What to do if you are caught by a bushfire
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
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.
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.