How to Survive a Bushfire

By Becky Crew

Fast, unpredictable and extremely deadly. Bushfires have been a part of the Australian landscape for thousands of years, and just as our native plants have developed highly specialised ways of dealing with bushfires, people living in rural areas, near the bush, or in other bushfire-prone areas need to know how respond to them. This means knowing how bushfires behave, and knowing how to be prepared.

Each year an average of 600 bushfires occur in parks and forests around Australia. The worst we’ve ever had were the Black Saturday bushfires that swept through Victoria in 2009, killing almost 200 people and destroying more than 2,000 homes. They always start small, perhaps as an unattended barbecue or a discarded cigarette, but a bushfire can grow huge on a hot, dry day if there’s plenty of flammable vegetation around—and when you add strong winds to the equation, this is when they can really get out of control.

How do bushfires spread, and how fast?

You might think that the spread of a bushfire is pretty simple—the flames touch and burn one tree, then pass on to the next tree and continue to spread through direct contact—but one of the quickest ways a bushfire can spread is through embers. These small, burning fragments are often blown from the main firefront to spark a bunch of new fires in different areas. All they need to do to set a building alight is float into a small space, like a leaf-filled gutter, accumulate and then ignite.

Embers, not the main firefront, are responsible for up to 90% of the houses lost in a bushfire event. In fact, a house can survive the main firefront, only to be burned down an hour or two afterwards, thanks to a wandering ember. “Embers are huge as far as fire spread goes,” says Dr Briony Towers from the Bushfire Cooperative Research Centre in Melbourne and RMIT University’s Centre for Risk and Community Safety. “On Black Saturday, houses were destroyed 2 km away purely because of ember-started spot fires. Once you get those spot fires starting up ahead of the firefront, that’s when people get caught out really quickly.”

Another common misunderstanding is how quickly a bushfire can travel. At their worst, bushfires can speed across land at up to 25 km/h. When you consider that the average person walks at 5 km/h, you can get an idea of how fast this is. Especially when you’re talking about a burning wall of flame that’s producing massive amounts of radiant heat and smoke all around it.

Leave early, don’t wait and see

If your area is at risk of a bushfire, the worst thing you can do is assume that the fire services will be there to help you, or to call you up and tell you when to evacuate. They’ll most likely be using all their resources to fight the firefront, or rescuing people in more danger. During the Black Saturday bushfires in Victoria, over 10,000 calls were made to the emergency 000 phone number on a single day, and nearly 8000 were ended by the caller because it wasn’t picked up.

“Do not wait to be told, or to expect someone to come and rescue you. If you understand the risk, then you know that you need to get yourself out,” says Su Ferreira, Manager of the Education and Heritage Department of the Fire and Emergency Services in Western Australia. She says the best places to seek information and updates about your bushfire risk are the Bureau of Meteorology and ABC websites, plus ABC’s Facebook page and ABC radio.

Once you know your area is at risk, the best thing to do is leave early. Head to a relative or a friend’s place in a low-risk area as soon as possible. You can also call your local council to see if there are designated evacuation centres available.

“Waiting to see if the fire is going to get really bad, even though that might seem logical for most activities in our lives, is a very big risk,” says Ferreira. “Because a bushfire can travel and can corner people and trap them, and it’s very difficult to save yourself or be rescued. So leave early instead of driving at the last minute through smoke and flames, which has killed a lot of people.”

Don’t let your house be toast

Giving yourself enough time to leave before a bushfire hits also means that you can prepare your house and give it the best chance of survival. This means hunting for fire hazards outside, plus locking your house down so embers can’t float in and light up. Here are some really effective ways to prepare:

* Clean the gutters
* Rake up and dispose of leaves
* Clear away overhanging trees and overgrown shrubs
* Turn the sprinklers on
* Close all doors and windows
* Bring all toys and other objects inside

Remember to always bring your highly flammable doormat inside! “There was a case where one man had completely prepared his house, he had the sprinklers on and everything, and then he’d left his doormat at the front door,” says Dr Towers. “He came back [after the bushfire had passed] and his house was gone. Know what burns, and clean it up.”

You’ll also need to figure out what to take with you when you leave. Think about where you’re going and how long you’ll be going for and then talk to your family about packing a survival kit. Thing you should include are:

Pack a family survival kit, include water, canned food, a battery-operated radio, and important documents such as passports and insurance papers. Image: Shutterstock

* Sturdy clothing
* Bedding
* Food and water
* First aid kit
* Special toys, trophies and photographs
* Medication such as your asthma puffer or dad’s heart medication 
* Books, entertainment and chargers
* Passports, marriage certificates, insurance papers

Other important things to remember:

* Your pets!
* Grandma?

Do you have an elderly relative or neighbour who can’t leave on her own? Try think of those around you who might need your help.

If you can’t bring your pets with you, don’t tie them up, and leave plenty of food and water. If you’ve prepared it well, the safest place to be when the firefront passes is in your house, so make sure you bring them inside.

This also applies if you and your family are caught unawares by a fast-moving bushfire and can’t evacuate safely. You’re better off waiting for the firefront to pass inside your house, rather than trying to outrun it. The most common cause of death in a bushfire is fleeing in a car or on foot, because both options provide little shelter from the deadly amounts of radiant heat and smoke produced by a passing firefront.

Studies have found that a well-prepared house rarely burns down due to the main firefront. In 2003, a bushfire severely damaged almost 70% of the Australian Capital Territory’s pastures, forests and parks, and 500 homes were lost over a 10-hour period. A 2005 investigation into the damage lead by Raphaele Blanchi, a CSIRO researcher with the Bushfire Cooperative Research Centre, found that over 90% of these houses were attacked by embers alone, or embers helped by radiant heat, not by the passing firefront. “The houses didn’t show any evidence of direct ignition from the firefront itself,” Blanchi and his team reported.

After the Black Saturday bushfires, a Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission into bushfire safety also confirmed that as a last resort, if you cannot evacuate safely, you should stay calm, call 000 and take shelter inside your home. It suggests that you fill your sinks, baths and buckets with water, and stay away from outside walls and windows, as they can get very hot. After the firefront passes and it’s safe to go outside, check for fire in your roof, on the outside walls, under the floor, and around your house.

Ferreira agrees, adding that if you live in a bushfire-prone area, your family should think about installing your own power and water supplies. “There are bushfires that spring up and explode and travel so fast that it does catch people unawares,” she says. “There isn’t the time [to evacuate]. Then it falls back on having a prepared property. If it’s unsafe to leave, you fall back on the property that’s prepared and your capacity to hose water.”

So staying in your house is the best option in a worst-case scenario where you cannot escape safely, and you will need to stay alert at all times to help put out any ember-started spot fires, should they ignite. A firefront can pass over a house in a matter of minutes, depending on the wind.

What if I’m at school?

If it’s a Code Red Day, which means the risk of a bushfire in the area is extremely high, most schools will be closed. But if you are at school when a bushfire risk arises, your school will have a plan to evacuate everyone together safely. This means that your parents might not be able to pick you up until after the bushfire threat has passed, so it’s a good idea to get your parents to familiarise themselves with your school’s emergency plan ahead of time.

It’s easy to panic and forget most of what you need to do if you’re actually faced with the threat of a bushfire, so talk to your family and figure out your plan of action now. Make some checklists, keep your special possessions somewhere that you can grab them in a hurry, and figure out where you’d stay if you have to evacuate. And remember… don’t forget the doormat!