Bushfires

  • Fire ban restrictions
  • Avoiding bushfires
  • Encountering smoke or fire when in a vehicle
  • Trapped in a vehicle
  • Trip planning to cope with bushfires
  • What to do if you are caught by a bushfire

Parts of southeastern Australia are some of the most bushfire prone areas in the world, and the survival of bushwalking parties in all parts of Australia may at times depend upon taking appropriate action in the event of encountering a bushfire. All bushwalking leaders should have a good idea of where and when to expect bushfires, how to prevent accidentally starting one, and what to do if you encounter a fire, either on foot or when driving.

Incidence of bushfires

The likelihood of a fire occurring, and its severity is heavily dependent on the following:

  • the time of the year and weather conditions
  • quantity of fuel
  • the size, type and dryness of that fuel (dry litter on the forest floor and fine branches less than 8 mm in diameter produce the quickest moving fires)
  • temperature
  • winds (the stronger, hotter and drier the wind, the more likely a fire will become rapidly hazardous)
  • the dryness of the atmosphere.

In Australia, the vast majority of bushfires are lit by people, whether intentionally or unintentionally. A percentage is started by lightning.

In most of Australia, bushfire season extends from early summer to late autumn, and is concentrated on days with high temperatures and hot, strong, generally northerly winds, usually from the centre of the continent. In northern tropical areas bushfires are more common towards the end of the dry season, predominantly started by lightning.

Fire ban districts

Australia is divided into fire ban districts, administered by state authorities. As you travel around, be sure you know which fire ban district you are in and whether or not a fire ban has been declared for that district. See chapters 12 and 24.

Avoiding bushfires

Most serious fires in Australia burn over several days. Areas in which fires are burning are well advertised in the media. If you are planning a trip into an area where there is known to be fire activity, the best plan is to cancel or relocate your trip to somewhere safer.

Severe wildfires occur when weather conditions are conducive to fire spread, i.e. temperature in the mid 30s or higher, relative humidity less than 15% and hot dry winds greater than 30 km/hr. Such days are less than ideal for most outdoor activities, and a decision to defer or relocate the trip or spend the day at a base camp will reduce the risk to bushwalkers from heat stress and sunburn, as well as bushfire.

Encountering smoke or fire when in a vehicle

If you encounter smoke or a bushfire when driving, the safest course is almost always to turn and go back the way you have come. The greatest danger with driving into smoke or bushfire is that a fallen branch or tree may block your way forward, and then when attempting to retrace your path, you find your way out is also blocked.

If you are faced by smoke or fire when driving, consider whether it is really necessary to get to your destination. When assessed against the very high danger of driving through fire, such journeys are virtually never justified. However, if you feel there is really no alternative, waiting for someone to come through from the opposite direction to give the all clear will reduce your chances of becoming trapped.

If you have to drive through smoke or fire:

  • drive with your headlights on low beam
  • drive slowly
  • watch out for fire-fighting vehicles, pedestrians or other personnel on the road
  • watch for fallen trees across the road.

Smoke can severely restrict visibility, so slow down when driving in smoke. Do not add a traffic accident to the problems you are encountering!

Trapped in a vehicle

If you do become trapped by fire while in a vehicle, stay in the vehicle. Park it in an area providing greatest protection, such as:

  • against an embankment
  • in a cutting
  • in an old gravel pit or roadside clearing
  • in an area of the road which has the least amount of forest or scrub alongside it
  • in an area where falling trees cannot strike your vehicle.

Do not park in the middle of a road unless there is no alternative—your vehicle could be struck by others in poor visibility.

Stay in the vehicle with the engine running, and:

  • close all windows and vents
  • turn your headlights on low beam and switch on hazard lights
  • lie down on the floor of the vehicle
  • cover yourself with anything that will protect you from radiant heat – a woollen blanket is ideal, but any protective covering will greatly increase your chances of survival
  • drink water frequently.

You should stay in the vehicle until the fire front has passed. You will probably encounter two or three frightening minutes of extreme heat if the fire front burns over the vehicle. Statistics show that petrol and diesel fuel tanks virtually never explode in real life – despite what happens in the movies! Stay in the vehicle until the fire front has passed – you are much safer inside the vehicle than outside.

As soon as the main fire front has passed, leave the vehicle and move onto burnt ground, aiming for the most open position available, away from danger of falling branches or trees.

It is wise to keep woollen blankets and a supply of water in your car, just in case you are caught in a bushfire and have to use your car as a refuge.

Trip planning to cope with bushfires

All trips to areas with potential bushfire risk should incorporate realistic planning to cope with fires. This needs to be done at a number of levels:

  • general pre-trip planning
  • specific planning during the trip
  • detailed planning should a fire be suspected or encountered.

