by Tom Coupe, Tiny House Builder & Designer

Floating beneath an industry built on romance and Instagram delights lies a simmering potential of trauma and devastation. Looking from inside the Tiny House industry and also from within a community devastated by fire, I see some dangerously poor attitudes growing within Victoria. I tell this story as I see it from my home in Kinglake, the crowning point of the world’s worst bushfire.

The Black Saturday fires of 2009 struck this town and those around it with a ferocity which still leaves people short of breath. I didn’t live here in 2009, on that day I found myself in Neerim South, bunkering down to fight a fire which had burned through the Bunyip State Forest. Like many people on that day, I had underestimated the fire and overestimated my capacity to fight it. I made the foolish decision to drive around road blocks and get a head of the fire to help protect a friend’s house. The fire front was so large that it created its own lightning, the resulting spot fires prevented any escape along any of the three main roads where I was situated.

The main fire never reached us that day, with about 10 minutes to spare we were saved by the same wind change which doomed the towns of the Kinglake ranges and Marysville.

I’m glad to say this is my closest brush with bushfire. The rest of my knowledge for this article and my work is sourced from the people of this town, my friends, my family, statistical analysis and my time with the Tiny House community of Victoria.

Maybe if 2009 was a one-off we could move past it, but its’ not. It’s just another chapter in the history of Victoria. Black Saturday was only a mid-sized fire by a geographical measure and it wasn’t unparalleled in its ferocity, the devastating results lay with its speed, proximity to Melbourne and the modern year in which it struck. 

When it comes to a bad record of bushfire, only Tasmania has a comparable record of losing lives and buildings, ln large part due to a single deadly fire which struck the capital city of Hobart in 1963. If you wanted to, putting this fire in the ‘one-off’ basket could be understandable, if not advisable.

Internationally, Victorians are even further out ahead, both Spain and California have lost an enormous number of lives and buildings to wildfire, it is their population of over 40 million and larger geographical size which reduces this risk to something lesser than what we experience here in Victoria. The stats below can never be completely accurate, they are of-course, approximations. But they do illustrate without doubt the severity of bushfire within our Southern states. 

These stats are the reason why I believe that Victorian Tiny House culture should differ from much of Australia and the world.

When researching bushfire, it becomes plainly obvious that the majority of losses have occurred on just a handful of days. Out of the 5 most significant fires in Australia’s history, 4 happened in Victoria. Those four days are responsible for around 75% of buildings lost to bushfire in Victoria. These days are when resources become spread thinly across multiple districts and states and fire fighters are unable to reach the fire front due to the speed of its approach, these are the conditions which I consider when building for fire. It’s these days which should be considered when planning your response.   

Governments like to put a dollar figure on these events but the real cost can never be calculated. Grief lies deep within effected communities, so does the financial and social effects.  Even with monetary support from the government and insurance companies, rebuilding a house and creating a home can be a very long process, only around half of the houses destroyed in 2009 have been rebuilt. Many people were unwilling to rebuild in the hills, others have been emotionally or financially unable to do so. Often the price of rebuilding has risen and the regulations have tightened since the original construction.

The key here is that houses were lost, I do not want to gloss over the tragic loss of life, it’s a loss which can never be replaced, but I do want to explain the importance of a home, a neighbourhood and a community. 

Having a home to return to can ease the grief associated with the loss of people, pets, livestock and materials. If you are free from the burden of grief then you can assist those around you who were not so fortunate.

It’s not just enough to have your own house survive, nor is it enough to have only your neighbour’s houses survive. Survivor’s’ guilt is real and crippling, so too is the hostility which can be directed towards those who retain their properties, as a result, neighbours of burned homes can be victims too. We could see ourselves as obliged to build fireproof homes to protect our neighbours and retain our communities.   

I wish I could say that Tiny Houses are somehow immune from this natural disaster, they are my passion and my occupation, but they are not immune. Quite the opposite, they are built from light, soft and often cheap materials, then they are parked amongst the bush where they are free from prying eyes and close to nature. They can also bare the marks of poor workmanship, gaps and cracks which allow a fire to break inwards.

Troublingly, some Tiny Houses are now being chosen as a way of bypassing strict bushfire construction regulations. These regulations, whilst frustrating to deal with, are intended to protect the owners and occupants of country houses. If we go outside these regulations, we take this burden upon ourselves.  

When discussing this problem with Tiny enthusiasts I am commonly confronted with two solutions. The first solution is to let it burn and collect the insurance money, “it’s only small, I’ll build another one”. This solution swells a few emotions within me, to think that something which I may have worked on for months could be viewed as ‘disposable’ is a little heart-wrenching. Coupled with this is the overbearing attitude of disposability within our modern life, in a social climate where shopping bags are no longer disposable, I find it strange to hear that houses are not afforded the same respect. The last thought that comes to mind is the reality mentioned above, the timeframe and frequency with which houses are actually rebuilt after a disaster. To assume that an insurance payout or government handout will be sufficient to keep you on a level financial footing could be wishful thinking, and to underestimate the emotional energy which it takes to build a home could be costly.   

