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From Mount Beauty Dec 2006

The fires across Australia this year are horrific. Because the smoke is inundating the biggest capital city (not good), people are taking notice (which is good). The fires this season are probably vying for the worst ever experienced in this country. There will be worse to come with more global warming, so it’s important to be prepared.

I expect there are a lot of people who’ve never had an up close and personal experience with fires or smoke, so I figured I’d put some thoughts down from my own experience. I’m not a fire expert but I’ve been through a few huge fires in my time, including three big ones this century. (If you’ve got better or different advice, based on your knowledge and experience, don’t hesitate to say in the comments below.)

Unlike the current fires, the big ones that threatened our town were large and slow burning in the main, with some exceptions. Like most of the current fires, two were started by lightning. More on that in a bit.

Smoke hazard: One thing with fires in the bush that seem to go on forever (weeks not days), is the smoke. This causes problems for communities – you can’t see flames if you can’t see, which adds to anxiety. Visibility can get to a few metres some days. You can’t breathe properly, your lungs hurt and your eyes suffer. Community meetings can be frustrating when you’re told – well we can’t see the fire front so we can’t say how far it is from anywhere.

Smoke from a local fire.

Smoke also causes problems for firefighters. Planes and helicopters have trouble with visibility and might not be able to be used. Everyone, especially firefighters, suffer smoke inhalation. Firefighters might not know where to best target their efforts.

Smoke cloud – Mount Beauty 2006

I’d advise wearing a P2 mask, which filters out the worst smoke contaminants. Don’t worry about looking uncool – you might even set a trend and make mask-wearing the latest and greatest fashion. It beats damaging your lungs and worse.

Embers: Especially when it’s windy, embers can be carried kilometers from the fire. On a (relatively) clear day, you can see the spot fires starting up ahead of the main fire. If you’re trying to protect your home and there’s an ember storm, it will be almost impossible to keep up.

Dropping fire retardant on a fire
on a hill behind our house.

Water: It can be tempting to stay to protect your home. You’ve got hoses out and bins and buckets filled with water, and lots of towels or hessian bags or blankets. You’ve filled every bath and basin. You’ve blocked and filled all the gutters with water. You think you’ll be fine if you stay. The problem comes if you’re relying on town water coming out of the tap, and everyone else in town does the same. Then, because everyone’s pouring out gallons of water at the same time, the town’s water pressure drops or dries up altogether.

Or maybe you’re in a region where there’s drought (much of Australia), and there’s little to no water available. Helicopters and planes use water from local dams, but in a drought the dams might all be empty. Or maybe you’re relying on water in a tank – except it’s so hot the tank has melted. Or it could be you’re using a pump to get water, but the pump stops working.

After the fire passes, the town water supply might be contaminated, especially after the next rain that washes everything that burnt into the water supply. Be prepared to get bottled water or, if you’re lucky and there’s still tap water, to boil it for the next few weeks.

Heat: I’m not talking about hot weather. Yes, indeed, hot weather can be deadly. Some places here are seeing maximum temperatures approaching 50C (122F). What I’m talking about is heat from the fire. If you’ve ever been near a bonfire you’ll understand what I mean.

Whatever you do, make sure you wear protective clothing. (Look at what the firies wear even in unbelievable heat.) Don’t wear thongs (flip flops), or shorts and singlet. Don’t wear clothes made of flammable material. Go for wool or some other fire-resistant material with some insulating property. Wear long sleeves, long pants, gloves, boots and socks, and a mask. You’ll get hot but you’ll be less likely to get radiation burns. (If you’ve got a working hose then, as a last resort, spray the water to form a barrier between you and the flames.)

Wind: There is the normal wind that comes from changes in air pressure. A shift in that wind will change the direction of fire. It could change a fire front from being 200 m wide and heading east (fanned by a westerly wind) to a fire front 5 km wide and heading north (fanned by a strong southerly change).

There is also the wind created by the fire itself. When the fire is vigorous or fast moving, it can create its own weather. This makes an already unpredictable fire extremely unpredictable and dangerous.

Roads: You’ve finally decided enough is enough and it’s too dangerous to remain, so you jump in the car or sturdy ute and head for anywhere but the fire. Problems you might encounter are that you can’t see where you’re going because of the smoke; or worse, you can’t get through the road because of fallen trees. This is a huge problem if there are only one or two roads, which is the case in many areas.

The moral is, don’t wait. Leave early.

Communications & electricity: We’re used to picking up the phone, getting on the internet, watching television or tuning into the radio. In a big fire, communications towers can be destroyed and there can be power outages. You’ve been warned.

