8 Facts that May Help You Survive a Bushfire or Grassfire

Ken Walker

Heatwaves in Australia

*  Conditions Apply

One question, those living in or near the bush often ask, is how to survive a bushfire in your house? It would be great to tell these people, “well you know! there are a few steps to follow and you will be fine”. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Bushfires in Australia 2019 are still part of the living in this great land. No organisation or individual can give a 100% guarantee that you will survive an approaching bushfire in rural Australia, especially if your property is in a position to be impacted by the fire. 

Even so, there are numerous things individuals, families and businesses can do to give them the best chance of survival. Over many years the firefighting community has conducted research and provided a wealth of information to help protect life, property and the environment. Furthermore, fire investigation has improved over the past decade and what causes bushfires has never been more clear. As this article goes live the fire services are dealing with Queensland bushfires.

Following is basic information to help you make an informed decision about you and your families safety during the fire danger period. This article will discuss the important concepts that one should consider when planning and/or responding to the outcomes of a bushfire. 

1. Can the emergency services (fire service) help me?

It’s becoming more and more obvious that over the next few decades the emergency services will have greater trouble controlling grassfires and bushfires. Fires may be bigger and are likely to move much faster. The technical aspect of fire behaviour and suppression will be discussed in this article later.

Whilst the emergency services, both volunteer and career, do an enormous amount of community safety work/education. Which is designed to inform the public of the dangers associated with bushfire. It is often an effort that fails to cover the greater Australian population. It’s therefore important that as members of the public we take some responsibility for our safety. Seeking out information on various online and offline fire awareness platforms.

Each Australia State fire department has a website. Some are better than others but please check them out. Most information is up to date and well researched. Don’t only look at your state’s website – other states may have easier and more user-friendly information. I suggest you have a look at the CFS (South Australia) website – I like their household assessment tool.

Note: I have no affiliation with any fire service other than I recently retired from a career with the Country Fire Authority of Victoria. And hope the knowledge I have gained over 38 years service will help others stay safe.

disaster-preparedness

2. Helping during the fire

It’s quite common for people to realise that in a given small rural location there is likely only one fire fighting truck. Furthermore, during fire emergencies, it will probably be working on the main fire front trying to stop the fire spread.

As such you are, more than likely, going to be forced into making a decision to stay and fight or go. If you have limited knowledge in relation to fire behaviour and suppression the latter is probably the way to go. My advice on an extreme or code red/catastrophic day is that the best option would be to leave early and don’t take the risk. You can learn a lot form visual media – have a look on YouTube. There is a wealth of videos of people confronting bushfire.

As a final point, for this section, it is very unlikely that you will get much physical help from the fire brigade during major fire emergencies.

 

3. What will a bushfire be like as it approaches

This is where we should take a quick look at fire behaviour and suppression. There are a couple of stories which may reinforce the need to be very prepared.

Fire Behavior:

As a firefighter, there is nothing more frightening than to be responding to a fire and realise that potentially life and property has already been lost. Its obvious fire behaviour is extreme and the impact our little firefighting tanker will have will be minimal.

There are three key factors that impact on fire behaviour. They are fuel, weather and topography.

  • Fuel is pretty obvious in terms of behaviour, the more we have and the drier it is the greater the intensity. There are other factors which impact fuel (ie: size) but these are the main ones.
  • Weather is the next and main driver of intense fire behaviour. You may remember a 36-degree day or hotter and it wasn’t declared a total fire ban. This is likely done to the very low wind speed. Making it quite easy to control a fire if one starts. The problems increase as the wind speed increases.
  • If fuel and weather are conducive to extreme fire conditions then topography becomes significant. 

The speed in which a fire travels double for every 10 degrees increase in slope. I.e. a fire travelling at 5km/hr on flat ground, starts to travel up a slope of 10 degrees the resulting speed will be 10km/hr (which is very fast). This is why you will never see firefighters waiting for a fire at the top of a hill.

Furthermore, if your house is located on top of a hill, with magnificent views, you have a lot of work to do each year to try and remain safe. 

5.

4. Fire Suppression:

If you think of the fire triangle then methods of suppression will become more evident. For a fire to occur and continue burning we need a fuel source; oxygen and heat. Take any one away and the fire goes out.

Factors which reduce fuel like; prescribed burning during the winter and non-fire danger period, mowing and raking; all work to reduce the amount of available fuel for a fire to burn. Firefighters use dozer’s and other equipment, including hand tools, to clear fuel and try to halt the progress of the fire. Also back burning from such control lines to increase the width of the reduced fuel area.

Taking away the oxygen during a bushfire is a very unlikely scenario, but in some situations, dirt may be dumped on top of burning fuel to take away the oxygen. Often causing more trouble than it’s worth.

One of the most effective methods of fire attack especially on grass fires is to use water to take away the heat. This can be very effective and when additives are used like class ‘A’ foam or other fire retardants making the effectiveness of the water far greater than without the additives. Even general wetting agents from places like Bunnings and Mitre 10 will help your firefighting efforts.

