Should You Stay and Defend or Leave Early Part 1

Ken Walker

To stay and defend or leave early during times of bushfire. This is a question Australians are asking themselves more and more as climate change kicks in and starts to have a recognisable impact on our communities. This article is a result of many years dealing with sectors of community complacency.

 

Our goal through a series of articles is to provide relevant information to educate communities on how to make informed decisions.

It seems so easy to blame others for such complacency, but in reality, it’s probably a failure of senior firefighters, like myself, who haven’t adequately introduced programs that increase community awareness over the last couple of decades.

Now, during retirement, I have the opportunity to pass on knowledge from my observations, failures and subsequent learnings.

 

The principles of emergency management

In this series of articles, I will cover the required preparedness, response and recovery outcomes, designed to help property owners keep safe during times of bushfire.

It is probably quite obvious to most that there are no guarantees when it comes to bushfire.

 

Even so, during this series of article, we will look at things property owners can do to stay informed, even when the power has been cut and communication with the outside world is difficult to maintain.

In 2013 my volunteer firefighter brother was caught in a bushfire and almost lost his life trying to save a colleague. Luckily, he survived to tell the story of what actually happened. There will be a number of references to this situation and others throughout this article.

What happens as a bushfire approaches

Moving on, let’s first look at what happens as a bushfire approaches your property. It must be said that there are so many variables.

 

Many will be discussed below, but let’s take a general overview of what is likely to happen by firstly setting the scene.

Say you live on the edge of a state forest. It’s a lovely location and there is a gap of around 60 to 70 metres between the forest and your home.

 

You have planted a number of shrubs and small trees but aren’t familiar with fire-resistant species. The topography in the area is undulating but generally quite flat with a few small hills in the distance.

bushfire looks quite bad

Being very proud of your home you keep the grass quite short and the leaf litter under the shrubs and trees to a minimum.

 

The house was built in the nineties and even though you are located in an area designated as a “Bushfire Management Zone” (Overlay), there has been little to no the information provided by the fire authorities.

Even Though, the forest surrounds your home you have been told to expect a fire to approach from the north/North West. As bad fire danger days tend to have strong dry winds blowing from a northerly direction.

It’s a hot day, around 40 degrees celsius in late January when fires are likely to be at their most severe.

 

The wind is strong but seems to be no greater than around 30 km/h in strength. It has been declared a day of total fire ban by the authorities and the fire danger rating is severe.

The bushfire, here it comes

You have an emergency app on your phone and at around midday, it goes off and indicated a fire has started to the north of your property but is still 20 to 30 km away. With some concern, you check the petrol fire pump and get the family together to review the fire plan.

It’s now 1300 hrs and an update comes through on the emergency app indicating a “watch and act” warning for your area. You again start the pump and check that it operates ok. Thoughts turn to comments made by the local Fire Brigade Captain at a community meeting a few years ago.

 

Quote, “Your house is located down a one way in, and one way out, track so we won’t send fire trucks down there to protect your house on bad fire danger days. It’s just too dangerous for firefighters. So please be prepared to evacuate or stay and defend”, end quote.

As a family, you decided to stay and defend, as the Fire Danger Rating (FDR) is only severe. Not extreme or code read which would cause conditions that may not be defendable.

 

All of a sudden you receive a text message from the authorities which indicates that the approaching fire is only 15 km away.

 

There is an emergency warning transmitted with this message. Doing the right thing you start to patrol your property and notice black sooty ash start falling from the sky. It doesn’t seem to be alight so there seems to be little need to worry.

Effective-Decision-Making-During-Emergencies-06

The warning messages are starting to come through

You notice your neighbours are evacuating in a westerly direction, but still, it should be ok to stay and defend “shouldn’t it”! There is now hot embers falling from the sky but they don’t seem to be starting any fire so the pump is started and the area around the house wet down.

 

The smoke has started to cover the property and you indicate to your family to remain inside. It’s at this point you become a little scared of the unknown. Your adrenaline surges and your heart starts racing.

Another message comes through from the authorities which suggest it’s too late to leave and your property is likely to be impacted. Smoke is building and visibility is becoming poor. Some ash goes in your eye but you flush it out and it now seems ok.

The fear is overwhelming

All of a sudden the wind increases and the sound of the bush seems to be roaring. To your right, you notice a small fire which was quickly extinguished. Anxiety levels increase substantially and you are having trouble breathing. Visibility is now only 30 to 40 metres and the sound of the bush is like a freight train coming.

 

There are now numerous spot fires starting which are controlled rapidly. Then you see it. A fireball is about 40 to 50 metres into the bush. The embers have increased and are hitting and burning into your face which is the only exposed skin.

You can’t breathe and the heat is out of this world. The embers are constantly stinging your face. Making it back to the house you drop to your knee’s and wonder if this is it. You thoughts turn to your family and make you somehow stronger.

 

You struggle to put out a few spot fires and the petrol motor on the fire pump is so hot, including the air around it, that the petrol evaporates as its making its way to the combustion chamber of the pump motor and the engine stops. You then make it inside to stay until the fire passes.

The feeling of terror is overwhelming and the entire family is sobbing. Five or ten minutes go by and you look out the window. Somehow, a fire brigade tanker has made it to your location and is putting out fires which have started around the house.

Today was only meant to be severe. The metal trauma on your family was very evident for the coming years and you wish you could erase what they have seen. But the family, house and yourself survived.

“Word Back” from the fire ground.

At various times throughout my career, I protected houses and outbuilding from an approaching fire. Including the Ash Wednesday and the Streatham fires, which both resulted in substantial loss of life.

 

Attacking a fire in bad conditions is by no means an easy task, but with appropriate training, experience and leadership the risks are minimised substantially. In my view, to be confronted by a bushfire with no training and preparation would seem just risky and silly.

Preparing for fire

This story may be similar to many who have stayed and defended during a bushfire. Furthermore, there is a need to recognise and pay tribute to those who have stayed and defended but didn’t survive.

To protect your home may require many, sometimes expensive, resources. Even so, what cost could be put on family safety and your lifestyle. Maybe maintaining appropriate insurance coverage would be an option for you. Its a decision only you can make.

In part 2 and 3 of this series of articles, we will establish how much it is likely to cost to protect your home from bushfire.

In Conclusion.

The safest option will always be to leave early (the day or night before). The longer you wait the more unsafe it becomes. I.e. if you wait until you get an emergency warning there is always the possibility you will drive into another fire. So staying and defending needs to be a calculated and an informed decision. Using all information available in term of preparedness response and recovery.

In the next article in this series, we will look at How to Prepare For a Bushfire which may help you survive if you decide to stay and defend.

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