Australia is on fire, no literally. Half of our east coast right now is experiencing devastating bushfires (our term for wildfire). In fact at the peak of this emergency said bushfires spread over a stretch of 1,200km and emergencies were declared in three separate states. And whilst the fires haven't been extinguished (in fact most are still raging out of control) and there remains hot dry weather coming into the weekend the costs of said fires are already being counted. 4 people lost their lives, over 250 homes were raised and millions of dollars of damage done.
Australia is no strangers to fire though, in fact our native population historically have deliberately lit bushfires in an effort to sustain both animal population control and remove dead foliage which allows our ecosystems to regrow. It doesn't make fires any less dangerous. In February of 2009 Victoria (the most southern state of Australia) experienced its worst natural disaster in history, one we now know as the Black Saturday bushfires. It was a day that 173 people lost their lives. I also personally was there to experience it. I was one of the final people to drive a road known as the Hume Highway (the road which links Melbourne to Sydney) prior to the emergency services closing it, and I had to drive through a large chunk of the fires as a result. It was by far one of the most harrowing experiences of my life.
After these bushfires there was a large investigation into warning systems and the best ways to approach a fire. The investigation found that a good chunk of people who lost their lives in Black Saturday (and most subsequent bushfire disasters in Australia) did so not in their homes, but in a car attempting to escape. In fact the three of the most recent deaths which occurred in this weeks fires occurred in exactly the same fashion. So I thought I'd share the best ways to survive a bushfire or wildfire in a car. It's worth noting that the Country Fire Authority in Victoria and some of the most elite fire fighters in America have prescribed these methods if you are ever caught in the middle of a large scale fire event in a vehicle.
Do I stay or do I go?
Before anything though there's a clear message all fire fighters and emergency officials want to get across the line. When you are warned that a bushfire or wildfire is approaching or is in danger of approaching your home or the area you are in you need to decisively make a choice there. And all emergency officials encourage people to evacuate as early as possible.
Evacuation is always the first port of call, but if evacuation is not possible? You should prepare your own property by clearing dead foliage, removing fire risks such as wooden outdoor furniture, hosing down your property and ensuring everything is as wet as possible, putting wet rags or towels under doors and in any entry that smoke may have into your property, digging trenches around your property (if you actually have time for this, it's likely in most cases that you won't) and ensuring that both you and your loved ones and pets are as low as possible in said shelter. Alternatively if you don't believe you can defend your property you should seek shelter in a building elsewhere in a clearing with little bush or forest nearby.
The highway to hell
Driving in a fire is daunting. Two of the biggest risks in driving in a fire are smoke and ember attacks. Smoke raises a massive issue with visibility and the prescribed way to drive through smoke for more fire fighters is slowly and cautiously but continue moving. I've added video footage below from bushfires in Queensland taken by emergency services a couple of weeks ago. You'll see that when driving through burning areas the emergency services tend to move quite slowly in order to avoid any obstacles that may have been created by the fire, things like burning trees which have fallen on the road and other motorists attempting to escape the fire. Light even in the middle of the day will normally be low, if at all, thanks to smoke cover.
I've included another video example below of something called an ember attack. Basically these are burning particles of fuel which get blown long distances ahead of the fire front thanks to high winds . They can be particularly dangerous both inside and outside of a vehicle. Once again the slow steady approach is necessary here, but moreover if you know the fire front is still distance from your location, or if a fire utility can tell you where the fire is the safest approach is to wait inside the car until that ember attack has passed. Ember attacks are difficult to drive through and can do damage to your vehicle if intense enough. However if you do decide to continue driving you most do so continually and slowly, you must keep driving until the danger has passed.
In the event you do get caught in a bushfire or wildfire in a car, this is what you should do. Before anything, if you live in a fire prone area you should always carry blankets, water and a CB radio (optional but in rural locations most people have them anyway). The first thing is while you can still move your car, find a clearing. You need to find somewhere to park where there is little to no bush, forest or foliage present. This is so that there is no fuel present to burn and so that there should be plenty of oxygen to avoid both smoke inhalation and suffocation. The other option where a clearing isn't present is a barrier, rocks or a wall of some sort. Ensure once you've done this you either hail emergency services on the radio or if there is still phone service call the emergency number and give them your location with the potential for a rescue.
The CFA claims that in positioning the car you should also always face the car into the fire front and park off a roadway with your hazards activated. There is a high number of road incidents during a large scale fire event due to poor visibility which can be easily mitigated by avoiding high traffic locations as a fire front approaches.
The next parts are ridiculously important. Close all the vehicle's windows, turn off the air conditioning, shut any vents the vehicle may have and turn the engine off. Suffocation is one of the biggest killers in the event of a fire and this is catalysed by smoke. This is made worse typically by air flow through an engine when that engine is on. This aside, any fuel in the fuel lines of a vehicle will ignite in the event of a high temperature close proximity fire. It's much better that the engine is not operating at all.
You should get as low as you can in the vehicle and cover yourself with blankets. The CFA claims that any location which is lower than the height of your windows will help protect you from heat and smoke. You should also have water to keep yourself hydrated while you are in danger. The good news is the fire front of most fires is normally sweeping and quick in high wind situations. It doesn't last any more than about 10-20 minutes. This doesn't mean you should either get out of your car and flee or start your car and drive away though, you definitely shouldn't. Temperatures will still be high outside of the car, there will still be smoke and burning foliage on the ground. You should continue to keep low and hydrated until either visibility returns or you're rescued by emergency services.
Is there a better car to have in the event of a fire?
The obvious answer is yes. A truck, SUV or car designed to cope with off-road conditions is going to help not just with driving through potentially dangerous terrain but visibility as well. The lower you are in smoke higher you'll have to look to avoid danger, smoke and heat rises so what you'll be essentially looking into is more smoke. Looking down from a higher location will mean you have more visibility. It does however also increase the risk of smoke inside your vehicle and fire moving underneath your vehicle in the event that you need to stop and shelter. You must always ensure that all vents in the vehicle are closed and that no external air is blowing inside the vehicle.
Here's the thing
As I mentioned above, and following current prescribed bushfire survival tips you really shouldn't ever find yourself in a situation where you need to shield yourself from a bushfire in a vehicle. And I'm deadly serious about that. There are situations where a fire front may flank an evacuation route or you are not close to any built up cities or towns where you might get caught. But generally you should either be evacuating hours and hours in front of a fire (the preferable option for all emergency services) or preparing to defend your home and seeking shelter. Getting trapped in a car during a fire is not a situation you or anyone wants to be in.
Just a quick footnote prior to the end of today's article. All of our thoughts down south in Victoria are with those who have lost a loved one, a home or have been displaced as a result of this week's devastating NSW and QLD bushfires. We understand the danger is nowhere near over yet but we hope you all stay strong for the coming week.