The second and most troubling solution to bushfire is the notion of towing a Tiny house away from a fire. This possibility is only available to those who are owners and occupants of Tiny Houses On Wheels. Many Tiny houses are holiday homes, BNB houses or rentals, the occupants may have no interest in saving that Tiny.  

For anyone who plans to make this mistake, here is my 11-point check-list for moving a tiny house away from a fire.

  1. Are you home when a fire breaks out? They don’t all happen on Saturdays, but they will do most of their damage during office hours. In years gone by, you could drive to the head of a fire to protect your assets or tow them to safety, you can’t now, police and VicRoads could actively block roads to the public, even keeping residents away.
  2. Will you have enough warning? The more ferocious the fire, the less warning you will have. Warning time can vary from days to minutes. Many Black Saturday survivors will testify to having no warning at all. Modern technology may help but it may also mislead, our systems have not been tested by a full-scale emergency, a system crash is always possible. 
  3. Do you have the vehicle to tow your Tiny? Australian Tinys are pretty big on average, and our cars are pretty small when compared to North America. If a Tiny resident enters the lifestyle to reduce living costs and their environmental impact, then it’s unlikely that they will own a fuel-guzzling V8, equipped with electric brakes, the appropriate towing gear and the required capacity.
  4. Is your house ready to drive? Usually, the answer is a resounding ‘no’. Permanent connections to power, sewer, greywater, drinking water could be a hindrance, so too are the access stairs, stumps and garden beds. Furthermore, many Tiny Houses on Wheels are not actually intended to be towed on their own wheels at all, there is a growing trend of installing wheels on a Tiny purely to avoid building regulations, then hiring a tray truck to move it. 
  5. Load limits? Are you confident that you are within the load limit of your trailer, it’s easy to make post-installation additions that take you past the original weight. This is not the time to be pushing these limits.
  6. Do you have the skills and equipment to move this by yourself? The chances of you receiving help from a neighbour or a mate are slim, so assume this will be done by yourself. In my experience, Tiny House owner/occupants do not often have lots of experience in moving heavy equipment in a hurry. I would like to have a lot of experience around trailers, trucks, mechanics and lifting equipment before I attempt to move one of these quickly, even doing it slowly is nerve-wracking. I say lifting because that’s exactly what is needed to remove the stands, stumps or blocks that the house sits on. So, does Jacking up a 4-tonne house and moving it quickly, on your own, fall within your skillset?
  7. Is there an easy escape route? Moving a Tiny into the desired location often involves winches, tractors, tow trucks and Time. And many access roads are tight, rough and shrouded by trees.
  8. What are the weather conditions? On Black Saturday, the air in front of the fire was around 60 degrees, moving at 100 k/h. in addition, the smoke reduced visibility for hours and breathing conditions were bad at best. Some people who were fit, healthy, mentally prepared and well equipped were able to operate in those conditions, but it’s enough to put some people in hospital.
  9. Are the road conditions safe? I wouldn’t tow a Tiny house in a 50k wind, I don’t imagine that it gets any easier in an emergency. Your car could overheat, there may be tree branches on the road, and the power lines will have sagged to their lowest height ever. That is all standard for a Total Fire Ban, fire or not.
  10. Will you panic? You are your own biggest hurdle in this operation, people do strange things under duress, people drive too quickly, forget the basic process, get lost, get angry, get trapped. This is not the mindset you need when moving your home. 
  11. Will you affect anyone else’s escape? On a good day, with a straight road, I can tow a tiny at around 75-80 ks an hour and only annoy a few motorists per minute. In limited visibility, on windy roads, with a boiling engine and a full load, a Tiny House would become a rolling roadblock. The gut-churning hypothetical of this could be a Tiny house accident on a valuable escape route, trapping others behind it. Too many people who perish in a fire, die on the roads, around half. A plan to move a Tiny House away from a fire can only increase this risk, both for the Tiny owner and other residents.
  12. Will you return? Scorched black earth isn’t inviting, no one could blame a Tiny occupant for relocating to a less burned patch of earth, but then what happens to the neighbourhood that you left? To them, your house may as well have burned, you have vanished when they needed their community the most, and you now need to create a new home. Even a successful escape is a loss to many.  

If all goes well, one house being moved away from a fire seems possible, if not likely. However, I would like to throw one more situation into the mix, the situation of multiple Tiny Houses in a single cluster. If you have been to a Tiny House festival, or the street of houses at the home show then you might be able to imagine the logistics that come with this situation. Panicked people, pets, children, cars and Tiny houses, all trying to fit out the same entrance in a hurry. This is a troubling image.  

There is, of course, a contrasting dynamic and a precedent for escaping fire. There is evidence in North America that Tiny Houses are burned less often than permanent dwellings, they have, in-fact, been successfully towed away from wildfires. There are at least three factors at play here, possibly four.

The first factor is the vehicles, cars with a 4 or 5-tonne towing capacity are commonplace within north America. The owner of an American Tiny is much more likely to be able to tow their own house than here in Australia.

Secondly, the roads are enormous, wide and straight. We are lucky to have pretty good roads here in Victoria but in comparison, driving through the US is a dream for large cars and trucks.

