The steel-framed house at the height of the flame test at Mogo on Friday 16 April 2010. (Image: CSIRO)

The steel-framed house at the height of the flame test at Mogo on Friday 16 April 2010. (Image: CSIRO)

Burning down the house (a trial by fire)

CSIRO scientists have 'flame-tested' a steel-framed house near Mogo on the New South Wales south coast to see how the structure would stand up to realistic bushfire conditions. (4:49)

  • 3 May 2010 | Updated 25 November 2011

The player will show in this paragraph

Constructed almost entirely from steel and featuring a non-flammable roof cavity, the house may provide a straightforward and affordable building option for bushfire-prone areas.

Fire researchers consider that a house constructed predominantly of steel should be able to survive in the flame zone of a real bushfire, assuming that windows or other external openings have not been breached.

The concept is that the entire non-combustible building façade, insulation and frame acts to protect the habitable space.

In this vodcast the test house undergoes a range of bushfire conditions, from ember attacks to engulfing the structure in flames.

Read more about Understanding building infrastructure performance in bushfires.

Transcript

[Theme music plays]

[Title page appears: CSIROvod, www.csiro.au/csirovod]

[Image changes to Glen Paul]

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.

[Camera zooms in on the test house]

The test house was built using fairly conventional construction techniques, such as a steel frame and cladding. Cellulose 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.

[Image changes to show the gas beds]

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.

[Image changes to show inside the house]

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.

[Image changes to Justin Leonard, CSIRO Sustainable Ecosystems]

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.

[Image changes to show a fire truck]

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.

[Image changes to show a news helicopter flying in]

News crews flew in and a film crew from ABC TVs leading science program Catalyst were on hand to record the story.

[Image changes to show the Catalyst film crew]

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.

[Image shows a scientist up a ladder putting leaves in the gutter]

[Image changes back to Glen]

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.

[Image changes to show Justin announcing over a PA system]

Justin Leonard: "We'll have final briefing and then we'll start getting in our places for a 2.30 test start".

[Camera pans over the briefing]

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.

[Image changes to show a camera crew getting ready to film]

It was from there that two brave souls ventured out and lit the fire.

[Image changes to show the fire being lit]

The plan was to burn in stages, with the fire slowly building up to the stuff of nightmares.

[Image changes to show the Scientists in the control room]

The control room was a hive of activity and Justin took a brief moment to explain what was going on.

[Image changes back to Justin]

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.

[Theme music plays]

[Justin talking off screen, "30 seconds"]

[Image moves back to the house with the fire about to engulf it]

[Justin counting of screen, "five, four, three, two, one, go"]

[Camera zooms in on the fire as it engulfs the house]

Glen Paul: Even standing back in the safe zone the heat was extreme and I was sure the house would disintegrate.

[Image shows the house completely engulfed by the fire now]

The blast went on for quite some time, more than the duration of a normal bushfire front.

[Camera zooms in on the smouldering house]

[Image shows the house again when the fire is gone]

Finally the test was over and with the gas now off the house was left smouldering but still standing.

[Image moves back into the control room]

From here everyone was very keen to see what the inside of the house looked like.

[Image changes to show the Scientists inside the house]

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.

[Image changes back to Glen standing outside of the house]

Well, it's looking a little worse for wear, but the house is still standing. Whether it 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]

[Website appears www.csiro.au]