Burns, shoots and leaves
Archival pigment ink on photo rag from John Gollings’ Bushfire Aerials exhibition.
GRASSY meadows, gentle contours, open woodland - it sounds like the classic 18th-century English country landscape. Only we're talking pre-white settlement Australia.
In his book The Biggest Estate on Earth: How Aborigines Made Australia, historian Bill Gammage describes the precise measures to which he believes Aborigines went - clearing, burning, transplanting plants - to ensure ''all life flourished'' and that erratic bushfire was not the phenomenon it is today.
Landscaping for bushfire, he argues, is nothing new. Since Black Saturday, however, landscape architects are being asked to consider afresh how they can reduce bushfire risk in the gardens they design. Just as photographer John Gollings reveals some of the beauty to be found in aerial views of scarred post-bushfire landscapes taken a week after the Black Saturday fires (the works went on show this week), others are focusing on how aesthetic sensibilities and planning for bushfire can work in tandem.
At the recent Flower and Garden Show, the Country Fire Authority launched its Landscaping for Bushfire guide, a 64-page text available online, that looks at how plant arrangement and selection can reduce the bushfire risk to any house.
CFA vegetation manager Owen Gooding says there are fantastic design opportunities in establishing ''fire-smart gardens''. ''They can be really beautiful and that runs counter to what people might think, which is little vegetation, maybe lots of concrete,'' he says.
John Rayner, a senior lecturer in urban horticulture at the University of Melbourne and a contributor to the CFA's guide, says personal aesthetics and preferences are an important aspect of designing for bushfire and these need to be balanced with fire ecology. ''If we ignore peoples' aesthetic and personal preferences we won't get the outcome we want, which is more sensitively designed gardens in high fire-risk areas,'' he says.
Rayner and Gooding both insist that any debate between exotic and native plants is too simplistic and misleading, and the CFA guide avoids entering into a debate on the fire risk of plants based on their origin. It instead asks landscape architects to consider a range of characteristics that ''reduce the likelihood of ignition'' (including high moisture content, open and loose branching, course textures, and leaves without high amounts of oils and resins) when selecting what to grow.
But while plant selection is important, the guide says even more critical to bushfire risk is the arrangement of vegetation within a garden, such as establishing an area of land around a building where vegetation is modified and creating separation between plants, garden beds and tree canopies.
Jeremy Francis, who owns the Cloudehill garden in the Dandenongs - essentially devoted to exotics - says he has been consciously avoiding planting long lengths of vegetation that can lead a fire up to buildings and to use plants with a high moisture content, such as deciduous trees. He has also maintained open grassed areas.
Landscape designer Sam Cox, however, takes a different view. ''I don't design gardens to try to stop fire because I don't think it's possible,'' he says. ''I don't understand why you would want to live in a natural environment and then clear everything around the house for fear of fire that might only arise every 30 to 50 years.''
Cox, who works out of the Eltham area and uses native plants, says he would be struggling to make gardens that fitted with his design principles without bringing foliage close to the house.
Since Black Saturday he has, however, advocated having water supplies that can saturate the ground and vegetation around buildings and has more preliminary consultation with clients to ascertain their thoughts on bushfire risk. If they are not comfortable with his approach, he suggests they find another designer.
John Gollings: Bushfire Aerials runs until May 12 at Edmund Pearce Gallery, level 2, Nicholas Building, 37 Swanston Street, city.
Bill Gammage is speaking at Montsalvat, 7 Hillcrest Avenue, Eltham, tomorrow as part of the Past Matters: Writing for Rights writers' festival.
The CFA's Landscaping for Bushfire guide is available at cfa.vic.gov.au