Articles

Burning down the house (a trial by fire)


[Theme music plays] (Glen Paul) Welcome to
CSIROvod, I’m Glen Paul. I’m at Mogo on the New
South Wales South Coast, at a bushfire testing facility, where
a purpose built house behind me is about to undergo a trial
by fire, by CSIRO Scientists, to establish whether
it’s fire resistant, with the hope that it
could pave the way to a new generation of
bushfire resistant homes for areas prone to bushfire that
could, potentially, save lives. The test house was built using fairly
conventional construction techniques, such as a steel
frame and cladding. Cellulo cement in flooring
and lining details and fibre glass insulation in
the walls, floor and ceiling to act as a flame barrier to protect
the habitual space inside. The house was set up on an
adjacent gas burner test bed, kind of like an
oversized barbeque, so the flames, with the
wind blowing from behind would engulf the house
in a blaze of furry, much like a real bushfire front. Inside the house I was
kind of expecting to see a family of circa 1950 atomic
test style plastic dummies, but of course in
the 21st Century, sensors and video cameras can
provide far more reliable data. (Justin Leonard)
Even if it fails, well we’ll know exactly
how much it failed by and be able to then
advise on how we can slightly modify the design
to perform adequately. (Glen Paul) And how confident
are you with the house, would you be willing to stand
inside it while it burns? (Justin Leonard) I’ be more
confident to stand in this house compared to many other
conventional designs out there. But I feel I’ll have a much clearer understanding after
the end of this test. (Glen Paul) Australia has been
devastated by bushfire many times so to have a house that
might stand up to bushfires would obviously attract a lot
of attention from the media. News crews flew in and a film crew from ABC TVs
leading science program Catalyst were on hand
to record the story. So, as the countdown
began to the big burn, Scientists added an extra element
of realism by putting leaf litter into the gutters and
around the doors. Well, we’re not far away
from burning down the house; We’ve just been waiting for
the right weather conditions for the wind to pick up.
The more wind, the easier that house
is going to burn. The Bureau of Meteorology had
forecast ideal conditions for the burn that afternoon
and as conditions picked up Justin made the announcement. (Justin Leonard) “We’ll have
final briefing and then we’ll start getting in our
places for a 2.30 test start”. (Glen Paul) So a final briefing
on what we could expect then it was back out to take up positions in the
designated safe zones. It was from there that two brave
souls ventured out and lit the fire. The plan was to burn in stages, with the fire slowly building
up to the stuff of nightmares. The control room was
a hive of activity and Justin took a brief moment
to explain what was going on. (Justin Leonard) We’re a little
past two thirds of the way through the radiation profile. So we’ve moved through the, sort
of, the gradual build up phase and we’re starting to get into
the stepper part of the curve where there’ll be a fairly rapid ramp
up at the intensity of the house we see before the
full flame emerges. [Justin talking off
screen, 30 seconds] [Justin counting of screen, five,
four, three, two, one, go] (Glen Paul) Even standing
back in the safe zone the heat was extreme and I was
sure the house would disintegrate. The blast went on for
quite some time, more than the duration of
a normal bushfire front. Finally the test was over
and with the gas now off the house was left smouldering
but still standing. From here everyone was very keen to see what the inside of
the house looked like. Overall, it seemed pretty good. Everything was intact and there
was no sign of fire damage, but just how hot it got in there I
wasn’t able to tell at a glance without those melted
plastic dummies. But, CSIRO Scientists were
soon plugging in their laptops and downloading
data for analysis. Well, it’s looking a
little worse for wear, but the house is still standing. Whether they would be survivable,
if you’d been inside it, we won’t know until Justin and the
team have a look at the data. If you’d like to find out more
about the bushfire house, check out our website
at www.csiro.au. [Theme music plays]

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