5. When are bushfires likely to start and become large

Previously when we discussed fire behaviour there were three main drivers in terms of fires gathering momentum and becoming large and/or out of control. They were fuel weather and topography. Let’s consider the first two.

Fuel:

When fuel is abundant and has low moisture content it will burn more readily.  Furthermore, when the humidity is very low (less than 10%) available fuel will likely be drier and burn more rapidly and  contributing to the intensity 

Another important factor is the size of such fuel. Research has shown that during a bushfire fuel which is less than 6 mm in diameter is likely to significantly contribute to the fire intensity and fuel or sticks/logs that are larger may still burn, but will do so after the main fire front has passed.

During times of drought, the grasslands may be quite bare and unlike to maintain an intense fast-moving fire. In such condition, the fire may move fast but firefighters will be able to attack it easily because the intensity (flame heights) is relatively low. This is a good example of why property owners should reduce the fuel around their home for at least 30 to 50 metres. Further if possible, especially if your property borders the bush.

Disasters like Black Saturday and Ash Wednesday, arguably the worst bushfires in Australia, were intense but generally remained in the bush where fuel was extremely dry resulting from extreme drought. Where grass fires were large, during those times of disaster, they were generally within a few hundred kilometres of the coast. The main have had less rain than normal but it was enough to create high fuel loads.

The northern country grasslands of Victoria Australia had little to know fuel and fires that did start and get large were generally in bush areas.

weather short course

6. Weather:

Defined as the conditions in the air above the earth, such as wind, rain, or temperature especially at a particular time over a particular area.

It is the great unknown. Even so, technology has helped us predict what the weather may be like in one, two or even seven days from a point in time. It’s not possible to predict exactly what the weather will be like for a given 100m2 area of land in the coming days.

When it comes to firefighting, a meteorologist can give us an idea of how hot and dry it might be but is still may vary substantially. So monitoring the weather in your specific location is important. To understand what a fire is likely to do if one starts. There are a number of handheld tools that can monitor almost anything to do with the weather and they can be purchased for a few hundred dollars. 

As previously mentioned, the wind is the engine behind a fast-moving and large fire. Understanding what it is doing and how fast it is gusting will allow you to make an informed decision. A decision about staying and defending or to leave early.

7. How can I help my house and property survive

In this section, it would be easy to write a story about how you can give yourself and your property the best chance of survival. But I think a list of the essentials is more appropriate and will provide far greater guidance. Each item in the list below could potentially have a complete article written about it. These items assume you have a property in a fire-prone rural area or even on the rural/urban interface.

In no specific order:

  • Reduce available fuel load around the home
  • Plant only fire-resistant plans within 50 metres of your property. No trees or shrubs that will contribute to ember attack
  • Use structural designs that help protect the exterior and interior of a property i.e. enclosed gutters, fire/ember shutters or screens. There are complete lists of appropriate item in the building code and/or associate Australian Standard. Also, Google has a wealth of information
  • No gaps or dead corners anywhere in the structure where embers may enter or accumulate
  • Reduce woodpiles, outbuildings or other flammable materials that could contribute to fire spread to your property
  • Install a sprinkler system around the entire house allowing for extreme wind which will send water to areas you may not expect. Making such a system less effective. Once installed, test it on a really windy day in the summer
  • Have at least six 9kg fire extinguishers available in a strategic position for a quick response. Have at fire unit with at least 1000 litres of water available with a diesel motor on the pump if possible. If you can fill quickly from a tank – then 600 to 700 litres would be ok. A fire pump connected to a ring main around your house may suffice if you only want to protect specific areas
  • You need at least 30,000 litres of water available for firefighting only (this is a fire service recommendation)
  • All ring mains, sprinkler orange piping and the water tank should be made of metal (plastic tanks will melt unless you provide adequate protection over them)
  • Don’t build your house on a north-facing aspect or the top of a hill. Unless you prepared to do an enormous amount of fire protection work each year
  • There are so many other aspects to fire safety and where possible a professional should be consulted

8. Consider a survival plan

A plan could be the difference between life and death for you. The fire service websites generally have good information relating to establishing a plan. Even so, it should be very specific to your situation.  

If you decide to leave when an emergency warning comes in,  on a severe, extreme or catastrophic day, it’s too late. There is potential for your to be driving directly into a fire. Remember on bad fire danger days fires have been known to spot up to 30km.

Click here for a guide to your bushfire survival plan from the DFES in Western Australia

In conclusion

Like with most safety scenarios there are so many variables. Emergencies happen every day and most people with either be part of an emergency/disaster or observe one during their life. Please don’t be unprepared – your life may depend on it. 

 

* Disclaimer: Even though we provide a wealth of information in this article which may help protect life and property. STG Fire Safety Training takes no responsibility for injuries or damage resulting from actions taken by an individual or organisation as a result of this article. The article is provided in good faith and a professional emergency management specialist should always be consulted when formulating an emergency management plan. Therefore, the professional interpretation must be sort before using any of the above information.

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