Bushfire safety tips for bushwalkers and canyoners

There are two universal truths about the Australian bush: it is breathtaking beautiful and potentially deadly. Whether snakes, spiders, bushfires, thunderstorms, landslides, howling winds, falling trees, or even the elusive Penrith Panther, there’s no shortage of ways Mother Nature can harm or kill you.

Some of these hazards are being amplified by climate change, which is increasing the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events. In recent summers we have not only had heatwaves regularly set new records — both for the temperature and the time they last — but these conditions have also been responsible for increasing the frequency and intensity of bushfires.

In late 2013, the Blue Mountains (where the Fat Canyoners do most of our bushwalking and canyoning) was impacted by several major blazes that resulted in the destruction of nearly 200 homes. These fires burnt through thousands of hectares of wilderness, including a large swathe of bush that is home to some of the most popular canyons in the country. (You can see photos of the aftermath of these fires taken around the Wollangambe River and Mt Wilson area, along with the nearby Newnes Plateau).

These growing bushfire risks have resulted in the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service imposing an unprecedented ban on campfires and solid fuel stoves in dozens of parks, including the Wollemi and Kanangra-Boyd, from early Spring right through into Autumn.

While the chance of a bushwalker or canyoner being caught in a bushfire is remote (so don’t try using it as an excuse not to get out into the wild), it is important to treat it like any risk factor by taking sensible steps to mitigate the threat.

The article below seeks to provide a compilation of the best advice I have found — combined with my own recollections from Rural Fire Service training — to keep yourself safe from bushfires over summer.

DISCLAIMER: This is general advice only. Each situation is different and everyone has to make their own assessments of the particular risks they face. The following is not intended as a step-by-step guide, rather it provides information and advice that may assist with improving your own approach to mitigating potential fire risks. Any activity in the bush carries some risks. We take no responsibility for any incidents or accidents caused by people uncritically following the points below.

Smoke rising from a distant bushfire

How serious is the risk of bushfires?

Bushfires are a common occurrence in Australia, with parts of south-eastern Australia among the most bushfire-prone areas on earth. Despite this, the chances of a fire starting in an area where you are walking is actually quite low. Many bushland areas go decades between natural fires.

Things like dry lightning strikes, flying embers from an existing fire, or the careless actions of humans can all ignite a fire. While fires start small, they can quickly turn into something serious in dry, warm, windy conditions. For example, in 2013, a bushfire that started just north of Springwood was burning down homes within half an hour of igniting. So just because an area is free of fire hazards when you enter it does not mean it will remain that way.

Even a small bushfire can pose a serious threat to life and requires appropriate actions to be safely dealt with. This can be hard when operating under the stress of a fast-approaching fire.

It is important to remember that fire can injure or kill in a number of different ways, and that the flames are only one of the dangers. Direct contact with flames will cause physical burns, while smoke and hot gases can cause asphyxiation, and radiant heat can induce heat stroke.

In recent years there have been examples of people, including highly experienced event organisers, caught out because they underestimated fire risks. In 2011, a bushfire trapped several ultra-marathon runners in Western Australia, causing life-threatening injuries to two people and injuring a number of others.

What factors influence how a fire behaves?

There are three main factors that affect how a fire behaves: weather, fuel, and topography.

The intensity and speed of a fire are largely determined by the type, amount, and moisture content of the fuel that is burning. Fire can move extremely fast in grassland, but is usually less intense, while in more thickly forested areas fires will burn with more intensity, but usually move more slowly. Dry, fine fuel (less than 8mm in diameter) will produce a quicker moving fire, while vegetation that is damp, sparse or composed of larger material will generally result in a slower moving fire.

Fires will burn more intensely if the weather is hot and dry, while cooler weather or increased humidity will reduce fire strength. Wind not only makes fires move more quickly, but changes to wind directions can radically alter a fire’s behaviour. Fire travels with the wind, rather than against it, so a sudden shift in the wind can see a placid flank become a raging fire-front.

The landscape also has a major impact on fire behaviour. Fires move much faster going uphill, roughly doubling in speed for each 10 degree increase in the slope. This is because the fire is able to dry and heat the fuel ahead of it, speeding the combustion process.

Understanding these factors, and using them to take appropriate actions, is integral to surviving a bushfire.

Bushfire burning though the Grose Valley in the Blue Mountains

What should be done before heading into the bush?

