How do you work with a bushfire consultant? And how can they help you understand BAL Ratings and their impact on your property?
A bushfire consultant can be an incredibly useful consultant when building or renovating in a bushfire prone area.
If you’ve learned you have a bushfire overlay on your property, or you’re in a bushfire zone, watch this video to learn how to work with a bushfire consultant, and how your BAL Rating is calculated.
In this interview, I speak with Jeff Dau from Ember Bushfire Consulting.
EMBER Bushfire Consulting is a team of qualified, accredited and experienced fire industry professionals.
Co-Founder, Jeff Dau, has had 28 years of experience as a professional in the fire services industry. For the past 12 years this has been in a range of fire safety fields including fire safety engineering, bushfire protection, building certification and regulation and urban planning.
So let’s dive in.
Amelia Lee + Jeff Dau (Ember Bushfire Consulting)
[Amelia Lee]: Now, if you’ve got this bushfire overlay on your property, so you need to then obviously involve a bushfire consultant. What does that look like?
I’ve had homeowners who have had different experiences based on where they’re located. Sometimes they can get some information from council about what that might mean in terms of the bushfire attack level rating that they can … that they have to build to.
Sometimes they’re in the dark about that, and they’ve got to hire the bushfire consultant and they get frustrated that they’re having to outlay fees for, kind of, what feels like they’re batting at shadows.
How do you advise clients and potential clients through that process and understanding what a BAL rating is and what a BAL rating might mean for their property?
[Jeff Dau]: Yes, certainly. So I guess that’s that’s one part and that’s what I would hope a good bushfire planning practitioner brings to it … is to also guide you through.
So it’s not just to provide the BAL Certificate, it’s also to guide you through this process, because it very much is a holistic process. It’s the construction elements, just one part of it, but to guide you. And also to provide some sort of background as to why this is happening and what the intent is.
So the way that the New South Wales system is set up is that you could do that yourself, and I still think that’s still in play, is that you can still do your self assessments.
Council can obviously help that but because there are technicalities and because there are interpretations, that I guess is the role of the bushfire planning practitioner … is to, one, do the assessment the way that it was meant to be done. And also advise you.
So it’s all about location in terms of …we could be down to metres here… to where you are on your lot, and the most ideal spot. So that’s, that’s the role.
So, sorry if I’m moving around a bit, but the idea is that you get to the bushfire practitioner early in the piece … from the outset. Unfortunately, all too often it’s towards the end, when everything’s locked down and then if it does become very problematic.
So we’re doing an initial assessment to find out what the threat level is to the dwelling, and then we can guide you through there. Maybe recommend a slightly different location, or if it’s very much fixed, then then guide you through those next processes and then talk about design, materials, etc.
[Amelia Lee]: That’s the thing that I see too, Jeff, is that problem of people, particularly in some of those more regional or rural areas, they might find … they might see this overlay on their property and not worry about it too much or they might even not know that it’s there.
They then go through figuring out their design. They get to the point of hiring a builder. And the builder then does some due diligence and finds out that there’s this bushfire overlay.
But the design is already done and drawn, and engineering is all done. And then there’s this kind of whole process of “Oh, hang on, no, we’ve got to actually make this compliant with a BAL rating and with the National Construction Code”. And it’s, it’s a very challenging thing to find out at that point, because there are cost impacts. And there’s legislative impacts, of course, around that rating, isn’t there?
So I’m always encouraging homeowners to find out their Council information very early in their project before they sort of start thinking about how they might be renovating or extending or where they might be building.
Because it can be one of these things that if you do build in a different location on your site, if you’ve got that opportunity to do that, you can actually have some scope then to have a bit of flexibility around that.
Can you talk through perhaps, so that people can understand a bit more about how the BAL rating works.
What kinds of things are you actually assessing when you come to look at a property and determine what the BAL rating might be and how that might change across, if it’s a larger property, how that might be impacted by the various components that you’re looking at that contribute to that assessment?
[Jeff Dau]: Sure. So it’s largely an interpretation of the landscape. And that’s, I think that’s the first thing that we have a look at. We’re looking at the available setbacks that we can get.
So it’s the distance from this area that we’re going to call the unmanaged vegetation. And in between the structure and the unmanaged vegetation is the Asset Protection Zone (APZ), which we’ll probably get onto a little bit later on.
It’s an interpretation of the landscape in terms of the vegetation classification, the slopes that are affecting it. And that can be complex too, because it’s not just dropping away at a nice steady state. It might drop away, it might come back up again, that’s over a set distance.
And again, I think that’s what the value of a bushfire practitioner is about. They have that interpretation. And also the experiences and how that works. So slope, vegetation and available setbacks.
And now we have things like the biodiversity offsets, where we really do have to work very carefully in getting this Asset Protection Zone, the APZ correct. It’s not too big. It’s not too small, because if it’s too small, then obviously the BAL rating goes up.
And then as I mentioned earlier, it’s also say, hey look, this is probably going to be tricky here. Maybe there’s a suggestion or that we can go to a different site. So they’re the elements.
We also obviously have the underlying Fire Danger Index, which is a measure of the intensity of fire. Or if I can use the word, the ‘design fire’ that we’re dealing with. And that’s really important to understand as well.
We’re not talking about … it’s a nice 22 degree day here in Canberra. We’re not talking about a fire on today. We’re talking about what the really upper reaches of it. And the common analogy is that it’s like a flood zone … if it’s a 1 in 100 year flood. Well, this is, you know, in most parts is about a 1 in 50 years fire. And that’s what you’re designing to. That’s the measure. That’s the BAL rating.
[Amelia Lee]: Gotcha. So there’s that Fire Danger Index, the vegetation, the slope.