Pre-trip planning

General pre-trip planning for fires involves similar considerations to emergency evacuation or escape routes in the event of injury, illness or other serious difficulties. For each point along the intended route, the best escape route options need to be considered, including:

  • retracing your steps
  • exiting via a side route
  • proceeding forwards.

In the case of fire, the prime considerations will be:

  • the likely direction of winds which may be fanning a fire
  • the steepness of the terrain
  • the amount of protection form fire offered
  • the quantity of undergrowth, tree cover and other fuel
  • the likelihood of encountering fire-fighting or other personnel who could aid in evacuation
  • where your own vehicles are parked.

Remember, fires burn upwards, and so will often race up hills, but will move much more slowly down hills.

Planning during the trip
While on the trip, pre-trip planning can be applied to a greater degree of detail, when the specific terrain, fuel loads and wind direction at the time are known. This involves posing questions such as:

  • From which direction would a fire most likely come?
  • What shelter is available, and how would we reach it?
  • Is a change in wind direction likely—if so, to what direction, and what impact does this have on evacuation plans?

Planning if a fire is encountered or suspected
More detailed planning is essential should a fire be suspected or encountered, or if the probability of fire is perceived as high. As well as the issues noted above, planning should also include searching for areas that provide good shelter or cover from a fire such as open areas, cuttings, dugouts, quarries or other areas with reduced fuel loads.

What to do if you are caught by a bushfire

Find cover
The highest priority is to search for the best available cover. You cannot outrun a fire, so a refuge providing shelter is the best plan. Radiant heat is the killer, so protection must be from radiant heat, which travels in straight lines. The more solid the material between you and the fire, the more radiant heat will be blocked.

The best protection is likely to be in places such as:

  • running streams or pools
  • eroded gullies free of scrub
  • holes made by fallen trees
  • road bridges or culverts
  • deep wheel ruts on roads
  • large rocky outcrops or other areas with little or no vegetation
  • an area which has already been burnt
  • dugouts.

If you find a good refuge, go to it and wait for the fire to pass. Clear any leaves or vegetation which could burn near your shelter. When looking for a place to shelter, seek streams or rivers, bare clearings, or large rock outcrops that will break the path of the fire. Avoid places uphill from the direction of the fire or at the crest of a hill. Never shelter in water tanks above the ground surface.

Protect yourself against radiant heat
Whatever cover or refuge you find, make the most of any additional protection you can achieve, through covering over all exposed skin – ideally with thick, woollen clothing, sheets of bark, slabs of wood soft earth or anything to shield you from the heat.

It is wise to have long pants and a long-sleeved shirt on any bushwalk in fire-prone areas. Wool is the best material from many perspectives – it provides good insulation and does not readily burn. Sturdy leather footwear, a broad-brimmed hat, and a supply of water are essential items.

Do not wet the clothes unless they can be kept wet while the fire front passes (e.g. in a creek or dam). Water is a good conductor of heat and wet clothes will produce scalds. Keep as low as possible to avoid breathing superheated air and smoke. Drink water regularly to avoid dehydration.

Look after your group
The leader’s first responsibility is for the welfare and safety of their group. Key issues to think about and things to do include:

  • Use the buddy system—never let anyone shelter alone. Keep watching where members of your party are sheltering. Don’t allow party members to get out of sight.
  • Monitor behaviour. Party members must watch for any sign of panic amongst each other. They must be encouraged not to break away from the group. Panic in one member can cause others to panic.
  • Observe changes in the weather, fuel and topography of the area you are in.
  • Try always to have at least one escape route.
  • Ensure all party members have plenty of drinking water and check they are not suffering from heat exhaustion.

Smoke inhalation
A disposable face mask or a cloth bandana can help protect against smoke inhalation. Fine particles which lodge in bronchial tubes can make breathing difficult. Avoid inhalation of smoke and superheated air by crouching low. Hot air rises and cooler air may be found close to the ground. Goggles can protect your eyes from smoke particles. Limit your breathing rate when smoke is dense and wait for the arrival of cool pockets of fresh air.

The last resort
The last resort is to run through the fire onto burnt ground. This is not recommended by any fire authority—but is mentioned here as an absolute last resort. The approach is to:

  • choose a place where the fuel is sparse, and is free from obstructions and where there is (or will be) minimal burning material
  • wait for a lull in the fire
  • breath close to the ground for cooler, less smoky air
  • wait until you can see over and through the flames
  • take a deep breath and run through the flames, covering your face as much as possible.

Flames greater than 1.5 m high or where the fire front is deeper than 1.5 m are too hazardous to run through.