There are many things that can be done to limit the risks posed by fire, but the only way to truly eliminate any danger is to simply not enter the bush. That isn’t a choice we’d recommend, given the benefits of connecting with nature far outweigh the potential risks. Instead, properly prepare to minimise them as much as possible.

Always check the forecast weather conditions. Heat, dry weather and strong winds all increase fire risks. Thunderstorms often spark fires. Consider scheduling your trips for a time of lower risk (although this is hard for canyoners, who are drawn out by the hot weather). Extreme fires usually occur when temperatures are in the mid-30s or higher, relative humidity is less than 15 per cent, and winds are hot, dry and greater than 30 km/h.

Check for any alerts regarding nearby fires, along with predicted fire danger ratings. In the cooler months, authorities carry out extensive hazard reduction burns, so even in winter you should check that there are no fires planned for the area you are walking in. These fires are often quite large, and more remote ones are ignited by dropping incendiary devices from helicopters, allowing them to cover large areas very quickly.

Check for any closures relating to the area you are walking, or fire bans that will prevent you lighting fires or using solid fuel stoves.

Ensure your trip intentions are known. Consider registering your planned walk with police, NPWS, or other appropriate authorities. Inform a friend or loved one of your planned route, allowing them to notify authorities of your presence if a fire occurs. Include party size, intended route, and estimated arrival time.

Plan your journey so that it includes possible escape routes or easy access to areas that offer refuge from fire, like natural water sources, open rocky ground, clearings, etc. Depending on where you are along your planned route the best escape option could be to retrace your steps, exit via a side route, or continue on to the planned finish point. Take into account likely wind directions which could be fanning a fire (in the Blue Mountains, intense fires are generally driven by hot, dry winds coming from the west or north-west).

Take clothing that will provide protection from radiant heat. Synthetic fibres can melt and cause severe burns. Natural fibres like wool and cotton will offer greater protection.

Consider carrying an emergency personal locator beacon (PLB). This can help emergency services quickly locate you in the event of a life-threatening situation.

Make sure someone in your group knows how to provide first aid for injuries such as burns, shock, asphyxiation, smoke inhalation, heat induced illness, etc.

What actions should be taken while walking to reduce fire risks?

Being able to move to the nearest safe place in the case of a fire requires you to know where you are at all times. Put a greater focus on your navigation so that decisions made in an emergency are based on a precise knowledge of your current location.

Keep track of possible features that could provide refuge from fire, allowing better decision making if you do encounter a blaze. Don’t just examine what shelter is available, but also consider the most efficient, and safest way, of reaching it.

Keep your eyes (and nose) on the lookout for smoke. When high points are encountered, take a moment to scour the horizon for possible fires, particular in the direction the wind is coming from. If you see smoke, consider turning back or finding an alternate route.

Watch out for increased air traffic. A serious fire will almost always be responded to by a large number of aircraft, both for water bombing and to provide real-time intelligence about how the fire is moving. These aircraft can be an early warning of a nearby fire.

Pay attention to the terrain you are moving through, looking at steepness, the fuel loads in different parts of the topography, and other factors that might influence how a fire would move.

Keep track of wind direction and strength, as well as considering likely changes that could occur.

Take a small radio and listen to local weather and fire updates.

Ensure you remain well hydrated and are carrying plenty of water with you.

Fire conditions are usually worse in the afternoon, so walking earlier in the day and moving quickly can reduce your risk.

How do you avoid starting a bushfire?

The bushwalkers code of ethics contains extremely useful advice for ensuring you do not create fire risks while in the bush. It is well worth any outdoor enthusiast reading it in full.

Only ever light a fire if you are certain it can be done safely. If in doubt, use a stove for cooking and thermal clothing for warmth. Never light a fire in environmentally sensitive areas, such as alpine regions, rainforest, canyons, or on bare rock.

Do not light fires in hot, dry, windy weather condition or when there is a fire ban in place.

If you do light a fire, do it on bare sand or soil where possible. Ensure it is away from stumps, logs, living plants or river stones. Sweep leaves, grass and other flammable material away from your fireplace.

Keep your fire small and do not leave it unattended.

Before leaving, ensure the fire is thoroughly out. Douse any embers with water. Scatter or bury the cold charcoal and ashes.

A wall of flames moving through the Grose Valley

What if you are faced with a bushfire?

It is essential that you don’t panic, but instead remain calm and plan your actions carefully.

If the fire is some distance away, consider ditching non-essential gear or consumables like food to allow you to move more quickly to a safer area.

Never try to outrun the fire.

