Whatever your local name for this natural disaster - bushfire, forest fire, wildfire - there's little doubt that having your home in the path of an out of control fire would be one of the most terrifying situations you could find yourself in. Every year in Australia, and other countries around the globe, people lose their homes to fire. And it can all happen in a frighteningly short period of time. One minute things can seem fairly normal - the next, a wall of smoke and flame is bearing down on you. You have no time to collect belongings, no time to increase the chances that you will still have a home to return to - it becomes a case of evacuation to save your own life.
People love living in a natural environment. Waking to the sound of birds in the surrounding trees, being able to walk a short distance from your back door and find yourself in a bushland area - these are things that people seek in a home. Unfortunately, this same beauty can be a ticking time bomb. A spark, a lightning strike, an arsonist, can turn a thing of peace and beauty into a raging inferno. There is often little to no warning.
The sad fact is, that many people who have had to face the trauma of returning to smoking ruins, may have been able to return to an intact home, had they taken some simple precautions. Of course, a raging bushfire is an immensely powerful force of nature, and at times even the most carefully prepared house will be burnt to the ground. When you are dealing with uncontrolled fire, nothing is guaranteed - however it makes a lot of sense to give yourself the best possible chance if you are caught in the path of a bushfire.
What causes your home to burn?
I realise that this may sound like a pretty stupid question, when we're talking about houses burning down in a bushfire, however the answer is a little more subtle than you may first imagine. The fact is, that houses are normally not hit with the full brunt of the fire front. What they are hit with, are embers. Burning leaves, hot ashes - these will be carried on the strong winds that are whipped up by an approaching bushfire. Often, your home is being showered with embers well before the actual fire has reached you. These embers will start numerous spot fires, both around your home, and on its actual structure. Left unchecked, these spot fires can intensify, and destroy a home.
It's because of this, that fireproofing your home isn't so much about fighting an approaching fire head on, but rather reducing the risk of spot fires taking hold. If you don't give embers anything to ignite, especially on or near your home, you have dramatically improved the chance your home will survive.
There are many things you can do to go a long way towards fireproofing your home. Some are fairly obvious, some not so obvious. However there is one feature of all these measures that is shared - when the embers are falling, it's too late. Fireproofing your home is not something that you can do at the last minute - if you live in an area with a risk of bushfire, you must take preventative measures well before a fire is approaching. Of course, the time to do this as your areas bushfire season approaches, however your life will probably be made easier by maintaining a level of protection year round. Your fireproofing will be much easier if you don't need to start the job all over again each fire season.
As you read through these steps, my earlier point about the aim of these measures becomes apparent - most of these steps are simply about how to stop a little fire breaking out anywhere near your house, and becoming a big fire.
- Grass / garden litter around your home and yard - obviously, long grass anywhere near your home is a major risk. Keep grass trimmed, particularly close to your house, sheds and fences. The same goes for garden litter, such a fallen leaves. This is all fuel to a fire - clear it up, and remove it completely by taking it to the tip.
- Clear gutters of leaves - embers that fall into a gutter full of leaves will start a fire very quickly. This fire soon spreads to the rest of your home - game over. It's vital that you clear this fuel out of the gutters.
- Make sure your roofing is secure - about the worst possible scenario you could face is that embers find their way through gaps in your roofing. Once you have a fire burning in your roof, it's far too late to do much apart from get out of there.
- Maintain garden beds, and plant fire resistant plants - This goes hand in hand with the first point. Naturally, keeping weeds down reduces the potential fuel load in your yard. There are plants that are more resistant to fire than others, if you're in an area with a bushfire risk it's a very good idea to seek out these varieties. Certainly avoid plants with a high oil content in the leaves -eucalypts are particularly bad for this (as well as being the reason bushfires are so intense in Australia). Lastly, avoid laying down mulch/woodchips/etc on garden beds - it's pointless to have fire resistant plants, when the garden beds themselves are flammable!
- Invest in decent wire window screens - In the extreme heat a fire generates, windows can break, leaving the inside of your house open to embers and sparks. Get screens for all external windows, as well as other vents around your homes exterior. A good screen will stop embers coming into the house.
