You may be thinking that with the onset of La Niña and the associated forecasts of a wet summer ahead that we are unlikely to see a repeat of last year’s bushfire devastation. Well….think again.
WORDS WES WHITWORTH, IMAGES WES WHITWORTH AND MARK ALLEN
According to the Bushfire and Natural Hazard Cooperative Research Centre, the 2020/21 fire season will be driven by vastly different climate drivers than the previous two fire seasons. With a La Niña ALERT now active, large areas of eastern and northern Australia are expecting wetter than average conditions through spring. Despite the wetter climate signals, parts of Queensland face above-normal fire potential in the south-east and central coast, extending to the north.
While these wetter conditions in eastern Australia will help in the short-term, they may lead to an increase in the risk of fast running fires in grasslands and cropping areas over summer. Meanwhile, dry conditions persist in Western Australia, with above-normal fire potential continuing to be expected in parts of the north.
In other words, this is no time to be complacent.
Hopefully, by now, you’ve already sorted out your bushfire survival plan for you and the family if you get a bushfire near home (if not, head over here and sit down with the family tonight and get this done). But do you know what to do if you get caught in a bushfire situation while you’re out camping?
We had a chat with the awesome folks over at the New South Wales Rural Fire Service (NSW RFS), and together we’ve knocked up this essential guide to fire survival, to help keep you and your family safe.
PREPARATION IS KEY
Being well prepared is the most critical aspect of not getting in strife out in the scrub. We’re not talking about having the fastest towing rig to get you out of Dodge, but more about checking what’s happening where you’re heading and whether you even want to go in the first place.
First and foremost, get the ‘Fires Near Me’ app, it’s available on Android and iOS, it’s free, and is (usually) updated within minutes of a fire being phoned in to 000. You can see a map showing what’s happening around you and also look throughout the whole state to where you’re heading. Mind you, you’ll need phone coverage, so you may not be able to rely on this out the back of buggery where there’s no reception.
Next off the bat, you can check fire danger ratings via the same app, or on the NSW RFS website. Most weather apps will also give you an indication on them too; however, they are known to change throughout the day if they have a wind or weather change that wasn’t forecasted.
Knowing what the weather is going to do piggybacks on to the fire danger rating. Fire danger ratings take into account the weather (temp, wind speed, humidity and dew point among other things). Sitting here in a beautiful 25°C day with 60 per cent humidity and 5km/h winds planning a trip for tomorrow without knowing what’s going to happen isn’t wise. Chances are, the very next day could be 35°C, with 10 per cent humidity and blowing at 70km/h – it happens, so keep an eye on the weather forecast
The National Parks and State Forests websites will often have information on specific parks and forestry areas. They will know if there is a fire burning in a particular park, and also will do a blanket park closure for an area if fire conditions reach a certain level (usually Severe or Extreme). Still, once they hit this level, hopefully, you’ve already decided to call off the trip.
Being able to call for help is a big one on higher fire danger days too. Whether you happen upon a wildfire and want to report it or get caught by one and need to call for help, more often than not, your mobile phone may not cut it. Unless you’re near a repeater station, chances are the UHF won’t be able to get you to help either (side note: Channel 5 is the emergency repeater channel if you need to use it). So if you’re heading somewhere remote, or a known phone reception black spot in high fire danger, either put off the trip or have another way to call for help, like a satphone or EPIRB.
Having an emergency survival kit is worthwhile too. I’m not going to go all ‘doomsday prepper’ on you but packed away with the first aid kit you should have a battery-powered radio, waterproof torch, woollen blanket (fire blanket) and some towels you can wet to put over your mouth in a pinch. Plus, all the standard stuff you would have anyway (is there a Multitool in your kit? There should be).
IF YOU GET CAUGHT IN A FIRE
If you do happen to find yourself in a fire, or in the path of a fire, this is what you need to know. Before you even leave home, make sure you have your fire kit with you, and tell someone where you’re heading and when you expect to be home – that way they know where to send the authorities if something untoward were to happen.
Stay in your vehicle. That’s the obvious one. It’s safer in your vehicle; they’re easier to find, and there’s a good chance any helicopters that are called in to recce the fire or start water bombing operations, will see your rig in the firing line and get someone there pronto.
While you’re out and about, if you do see flames or an unattended fire, call 000 first and foremost, advise the operator what you’ve seen and the best location information you can get them; GPS coordinates work great if you’re in the bush, or trail/road name. Tell them whether you’re at risk and whether you’re able to get out of the area. If you’re unable to get out, they’ll get help to you as the priority.
Next, you’ll want to get your vehicle just off the road, in as clear an area as you can find. Preferably on bare dirt or the shortest grass, you can find. Parking over scrub or ferns will not do. Not parking under or near trees should be an obvious one, as fires generate their own wind, often enough to blow old trees over, and once they’re burning they become compromised (they’re called widow-makers for a reason).
If possible, point the front of your vehicle towards the fire – if the car does start to burn and you need to evacuate, you’re sheltered by the doors when you open them, and have a straight run away from the fire, instead of having to go around a door. Turn the engine off, but put both your headlights and hazard lights on, so someone will be able to find you through the smoke. When the fire approaches, stay below the level of the windows, to protect yourself from radiated heat. You’ll want to close all your vents and windows to limit the smoke that can enter your vehicle too. Keep calm.
Remember we spoke about having a woollen blanket with you earlier? This is where you get this out and cover yourself and your family with it for added protection. Same goes with that damp cloth over your mouth and nose to minimise smoke inhalation. This should go without saying, but hopefully, you’re well-hydrated already, but make sure you have drinking water to hand and keep hydrated as best you can.
Once the fire and sound (trust me, you’ll know the roar when you hear it) of the fire has passed, only then should you carefully leave the car. The exterior will be hot, and the ground around you will be too – but it’s a lot safer on the burnt ground than it is in unburnt terrain.
If for whatever reason you’re no longer with your vehicle, similar rules apply. Get yourself to bare ground, or that with the least amount of vegetation – remembering leaf litter on the ground burns, and it burns well too. If you can find an area with a depression or ‘trench’ and you have time, clear any leaf litter out, and hunker down in the depression. There have been incidences where a fire has burnt across the top a person in a depression, and they have survived with some minor superficial burns, whereas if they were just out in the open, they probably would not have survived.
You also want to ensure you have woollen clothes with you – or cotton at the very least. Synthetic materials (nylon, polyester) melt when they get hot; suffice to say you don’t want them melting while you’re wearing them.
Hopefully, with these thoughts in mind, you’ll stay safe and never get yourself in a bushfire situation. If you do, these tips will give you a solid idea on how to keep you and your family safe.
Hopefully, having read this guide, the knowledge imparted will help keep you and your family safe. Something worth thinking about too while fire season begins ramping up, many local brigades are screaming for members. You don’t need to be retired or your own boss, as most brigades will take just about any help they can get at any time. Each year our fire seasons seem to be getting worse, and it’s the volunteers that will turn up to save you and your family when you need them most. I can tell you the pay is terrible, and there are long hours involved, but you’ll meet some fantastic people, make some great life-long mates, learn some incredible skills and get to do a service to your community. If you can spare even a few hours a week to give back, I’m sure your local brigade would love to have you. Get in touch with them and have a chat about joining up.
The author, Wes, has been with the NSW RFS on and off for 18 years. He’s been caught up in a few close calls. Some of the photos come from Mark Allen, he’s been with the RFS for about seven years and just worked near Port Macquarie. We thank all firefighters and other emergency services’ members for their bravery.