Third is the speed of the fire, I would not describe North American conifer fires as slow, but I would describe Victorian fires as unbelievably quick. To drive from Strathewan to Kinglake takes around 22 minutes, the 2009 fire did it in around 10. In several cases, fires have been recorded hitting maximum speeds of 80km per hour in short bursts. North American forests are combustible and burn with an intense heat, but they are not the highly flammable eucalypts of Australia.

The last factor is the houses themselves, it’s difficult to know for sure, but much of what I have seen here Australia suggests that our Tinys are not as easily moved as their American counterparts. We have developed a strong culture of putting houses on wheels to avoid regulation, not for ease of transport.        

As stated above, it’s not the regular yearly bushfire which I consider with this assessment. Most fires do not destroy houses on mass, in a slow-moving Victorian fire, your Tiny House has a significant chance of survival just by staying put. Water bombers, fire trucks and occupants are commonly able to defend against fire in these circumstances. If the fire permits you to tow your house away, your house may not have needed moving at all.   

Well if you can’t tow it away and you don’t want to let it burn, there are still two solutions to this problem. The easiest, live well away from a fire zone, the more difficult, but achievable solution is to design your house and home to survive a fire.

It’s been 35 years since the first fire resistant houses were developed in Victoria, it happened in the wake of Ash Wednesday. These methods work, there are surviving examples and good science behind them. There are many misconceptions around fire resistance, too many to break down here. I will say that the cladding of a house is rarely the weakest point, and that fire proofing is in the details. Not all fire-resistant houses look like bunkers, many features are unidentifiable to the untrained eye.

There are three brushfire resistant Tiny Houses on wheels in existence to my knowledge, two of my own design and one by Tiny House Solutions. The latter house is based on a Bushfire Attack Level (BAL) 19 with a BAL 40 in the planning. My own designs are based on BAL 29 for medium resistance and I’m currently constructing a FLAME ZONE house, the highest of the 5 ratings.

BAL ratings are designed for dwellings which are permanent and large, for this reason they can be applied only as a guide to Tiny Houses in the current legal climate.

These ratings are determined by the proximity to combustible vegetation, the type and size of the vegetation, slope of the land and the surrounding topography. My own BAL 29 houses could require a setback of anywhere between 5 to 60 metres to be considered appropriate. Also, the way in which that setback area is managed must be considered. Well-kept lawns and gardens can be as important as the house itself.

These ratings can be found in the Australian Standard 3959, Construction of Buildings In Bushfire Prone Areas. Properly assessing a location for fire risk is a lengthy process and should be given due care. 

These Tiny Houses are of course un-tested, however, to my best assessment and to good acclaim by those in the know, they are fire resistant. All these houses are surprisingly light, practical and could be copied into many different aesthetic forms. Structural forms also vary between timber frame and prefabricated panel construction, creating a precedent for both of the most common forms of Tiny House construction.

I’ve documented my work in this space as best as I can to help others create their own fire-resistant tiny houses and improve on these adaptations.

In equal importance to the house construction is the location in which it sits. Both the broad geographical location and the immediate surrounds will impact the likelihood that a house will survive a fire.

In addition to the vegetations proximity is its management, both inside and outside of the local bushland. The clearing of undergrowth, separation of tree canopies, mowing of grass lands and reduction of garden beds will greatly reduce the temperature of the fire in the immediate surrounds.

In some circumstances, for some people, the ability to fight the fire is important, the above-mentioned vegetation management will assist in these efforts. Bulk water sources, heavy duty pumps, protective equipment and experience can go a long way to protecting your assets, however, I never expect this to eventuate when I design a Tiny House. Staying and protecting is no longer advised by the CFA and for many Tiny House residents, this level of preparation and skill is simply not a reality.

It is with this in mind that I say my houses are not intended to be life saving devices, they carry a ‘lock-up and leave’ instruction. If any lives are to be saved from these houses it is from people leaving at the first glance of a fire in the knowledge that their house, home, neighbourhood and community will be there to return to.

With the right design, location and preparation, I would hope that the houses I build will survive without fire fighting intervention. This is a new reality for fire resistant homes, they may need to be self-sufficient as the trend of evacuation continues to grow. 

When tackling this design problem, I had a few motivations, one was the community side of fire protection, another was my environmental concerns. It’s simply not sustainable to build houses twice and here in Victoria, we will lose too many Tiny Houses to bushfire to consider it a sustainable movement in its current form. The fires aren’t going away, on the contrary, they are becoming larger and more frequent around the world, so something else has to change.

Further to these environmental concerns and the community aspect, I could predict that councils would request compliance to the house building regulations at some point. This has proven to be true as this request has since been made, not too far from my home base in the town of Whittlesea. BAL assessments, council planning permits and building certification can be a costly and draining process, I don’t wish that upon the Tiny House community. What I do wish for in the current climate is for bushfire to be understood, respected and planned for. I would also like to see a collaborative effort by Victorians to claim this problem as their own, swapping and comparing information the same way that we do with space saving techniques and solar systems. If we can do that then we may be able to maintain the Tiny House lifestyle for the next generation.

Tom Coupe,

Tiny House Builder and designer.

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