- Cover other cracks around windows and doors - embers can get in underneath doors, and through cracks around windows. Invest in some weather strips for the bottom of your external doors, and make sure any cracks around windows are properly sealed.
- Trim any overhanging trees - you don't want trees overhanging your house. Not only will a burning tree drop many burning embers, there is a chance that burning branches will drop onto your house.
- Keep flammable materials away from your home - this includes things such as LPG tanks (including the barbeques), tins of paint, aerosols - basically any flammable materials. If you don't already have a shed to store these materials, maybe it's a good time to get one. On top of flammable chemicals, remove paper, boxes, rubbish, and anything else that can burn - even the door mat! If it's rubbish, get rid of it. If not, store it elsewhere (although you can probably move the door mat at the last minute!)
When the fire arrives
I've said it before, and I'll repeat it again now. You won't have much time to act when your home is at risk of fire. These things can move incredibly quickly, a relatively innocent seeming bushfire can turn into an out of control blaze in a matter of minutes. However if you've taken the proper precautions, and fireproofed your house as well as you are able to, there are more things you can do to increase its chances of survival.
However before any mention of what you can do when the fire arrives, there's one very important point to be made:
Obey any and all instructions given to you by authorities on the scene.
If you're told to evacuate - now - that's what you do. Unfortunately, every year fire threatens homes in Australia, and some residents invariably ignore instructions given by firefighters and police. These people know what they're doing, and they know when the situation has become dangerous enough to warrant evacuation. They will fight tooth and nail to save homes threatened by fire, and they will keep fighting beyond the point that it's safe to be in the area. However when the times comes that they also need to evacuate, the last thing they need is to have to worry about rescuing residents who have ignored earlier warnings. Sadly, people have died in the past because they chose to stay behind. Your life is more valuable than your home.
Having said that though, if it is safe to remain in the area, your home stands a much better chance of survival if you are able to fight any spot fires that do break out, and are able to take more preventative measures while it's under direct threat.
A point about water
Of course, if you're forced to fight a fire, you're going to want water. A lot of water. However it's a cruel irony that at the time you need it most, water is the one thing that will be in very short supply. In a fire emergency, everybody is trying to access water at the same time - and the local water supply is simply not up to the task. Instead of a garden hose spraying a strong stream, it will most likely produce a trickle, if any at all. You cannot rely on water being available to the same extent that you're used to at ordinary times. Due to this, you must have alternatives planned to properly protect your home. Measures you can take range from simple, last minute steps, to more permanent alternatives. Some of these include:
- Filling the bathtub, and as many buckets as you have with water - basically, get as much water as possible on hand while you still have water available.
- Install a water tank - a reasonably sized water tank will give you water to protect your own home, as well as being a source of water for firefighting crews. After all, they face the same water supply problems as everyone else once the tankers are dry. Often, they're also connecting hoses to the local water supply, and fighting away from their fire tankers.
- Purchase a water pump - this can be used in conjunction with a water tank, and can be invaluable if you have alternative water sources available, such as a swimming pool, or a nearby creek or dam.
The decision to stay and protect your home
Assuming that you haven't been ordered to evacuate, you need to decide whether you are going to leave, or stay. Having able bodied people around your home, who are able to quickly stop any spot fires that do spring up, is a major bonus to your home's survival chances. There are some questions you need to ask yourself, and some precautions you need to take to ensure your own safety, before you make the decision to stay. Some of these considerations include:
- Has the house been prepared? - if you've not taken any preventative measures before this point, it simply may be too risky to stay and fight. While a person on the scene can do a lot to help around a well prepared home, you will be fighting a loosing battle around an unprepared house.
- Am I in good enough physical shape to stay? - it is going to be extremely hot, you will be breathing hot, smoky air. You will tire quickly, you will be under extreme stress. It will be very loud, it will be dark, the wind will be howling. If you're not in good enough physical and mental shape to handle these extreme conditions, you should not stay. The last thing you want is to force firefighters away from fighting the fire, because they're forced to rescue you when you've collapsed.
- Do I have sufficient water available? - if you don't have enough water available, there is simply no point in you being there.
