Camping Savvy: How To Survive A Forest Fire

by : Bill Revill

All too often these days, Mother Nature reminds us that she is still the boss. Almost every summer, for instance, in two of the world's forest fire hotspots -- the west-coast states of USA, and the southeastern regions of Australia -- thousands of hectares of forest are lost, homes burned to the ground, and most tragic of all, lives are lost.

Indeed, back in January 2005, my wife and I had centre-stage involvement in one of nature's more violent demonstrations as we found ourselves caught up in the wildfires that ripped through the Eyre Peninsula region of South Australia.

If nothing else, the unbelievable power and savagery of a full-on bushfire leaves you with an indelible respect for its wholesale destructiveness -- along with permanent paranoia regarding campfire safety. Because every summer those searing images come back on the boil.

So how would you cope if your peaceful forest campsite was threatened by wildfire? That ominous pall of smoke and ash rising above the treetops could reach your tents and your family within the hour. What can you do?

Well, first up, it should go without saying that you must instil in every member of your group the on-going necessity for strict control over campfires and cooking appliances. And on days declared a "total fire ban", fires and LPG/propane cookers must not be lit.

Keep in mind also that, even in lightly forested areas, wildfire moves at an incredible pace -- particularly uphill. During those critical summer months it pays, therefore, to stay constantly informed about any fire threat within, say, 100 kilometres of your camp. Radio news reports, passing travellers, or personal observation from nearby vantage points should all be utilised.

In fact whenever you camp in "high fuel" environments -- such as forests, areas of long, lush grasses, or thick layers of dry leaf litter -- remain alert for critical fire danger signs: high temperatures, low humidity, and strong wind. The onset of a thunderstorm, possibly many kilometres away, may well provide that feared spark of ignition.

Back at the campsite, your first awareness may simply be a vague smell of smoke, or fine pieces of ash settling on vehicles, tents and awnings. This might soon be followed by a light smoke-haze enveloping the camp and surrounding bush. Once that smoke and falling ash thicken, visible flames, moving closer among the trees, may not be far off.

At those very first indications of a possible bushfire you should commence positive defensive action. If the fire is within, say, 50 kilometres, cutting short your holiday is definitely the wisest course, but even if still further off, get your group together to revisit your plans and basic emergency procedures.

For example, prepare now to fight possible ash-initiated spot fires by filling containers with water, and keeping axes, shovels, and wet sacks (or branches) close at hand. Non-essential gear -- including combustible awnings or shelters -- should be packed and loaded, and vehicles parked in open areas for ease of departure (without blocking access for others) with keys in the ignition. Place a blanket and water bottle on board for each member of your group.

Ensure, too, that everybody is suitably dressed, with clothing covering as much skin as possible. Cotton or woollen garments are preferable to synthetics, along with broad brimmed hats and leather boots. Be aware, too, all that smoke might trigger an asthma attack in a susceptible member of your group.

As early as possible, undertake a recce around the campsite to determine if any areas nearby might provide some degree of refuge -- like open fields, large carparks, wide creeks, pools or ditches (but not overhead tanks). Also, stress on everybody that, if caught in the open with fire bearing down, lying flat or below ground level, covered by blankets, dirt or sand, and using a wet towel to breathe through, will protect them from the two most critical dangers: radiated heat and thick smoke. Above all, they must not panic or try to outrun a vigorous fire front. Thankfully, the worst of a forest fire usually passes in three to four minutes.

In fact, if suddenly surrounded by blazing forest, the safest place may be in the car (parked in any available open space) with all windows, doors and vents closed. If everyone gets down low on the floor, covers up with blankets, and resists the urge to run as the fire passes through, danger is reduced significantly. Despite popular belief, the chances of the fuel tank rupturing are extremely low.

Then again, if an opportunity presents itself to drive out through smoke, turn the headlights on and leave windows fully closed with the air conditioner off. Stay alert for burning trees or branches that have -- or might -- come crashing down.

On the other hand, if your only alternative is to evacuate on foot, take your blanket, wet towel, and water bottle, and crouching low, try to move downhill or toward already burnt ground. But never give in to the temptation to sprint through a wall of flame that is higher or deeper than a couple of metres.

Yes, it is pretty scary stuff. But despite their awesome fury, and their terrible toll over the years, with knowledge, clear thinking and decisive action, you can survive a major fire.

Even so, the experience has changed forever the way I look at our magnificent Australian bush.