Edit – take cash: I should have added, make sure you’ve enough cash for food and petrol (gas). If you’re trapped and the power is out, the ATMs and EFTPOS and credit card machines probably won’t work. You might not be able to buy petrol or food but you’ll give yourself a better chance of doing so. [Sou 2 Jan 2020]

Firefighters: In much of Australia, fires on properties outside of the major cities are fought by organised volunteers, except for government land, where they are fought by government workers. Volunteer firefighters, like Victoria’s CFA and NSW RFS are mostly men and women who live and work in country towns and on farms. It used to be they’d go out and put out a haystack fire, or a grass fire that might burn for a day or so. Now they can be giving up their work and income for weeks on end, fighting fires in their own district or traveling far from home and helping protect private property from megafires elsewhere. Not only are they giving up income, their employers (if they aren’t fighting fires) are having to do without staff. Families have to make do on less income and with less support.

Some of our local fire fighters looking after us while there’s a fire up the hill. Thank you.

Then there’s a problem that probably occurs too often. The local fire crew is off fighting a fire in the next valley (or another one 500 km away), and a fire breaks out in their home district, but there aren’t enough people or equipment to fight it because they’re all off fighting a fire elsewhere.

You rarely hear firefighters complain. Firefighting and emergency services are what they volunteer to do, and they are committed to it. In my view the system will need to change long term, and we should be compensating them. Until then (and after then), just bear in mind that firefighters (whether volunteers or government) will probably be tackling the fires with the following priorities: save lives first, then save property, then save bushland and, occasionally, wildlife.

Most people are aware and responsible when it comes to bushfires. Sometimes people can be unthinking, however. People who put themselves in harm’s way, resulting in firefighters coming to their rescue, might be not just risking their own lives, they might be preventing the firefighters from saving lives elsewhere.

On that note, don’t go gawking. You’ll not just be risking your own life, you’ll be cluttering up the road and endangering emergency responders as well as people who may be fleeing for their lives.

Managing emotions: Unless you’ve got no emotional capacity, you’ll most likely be affected in one way or another if you’ve been through a fire or know people who are. Long drawn out fires take their toll. You’re woken in the night by the loud cracking of exploding trees, or you can’t get a decent night’s sleep for weeks on end because you never know if the fire is far enough away or if it’s working it’s way down the hill behind you. You’ll probably also find yourself becoming addicted to the radio. (You’ll have dug out that old transistor radio and picked up some spare batteries, to tune into the emergency broadcast service on the local ABC.)

While long drawn out fires can heighten anxiety, immediate fire danger can elicit panic, or maybe a deceiving calm. You might think you’re behaving rationally and with a clear head. Unless you’re trained and have experience with disasters (and maybe even then), despite feeling calm and rational you risk making poor decisions.

If you’ve already got a plan (and you know you should) then follow it. Don’t change things at the last minute.

Weeks, months, even years after living through a disaster, people can be affected. It might be post-traumatic stress or it might be a shadow of PTSD (not full blown). (Be prepared the following autumn to get a rush of adrenalin when you see leaves fall from trees, before you realise they are just autumn leaves not embers.)

Eerie colours – 2006 fires.

Implement your fire plan: If you’re advised to get the hell out, do so. Grab your pre-packed bag that has water, masks, survival gear, protective clothing. Round up your family and put all your pets in their cages and into the car. Check you’ve got your wallet and phone and car keys. Jump in the car (which you’ve kept charged or full of fuel), do a final head count, and head for the nearest safe place. (You have looked up the designated safe places, haven’t you. You know where they are.)

Whatever you do, don’t go back home until the all clear has been given. That could kill you (and has killed people).

Before finishing, a word about deniers. They are dangerous (as well as all their other flaws). I’ve seen deniers claim “this is nothing new”. That’s wrong. Fires today are worsened by climate change. Each decade brings worse fires. The fires this season could well be the worst in Australia’s history. The more prepared we are, the better the chance that while they might be the worst by many measures, they won’t be the deadliest.

Another thing I’ve seen is deniers still trying to argue there’s some sort of scientific conspiracy and that Australia isn’t really that hot, or the records have been altered to make out it’s got hotter than it really has – which is as ridiculous a notion as it sounds.

Then there are people claiming the fires were lit by people. Maybe some were, but the biggest and worst fires were caused by lightning. In any case, in catastrophic fire conditions it doesn’t matter where the spark comes from. When weather conditions are not conducive to fires, whether they are started by lightning, a train, a power line, an angle grinder or an arsonist, they cause a lot less harm.

Final word: Lives are worth a lot more than houses, or art works, or photographs, or jazz collections, or whatever might cause you to delay or hesitate to leave. Too many people have lost their lives by remaining. Few people lose their lives by leaving early when a fire threatens.

Final final word: I hesitated a bit before writing this up. I’m not an expert on fire or disaster management. However, I’ve been through some major fires in recent years and I’ve not seen anything much like this on the web, despite the fires raging. It might be food for thought to someone.

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