How to Survive an Australian Bushfire

By: Steve Kealy, Photography by: Getty Images


Getting caught in any natural disaster is frightening – but wildfire is probably the scariest of all. Here's how to increase your chances of survival.

Presented by Caravan World

It ranks as one of the most frightening things you might experience out on the road — being caught in a running bushfire. As we travel around our wide brown land, the risk of bushfire is seldom very far away.

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No matter how carefully you monitor local news broadcasts, it’s always possible that, somewhere, you’ll come across a major fire that you’re not expecting. Often a fire will flare up beside a deserted highway or rural track and you might get little or no warning. With no resources and no-one around, it can be terrifying — but no matter where you are, there are steps you can take to maximise your chances of survival.

Of course, the simplest way to avoid injury is to be wherever the fire isn’t. So if your camp is in a bushfire prone area — and parts of Victoria, South Australia and NSW are recognised as among the most bushfire-prone areas on the planet — then being somewhere else is a good move: coffee in Brunswick, Surry Hills or Fortitude Valley sounds like an excellent survival plan.

Wildfires may be classed variously as bushfires, forest fires or grass fires, depending upon what’s burning, although frequently it’s a combination of whatever grows in any particular area. "Grass and scrub" is a catch-all phrase often used by fire authorities around the country.

DANGER SIGNS

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For those of us who like to get out and about, the risk of being caught in a rural wildfire is very real. In the hotter, drier months, Australian vegetation doesn’t take much to catch fire. Add a hot day, a dry wind — typically from the north, but generally coming from a desert area — low humidity in the air and a good deal of summer-dried grass and scrub, and even the smallest spark can set huge areas alight.

But what should you do if you’re caught out on the open road by a sudden fire that threatens to engulf your vehicle? According to the experts, there are several easy things you can do to minimise risk to your passengers, your vehicle and yourself.

The first thing is to shut all windows and vents to keep any smoke out of the cabin. Flick on your headlights and hazard flashers so you are visible to other road-users, and ratchet up the air-conditioner, on recirc. It’s going to get hot!

Quickly start looking for a safe place to park up: you want to be completely, entirely off the road, preferably on a gravel or concrete base, or at least hard-pack. If there are emergency service vehicles in the area, they'll be trying to get about in tough conditions and don’t need to come across stationary vehicles on or beside the road.

IMMINENT THREAT 

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If you have mobile phone coverage or a radio, let someone know where you are. Don’t panic family members, but calmly let them know you’re okay, you’ve parked safely and will get back in touch soon.

Be aware that in times of catastrophe, the mobile phone network may be restricted for users and kept for Emergency service announcements, or simply overloaded, or affected by outages from damaged infrastructure.

If you are in a remote area and can access local authorities, rangers or wardens, use the expression, "Imminent threat of a burn-over" to get their attention. They will ask for your GPS coordinates and how to identify your vehicle from the air.

If possible, park with the front of your vehicle aimed at the approaching flames: that’s its narrowest profile and vehicles are made to deflect air at their fronts.

You’re best away from any trees too, or at least up-wind of them. Australian eucalypts love to dispense with entire limbs when stressed and, if there’s a strong wind, significant falling branches can be carried dozens of metres before crashing to the ground — or onto your vehicle. Sometimes they may also already be on fire and will start new "spot" fires, ahead of the main fire.

RADIANT HEAT

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All occupants of the vehicle will need to get down below the level of the windows, front, or rear windscreen in the vehicle. Radiant heat is a big killer of people in vehicles and, while metal and even plastic or GRP bodywork will shield people from much of the heat, glass does not.

Having natural-fibre blankets made of wool or cotton to entirely cover every occupant, including pets, is a huge help in withstanding radiant heat. If you have enough of them, consider hanging natural fabric blankets across the windscreen and side windows, to shield the cabin.

Naturally everyone needs to have access to plenty of drinking water too.

Getting down in the footwells of vehicles does more than protect from heat — it also cuts out the chance to see and fixate on what can be a terrifying sight: fire approaching the vehicle. In fact, most flame fronts will pass over and around a vehicle quite quickly — in a matter of seconds. They are also often very noisy, sounding variously like a train, a jet engine or a road-train, which can be stressful, especially for children.

BE PREPARED

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There are two types of vehicle preparation that should be done, whether your rig is a conventional RV or a tow-vehicle and caravan.

First is the sort of preparation you should do several weeks or months in advance, the other is what you do in the minutes before a flame-front passes over you.

In advance, you can prepare shields or guards to cover things like rooftop vents, antennae, solar panels and air-con units, roof racks and canvas luggage against those falling branches or burning embers; they could also double as general and anti-theft protection too.

But what you do on the day might be the life-saver: it involves stopping and parking with enough time to remove from the vehicle anything that could catch fire: think of fuel jerries on roofracks or swags on the tray of utes.

Moving exposed gas cylinders can’t hurt — if they get hot, most gas tanks will just vent off, but what they’re venting may catch fire too. If you use a ute, consider what may be in the tray: chainsaws, generators and the fuel for them.

If you have time and it’s safe to do so, consider taking all these combustible items away from your rig. If there’s space, try putting them at least 20 metres behind your vehicle, but away from anything that could cause them to burn, such as vegetation, rubbish or fallen timber. While doing this, have a quick final scout around, then hop back in the vehicle.

SNAKES AND KANGAROOS

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Once the fire has passed by, resist the temptation to leap out immediately: it will be hot outside, very smoky, emergency services vehicles and personnel may still be moving around. But mostly there might be panicky and unpredictable animals on the move too — especially snakes and kangaroos, but also livestock if fences have been compromised. Give them a couple of minutes to find their direction and make sure you and your passengers are okay.

Once it’s safe to step outside, do a quick check of your vehicle and the area around it; you’re looking for embers or small branches that have lodged on or in places where they could cause trouble. This includes on the roof and underneath, especially under the floors of caravans.

Don’t forget to retrieve any items you took off the rig and placed a safe distance away.
Assuming all is well, don’t be in a hurry to resume your journey unless you must — there may yet be animals, people and vehicles on the move, and roads may be blocked by fallen trees or powerlines.

If you contacted loved ones or the autorities earlier, call back to let them know you’re okay. Then take some pictures to update your travel diary or blog and be glad you read this survival guide.

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WHAT TO DO WHEN FIRE THREATENS

  • Lights and hazard flashers on
  • Vents and windows closed
  • Air-con on recirc and fan set to high
  • Park off the road, on gravel, away from trees and facing the fire
  • Remove combustible items from the outside of your rig
  • Erect natural fabric blanket barriers against radiant heat
  • Put all people and pets below the level of the glass and cover with blankets
  • Call or radio your position to family, friends or authorities

FAST FACTS

Here's a few more ineresting factors you might not have considered:

  • The speed of a fire’s progression in still air will double for every 10 degree increase in slope;
  • Flame height is about 2.5 times the height of the fuel – so slashed grass will burn lower than standing grass;
  • Fire requires heat, fuel and air to survive: remove just one and the fire will go out.

What does that mean?

  • If a fire on flat ground in almost no wind is travelling at 5km/h, you could outwalk it — but introduce a steep slope and it could easily reach 40km/h. Add some wind and you have a fast-moving fire.
  • A field of waist-high grass will put up flames two metres high — whereas the same grass, once cut, will burn with the same heat and energy, but the flames won’t be anything like as high.
  • The fire triangle means a fire will be extinguished if it is cooled with water, if additional fuel is removed and there’s nothing left to burn, or if air supply is cut off, the fire will be extinguished.