How does the slope impact the property’s … I suppose … how prone it is to bushfire travelling towards it?
For the uninitiated, what can slope and topography do in terms of the performance of a fire around a property.
[Jeff Dau]: So where the slope will drop away, so we have downslope away from from the asset, from the residence, then we have an increased level of travel. So with every degree (of slope), we get increased rate of spread, and we get an increase in intensity.
So where, for example, and these are just rough numbers, where you might be able to cope with a 15 metre sort of setback on flat ground. As soon as we take that, you know, 10 degrees or 15 degrees or beyond, then we’re going to need a 40 or 50 metre setback.
So the slope actually is a really, really big driver in terms of fire intensity. Where it goes upslopes, then for all intents and purposes, that’s still measured as flat.
So slope is big and that’s what the planning the outcome here is that RFS … and RFS (Rural Fire Sevice) obviously came up with the main document here that we’re referring to … planning for bushfire protection, and AS3959 Construction of Buildings in Bushfire Prone Areas.
We’re trying to get you away from these spots that would, maybe might be on the ridge … on the ridge tops or high views because you’re going to have these steep slopes. They’re unfortunately also the most beautiful spot as well.
So here we are back into balance, you know, but if you select these spots that are steep. They’re on top of hills. They’re surrounded by forest, then the BAL rating is going to be quite high, you know. Or there’s going to have to be a large quantity of vegetation that’s going to have to be managed or
[Amelia Lee]: Gotcha. We’re on the top of a hill. So the view is great, but I’m very conscious of the fact that fire can travel very quickly up hills. And when you’re on top of a hill, there’s usually only a couple of ways out as well.
[Jeff Dau]: Exactly. A number of complicating factors.
[Amelia Lee]: Now, you mentioned the RFS, so that’s the Rural Fire Service. They’re the ones that have actually, you know … these BAL Ratings were something that were coming into play, from what I understand, were coming into play in the mid to late 2000s.
And then the Victorian fires actually accelerated their, I suppose, their introduction into full legislation. So a lot of people may see them as a reaction to the 2009 fires, but from what I understand they were already in train at that time, and it just accelerated their introduction. Is that the case?
[Jeff Dau]: Yes. Very much. And my words to my clients is that every time that we have these significant events, they do learn from these and then they feed into planning and regulations and standards. What works, what doesn’t work. Certainly the previous standard, so there was the 2009 standard, which is only just now been updated to 2018. It’s been around for at least 20, possibly 30 years.
And we’ve known for quite some time what you can do to a residence, to a structure, to make it more resilient. And they’re slowly getting better and better. And again, no doubt from the fire, the fire season that we’ve just had, we’ll see further improvements. Although it’s pretty solid now, it’s quite good.
So that’s the national standard that would apply in all jurisdictions. And then within the jurisdictions, New South Wales, they’ll have their own planning document.
Again, I think obviously today’s conversation is about design, construction of residences. But there’s a holistic approach to this.
We need to consider access. We need to consider water supplies. We need to consider landscaping. Emergency plans. It’s this suite of bushfire protection measures, that as a whole work for life safety and for property protection.
It’s not just not just you know, the BAL rating, also the construction without those things. Also, an interesting point is that the things that feed into this, the development of these standards is a review.
So after every significant fire, CSIRO (I’ve mentioned in our correspondence earlier, Justin Leonard) does a lot of research and follow up work, to see how the standard actually copes.
And I know that in the 2017 fire that we had, there was a review there, and the structures
that had been built to code, all of them had survived. So we had 10 structures that had been impacted. There’s many more that have been impacted, and there was property loss, but of the 10 that were built to spec, 100% had survived.
But again, I’ll go back to it. It’s not just the construction, it’s been a number of other elements … the landscaping … the two have to work together in terms of the way that landscape’s managed in and around the house.
I think in Tathra, the success rate was 80%. So there’s, there’s good things that are happening there. But there’s, you know, obviously always improvements that can be made.
[Amelia Lee]: I think that’s a really good point, that it is this holistic kind of view and it’s why the assessment is actually such a valuable process to see. Because I think that when you, as a homeowner, you get this BAL rating and you see it for the first time. And you see, okay, it goes through, you know, BAL 12.5, then BAL 29, BAL at these numbers and these kind of weird acronyms and wonder, “Well, okay, how much extra is this going to cost me”.
And then you say, a whole … generally, the easiest information to access (online) is that means you’ve got to build out of these materials, you’ve got to have fire shutters, you’ve got to … that’s the most straightforward stuff that you can say online.
But then what you can’t see is the impact that some other decisions can have around how you treat your whole property. Particularly if you are in one of these regional locations, where you do have a bit more land to play with. And you can start implementing management strategies, and an understanding of your landscape, to create that holistic response. Where you’re where you’re dealing with that kind of Asset Protection Zone and the landscape management generally.
THIS IS PART 2 OF MY INTERVIEW WITH JEFF DAU, EMBER BUSHFIRE CONSULTING. WATCH PART 1 HERE.
This interview is part of our Rebuild + Build Better series.
Be sure to stay tuned as we share more information and expertise in helping you rebuild after bushfires, or build homes more resilient to climate conditions and in bushfire prone areas.
Resources mentioned in this video:
Get in touch with Jeff Dau, Ember Bushfire Consulting >>> https://www.bushfireassessor.com.au/
Find a qualified bushfire consultant by searching for an accredited provider on the Fire Protection Association Australia website >>> http://www.fpaa.com.au/
For a limited time, you can access AS3959 at no charge. Head to the SAI website and choose PDF 1 user version – you’ll see the cost go to FREE.