Fires move the fastest, and burn the strongest, at the front. Rather than trying to stay in front of a fire, you are better off heading to the side, or flank, where the fire will likely be burning with less intensity.

Never go uphill, unless you know of an extremely well protected refuge nearby. Fires will burn with the greatest intensity at the top of hills, and move fastest as they climb a slope. It is almost always best to move downhill.

Move to areas with lower fuel loads, such as spots where fuel is sparser, or simply larger or wetter so it will burn more slowly. Rocky outcrops, hollows, fire trails, previously burnt ground, heavily grazed areas, eroded gullies, holes made by fallen trees, or any other place without combustible material is ideal. Clear anything that could burn, such as leaves or vegetation, away from your shelter.

If possible, find an area that won’t burn such as a lake, permanent creek or canyon.

Smoke and hot gases can cause asphyxiation and even burn the inside of your airways. Keep as low as possible, breathing into the ground, and cover your mouth and nose with a wet cloth to avoid breathing super-heated air and smoke.

Radiant heat can be as deadly as the flames. Lie down on the ground and cover yourself as much as possible. Take advantage of large rocks, logs, or depressions in the ground. Place soft, moist soil over your skin. Even sheets of thick bark or slabs of wood can protect you from radiant heat. Look for anything that will deflect or absorb the radiant heat. Remember that radiant heat travels in straight lines. Radiant heat can cause heat stroke, which is when the body’s cooling system fails, leading to heat exhaustion and heart failure.

Wear natural fibres (cotton or wool) that cover as much of your skin as possible. Avoid synthetic materials except as a last resort. It is wise to have long pants and a long-sleeved shirt with you when walking in a bushfire-prone area.

Do not wet your clothing unless it can be kept wet while the fire front passes. Water is a good conductor of heat and wet clothes can produce scalds.

Drink water regularly to avoid dehydration.

Make sure you look after the safety of your whole group. Never let someone shelter alone. Use the buddy system. Don’t separate or lose sight of each other. Monitor the behaviour of all party members, and in particular watch for signs of panic. One person panicking and breaking away from the group can put the whole group at serious risk.

Move to burnt ground once the fire has passed. Be aware of the residual dangers residing on burnt ground, including falling branches or trees, burning logs, or burning tree stumps.

Never shelter in an elevated water tank. Above ground tanks can heat up quickly. A human immersed in warm water cannot sweat or lose heat, and water temperatures as low as 44ºC can lead to a loss of consciousness in a matter of minutes.

If you have a mobile phone, call for help, or if you are carrying a PLB, set it off.

Make yourself highly visible, which will help helicopters spot you. Authorities will likely fly over known walking tracks, campsites and other popular areas in the path of the fire.

Avoid direct contact with the flames. Running through the flames should only ever be attempted as an absolute last resort, when no safe shelter can be reached. This course of action is not recommended by fire authorities. It should only be attempted if you can see clearly behind the flames, so they are less than 1 metre high and 3 metres deep. If you must run through the fire, move to the flanks or areas burning with less intensity, look for a lull in the fire, seek areas with fairly clear ground, and avoid areas with potential obstructions or obstacles. Take a deep breath low to the ground, then cover your face and run through the flames to already burnt ground.

What if you encounter a fire while driving?

If you come across smoke or fire while driving, the safest course of action is usually to return the way you have come. Fallen branches or trees can easily block your way, preventing your escape from the fire. If you are driving through smoke turn your headlights on to make yourself more visible to other vehicles, slow down, and keep watch for firefighters and emergency vehicles. Turn your air-conditioning on and recirculate the air to limit how much smoke enters your car.

If you are trapped by a fire while driving, stay in the vehicle, as research shows this offers the best chance of survival.

Park your vehicle in an area that provides the greatest protection from both radiant heat and flames, such as a roadside clearing or against an embankment. Do not stop under trees that could fall on your vehicle. Avoid stopping in the middle of the road where you could be struck by other vehicles. Keep the engine running, with all windows and vents closed. Turn your hazard lights on. Lie down on the floor of the vehicle and cover yourself with anything that will protect you from radiant heat, such as a woollen blanket. Drink plenty of water. Wait for the fire front to completely pass.

It is a good idea to keep woollen blankets and drinking water in your car just in case you are forced to use it as a refuge from a bushfire.

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Have I missed anything? Do you have any other good tips to help reduce the risks posed by bushfires or maximise the chances of survival? If so, leave us a comment and we’ll incorporate it into the article.

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