Although I am not a fire specialist, but rather a Senior Architectural Technologist and Designer and a Heritage Specialist, the recent fires in our region have prompted me to start researching ways in which we can reduce the risks that fires pose.
Having lived in Betty’s Bay as a practising built-environment specialist for the past 15 years and having designed 20 structures in the Hangklip-Kleinmond region alone, it is time to take stock of the past by learning lessons from it for the future. Reducing fire risk by design boils down to how we should design and live with fire in mind and I wish to share some basic principles with especially those who must rebuild their homes and gardens after the latest fire disaster.
We can no longer build in the same way as before and expect different results. To start with, we need to become proactive in fire prevention by identifying fire risks in our area and then work towards creating defensible spaces. As a way of attempting to explain the concept and some principles involved, we need to visualise five circles. Each of these circles requires us to be continuously pro-active.
The first circle is the largest and encompasses the broader urban landscape of our environs – the mountain, hills, streets, lakes, sea and fynbos areas around us. Observe these carefully on a regular basis. Should you notice irregular activities or phenomena, report them immediately.
It may be aspects such as a fire hydrant which has become overgrown by vegetation, or alien vegetation which is getting out of hand, thereby providing major fuel for runaway-fires. Always remain vigilant and report concerns to the authorities. They are as interested as you in preventing fires. In fact, they have a specialist at hand who is tasked with identifying fire risks and implementing management procedures to reduce the risk on a continuous basis. We can all assist by being their eyes and ears.
The second circle is your specific site or property. Ensure that the immediate area around your house is clear of unnecessary fuel for fires. Respect a minimum clearance rule of only stone, sour figs, buffalo lawn or other low-growth ground covers around the house. A general rule of thumb is for every 1 metre height in vegetation the minimum horizontal planting distance from the house should not be less than 2.5 metres.
The third circle is your house. The way your structure is designed and sited, as well as your choice of materials and finishes, could reduce fire risk or enhance it. The illustration below illustrates fire-wise design principles and provides a brief summary of the most critical principles involved in reducing fire risk by design, thereby creating more fire-resilient buildings.
The fourth circle is judicious interior design that creates a defendable space. Implement a principle of low fuel loads in every room by not storing unnecessary combustible materials. Reduce the use of synthetics as they can combust by radiation through windows. Internal louvres are preferred to curtains, for instance.
The fifth circle, and the most difficult and unpredictable aspect of the chain of circles to manage, is everyday human behaviour. How we live, what we do or neglect to do, can make all the difference. When we make a fire for a braai, always douse the coals afterwards. Do not keep unnecessary combustibles in the garage such as petrol, paints, thinners, etc.
If we all work together by managing the various spaces referred to, it will go a long way in reducing fire risk by design.