – and it seems to be pretty close to the presentation she gave on her Australian tour with David Holmgren in July.  I gave my impressions of their Brisbane talks here.  It’s long (54 minutes) but the mp3 file downloads quickly, even on satellite broadband, and it’s definitely worth hearing, so set yourself up with a comfortable chair and a mug/glass of your favourite beverage and get ready to be informed by one of the best speakers I’ve heard.

The other news is that as I was coming in from the office tonight, just before 10.00pm, there was a male Powerful Owl calling from somewhere up behind the workshop.  You can find good recordings of their calls here.  This is the first Powerful Owl I have heard here in about four or five years.  In fact they were regulars during the drought, and seemed to move away once we started getting good rain.  The first sign we had of their presence was early in the drought, when we kept finding the tails of Sugar Gliders on the ground in the bush.  Sugar Gliders seem to be a favourite food of this species and they discard the tail because it isn’t much but bone and fur.  We’ve only seen a Powerful Owl here once, when it was sitting calling on a horizontal branch about 15 metres from where the house is now.  What a sight!!  The first thing that hits you is the size of the bird; these guys are really tall.  Then you see the feet, which look rather similar in their size and proportions to a man’s hand.  Let’s hope this one stays around.  I’ll be listening for it, and for a female call to signify that it has found a mate.

The resident Southern Boobooks (Mopokes) in a stand of Budgeroos just down in the gully kept calling while the Powerful Owl was calling – I’d have expected they might have been a bit intimidated by the sheer volume of the Powerful Owl’s call.

Lockyer Valley cited as an example of sustainable and resilient action in the face of climate change

There’s an article in The Conversation today on Fire and flood: how home insurance can help us adapt to climate change that refers to the fact that after a natural disaster home insurance allows a home to be replaced on-site on a “like-for-like” basis, and life carries on as usual.  And it’s that “life as usual” aspect of it that is the problem.  The site has the same disaster risk as before and, to the extent that local planning laws allow, the new house has the same risk profile as before.  And house insurance premiums keep climbing because of the risk profile of so much of the housing stock in the face of increasingly extreme weather conditions arising from climate change.

The article suggests that the solution may lie in action taken through the

“… critical relationships that bring together the different players involved in insurance, housing provision, climate adaptation and disaster management.

They will be required to work together with various stakeholders in bravely and innovatively deciding how and where we redesign and build more resilient Australian communities. The plan to relocate homes in the ravaged township of Grantham in the Lockyer Valley is an Australian first and exemplary of how such initiatives might work through land-swaps.

There will be an uncomfortable period of transition; communities in urban areas have an inertia to them that means change is slow. Even as new safe havens pop up, they will not be available to everyone immediately. Weathering our climate change future will require a response that involves all Australians.”

I completely agree, having long thought that we need to use natural disasters as a catalyst for a process that recognises past errors in planning and design and moves, in stages if necessary, to a more sustainable and resilient situation.

Go to

to read the full article by Stewart Williams, University of Tasmania

March wildlife

Pretty quiet month for birds, not necessarily because there weren’t many birds about – just that there wasn’t much time devoted to watching and/or identifying birds.  Seventeen species listed, out of 58 species that we’ve seen in the ten years we have records for March.

We did see two bird species that we hadn’t seen here in March: Golden Whistler and Spotted Quail-thrush.

The Spotted Quail-thrush is a species that we don’t see very often. They are quite shy, spend most of their time on the ground with a preference (here at least) for relatively sparse groundcover in rocky areas, and are likely to walk away quietly when disturbed.

Spotted Quail-thrush. [Copyright Kevin1234 - Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike]

Spotted Quail-thrush. [Copyright Kevin1234 – Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike]

The one I saw in March flew in straight and low and landed on a heap of Acacia logs just in front of me, with an alert, almost “Road Runner” look, before flying off almost immediately

The Golden Whistler sighting extends our records of this species by one month – previously April to August, now March to August.

Of the 15 other bird species seen, 12 have been seen here in every month of the year, including the Yellow-tailed Black Cockatoos which were very active throughout the month.

Welcome frog sightings were the Graceful Tree-frog (Litoria gracilenta) – under the light outside the front door, instead of its usual very elegant pose along a slender branch with its legs tucked up under its body –  and the Green-thighed Frog (Litoria brevipalmata).

One of our favourite reptiles was common in March. Burton’s Snake-lizard (Lialis burtoni) seemed to be everywhere.  This is how they are often seen:

Lialis burtoni_DSCF4178_webThey often seem to be hoping that their somewhat cryptic colouration will keep them from being seen – though in fact I think they are often sitting in wait for some prey to come along and just choose to ignore the temporary human disturbance.  In fact we had one in March that kept up an “ambush” pose on the ground under the bottom rung of a ladder while we were up and down replacing hot water system tubes for half an hour or more.  Another was seen sunning itself on a railway sleeper on the edge of a garden bed, within less than two metres of us watching from the window, and within two metres of a Red-necked Wallaby and her joey grazing on the garden bed.

Burton’s Snake-lizards are an amazingly adapted lizard.  Their main (only?) prey is other lizards, and they have modified their body shape to be able to get into crevices where skinks and geckoes like to hide.  Their jaws are elongated, to be able to grab and squeeze their prey, and the top jaw hinges where it joins the skull.  I think this is so that they can extend their gape to get an even pressure between the two jaws.

Lialis_burtonii_DSCF0687_proc1_crop2This one was lurking in the grass and I nearly stepped on it.  Just as I saw it, it darted forward to grab this skink.  It’s first grip was across the back, but it quickly flipped the skink up in the air and caught it across the chest, holding it tightly until it suffocated.  You can see the line of the upper-jaw hinge just behind its eye.  Once the skink had ceased struggling the Snake-lizard moved so as to get the skink’s head into its mouth.

Lialis_burtonii_DSCF0693_webWithin five minutes there was only the skink’s tail protruding from the its mouth, and five minutes later it went off, no doubt to find somewhere safe to rest and digest its meal.

Now let’s see what April brings by way of wildlife.

Autumn fungi

March was an amazing month for fungi.  The much higher than usual rainfall combined with the unseasonal high temperatures seemed to be perfect for mushrooms.

The Red-staining Polypore – not a particularly romantic name, but referring to the multiple pores on the underside of the cap that turn red when bruised (see photo below) – was one that was much more common than usual.  Its scientific name is Amauroderma rude.

Here’s what the top of the cap of a fairly fresh specimen looks like.

Amauroderma rude_DSCF3603_Evernoteand the underside, “bruised” when I squeezed it a bit while picking it up

Amauroderma rude_DSCF3606_smallThis species grows on a woody stem that starts out looking like an old brown stick standing vertically in the ground, then gets a bit of “white fungus” on the top end, before gradually morphing into a more or less classic mushroom shape.  Here’s a time sequence – three shots, three days apart.

Amauroderma rude SEQUENCELater the cap becomes a dark “tobacco” brown, going through a stage where it has a narrow white margin which is lost on many specimens.  The mature cap, like the stem, is hard and woody.

I’ll post some more shots of our autumn fungi as I find time to process the photos.