Protect yourself during a bushfire
Shield yourself from radiant heat
Bushfires usually occur on hot days. You and your family may be in shorts or swimsuits and bare feet and sandals. Remember, the deadly effects of radiant heat are increased by the amount of skin exposed to it. So as soon as you know there are bushfires in your area, cover up!
Fire fighters wear protective gear to survive. So should you. Some personal protective clothing is general purpose and you will probably already have it.
Appropriate personal protective clothing
Organise a fire cupboard or box before summer and the fire season and pack it with clothes for all members of the family, and ensure all household members know its location. Whether you plan to stay and actively defend the house or leave early well before threatened, you still need to have access to protective clothing.
- Long sleeved overalls or long-sleeved shirt and trousers in natural fibres (such as wool or cotton, but not heavy clothing)
- Wide-brimmed hat or hard helmet
- Solid footwear such as boots, preferably leather
- Woollen or cotton socks
- Gloves – sturdy garden variety, not rubber or synthetic
- A moistened mask or large handkerchief for face protection and to filter smoke
- Goggles or glasses to protect eyes from smoke and flying embers
The heat will be intense so don’t overload yourself with tight-fitting, heavy clothes. Remember that everyone should wear protective clothing, not just those involved in actively defending the home.
All members of the household should wear approriate protective clothing whenever there is an uncontrolled fire in the area
As the fire front passes, radiant heat levels become extreme. Your clothes will not be sufficient to protect you for the five to twenty minutes it may take for the main fire to pass. Radiant heat cannot penetrate through solid objects. It travels in straight lines and your best protection is a well-prepared house. People protect houses and houses protect people.
As the fire front passes, stay inside with doors and windows shut to protect against embers entering your house. Remember, if you flee from your house, you lose its protection against radiant heat. Many people have died during bushfires because they were caught out either on the road or outside rescuing animals.
Taking shelter in pools, dams and water tanks is not a safe option. The air above the water will be dangerous to breath, and may be deadly when inhaled.
Reduce the risk of dehydration
Dehydration occurs when the body loses more fluid than it gains. Dehydration is dangerous because it creates a build up of salts and minerals in the body tissues which put strain on the kidneys. When the kidneys fail, death can quickly follow.
The high air temperature during a bushfire and the added stress of wearing extra clothing to shield against radiant heat will make you sweat heavily. People involved in active bushfire defence may lose up to two litres of fluid per hour.
Some simple ways to avoid dehydration are:
- Keep COOL by splashing your face with cool water
- Drink cool WATER often – even if you don’t feel thirsty
- AVOID alcohol and fizzy drinks as they increase dehydration
Children and the elderly are especially vulnerable, so pay extra attention to their needs. Cool the skin by sponging with cold water. Make sure they drink frequently.
Protect yourself from smoke
Bushfire smoke contains particles of different sizes. The impact smoke has on your health depends on your age, whether you have a respiratory or lung condition and your length of exposure.
Signs of smoke irritation include itchy eyes, sore throat, runny nose and coughing. For most healthy adults the effects of smoke exposure will clear up quickly after the smoke goes away. Children, older people and those with pre-existing illnesses such as asthma or heart conditions are more sensitive to the effects of breathing in fine smoke particles.
On smoky days, try to:
- Minimise outdoor physical activity where practical
- Rest as much as possible and keep away from the smoke if you have a pre-existing respiratory or heart condition and keep medication close-at-hand for use as prescribed
- Keep windows and doors closed when indoors and switch air-conditioners (if operating) to “recycle or recirculate” to reduce the amount of indoor smoke
- Seek medical advice immediately if you experience breathing problems or chest pain
For information on air quality in your area visit the EPA Victoria website at: www.epa.vic.gov.au/bushfires.
The Department of Human Services also has fact sheet information at www.dhs.vic.gov.au/emergency.
Mental well being
Bushfires can profoundly affect people, emotionally as well as physically. Being mentally prepared for a bushfire can help you implement your physical survival plan. Knowing what to expect may also help reduce the impact
of fires and reduces the risk of panic, stress and trauma.
Consider the following
- Go through your plan step by step on the day and stick to it
- Focus on your plan and actions, put emotions aside till later
- Deal with what is needed now and prepare for the next step
- Concentrate on giving those about you confidence and encouragement
Risk of physical injuries
The risk of physical injury is increased during a bushfire. These injuries can be caused by poor visibility, falling branches, hot objects, over exertion, emotional fatigue or falling from an unsecured ladder or rooftop.
To reduce the likelihood of injuries, it is recommended that you wear appropriate protective clothing, move around your property with great care, be aware of hot objects and understand your physical and emotional limits.
If caught on the road
Remember, if your plan is to leave early when a fire is burning in your area, do so before the fire threatens and road travel becomes hazardous. Leaving late is a deadly option. Declaration of a Total Fire Ban, or other high fire risk days, should be your trigger to put your Bushfire Survival Plan into action.
If you are driving and see smoke ahead, always u-turn to safety if you have the option. Avoid being caught out on the road during a fire as it is highly dangerous - a car will not offer safe protection from the radiant heat. However, if you are caught in a fire do not get out and run. Being in a car is still better than being in the open.
- Pull over to the side of the road into a clear area – a dirt track may be the best option
- Try not to park the car in a place where it is surrounded by vegetation that will burn - avoid long dry grass and scrub
- Park behind a solid object, if possible, such as a bus shelter of brick toilet block clear of vegetation.
- Ensure all windows and doors are tightly closed and shut all air vents
- Put the hazard lights and headlights on so other vehicles can see you
- Cover exposed skin as much as possible with clothes made of natural fibres
- Get down as low as possible below window level and cover up with a woollen blanket until the fire front passes
- Remember to drink lots of water to stop yourself form dehydrating
- Move to safety only when you will feel a reduction in the heat
- Always carry a woollen blanket in your car if travelling in the country during the fire season
Information courtesy of La Trobe University