- Do I have appropriate clothes for the situation? - of course, you will most likely not have access to firefighting clothing, but you need clothes that will protect your body. Your home is not the only thing that can be damaged by flying embers. At the least, you will need:
- Long pants and a long sleeve top are, and these should be a non-flammable material. You need to protect yourself from the heat you will be facing.
- Leather footwear - preferably boots.
- If you are going to be outside, a hat, goggles, and preferably some form of facemask (a dampened handkerchief will suffice if you don't have anything else to place over your mouth). You do not want embers in your eyes, hair and mouth.
- Do I have the right tools for the job? - this includes buckets, hoses, woolen blankets. You should also have a battery powered radio - chances are that the power supply will be interrupted, and you need a way to keep informed of the situation in your area.
If the answers to these questions are yes, then you're as ready as you can be, and staying to protect your home is a calculated risk, rather than being outright dangerous.
After you've decided to stay
If the fire has not yet reached you, there are some things you can do to give your home an additional level of protection. Some will require you going outside, and should only be done if you have some time before the fire reaches you. Others that are carried out inside can be carried out right up to the last minute.
- Fill your gutters with water - to do this, you will need some method to block the down pipes - products are available that are designed for this purpose.
- Wet down the roof, and wooden exteriors - of course, this is dependant on the availability of water. If it is limited, save your water for the fire's passing.
- Dampen towels - these can be used to block any cracks - eg under doors and windows, and place in any crevices where embers could gather. This is made easy if you have a bathtub full of water ready.
- Get access to the ceiling - you will need to be able to check your ceiling space, to ensure that no fires have broken out up there.
- Have drinking water available - dehydration is a major risk, due to both the level of physical exertion you will be under, and the temperature in the area.
- Do some packing - pack some clothes, and get together any important documents to take with you if you are forced to leave. Even if your house survives, you will probably not be allowed back into the area for some time - possibly days.
Surviving the fire front
When the fire front hits, you need to be ready. The smoke, noise and heat was bad before - it's nothing compared to the fire passing however. At this stage, you are concerned with both keeping yourself safe, and preventing fire taking hold of your home. Measures you should take are:
- Get inside - this is the safest place for you to be. Your house will protect you from the worst of the heat and flying embers. Under no circumstances should you be caught outside at this stage. When you come inside, bring with you hoses, buckets of water - basically anything you will need to use after the fire passes. Larger items should have been moved well before this stage. If your curtains are woolen, draw them to give you additional protection from heat, and embers should your windows break.
- Patrol the inside of your home - move around the house, keeping an eye out for any embers entering the house, remembering to check the ceiling cavity.
- Stay there - don't go back outside until the fire front has passed.
After the front's passing
Once the fire has passed, you will need to remain alert for several hours following it. At this stage, you are checking the exterior, and putting out any spot fires that have started. You need to be particularly careful of areas where embers have built up - gutters, corners and crevices are particular danger areas. Hose down walls and the roof. Always remember that bushfires are unpredictable, and can change direction quickly. Keep up with the latest news reports, so that if a fire does change direction and your home will be in danger again, you are not taken by surprise.
Being caught in the path of a bushfire is a situation that none of us ever want to be faced with. However by following simple steps, the risk can be lessened greatly. The firefighters who fight these blazes in Australia are all volunteers, and they will go to extraordinary lengths to make sure that you are not faced with the terrible prospect of loosing everything. They can only do so much though - looking after your own home's safety not only increases its chances of survival, it makes their jobs that much easier.
In Australia, bushfire is a major danger in the summertime - of course, homes in other countries face risks just as great. In the bushfires of Christmas / New Years in 2001, 109 homes were destroyed, with 40 others damaged. Firefighters managed to save an estimated 20,000 others. Particularly following these devastating fires, many communities are taking responsibility for their own safety. In high risk areas, streets are forming Community Firefighting units, and equipping themselves with firefighting equipment. They are undergoing training, so that if fire reaches their areas, they have the ability to make a significant difference.
Of course, not all of us live in areas where bushfire is a risk. This doesn't mean that you are unable to make a difference however - in Australia, local bushfire brigades will be more than happy to take on new recruits. You could be the difference between another family coming home to the house they have built, and a charred ruin.