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Survive during a bushfire

Most people living in bushfires areas know they are at risk but think it will happen to someone else. Many think about preparing but never get around to it. Bushfires impact people every year and there is a good chance it could be you. Be prepared and have a plan, your survival depends on it.

During a bushfire the safest place to be is away from the fire. Being involved in a fire may be one of the most traumatic experiences of your life.

You and your family’s survival and safety depend on the decisions you make now and how you act. Put your safety first - do not wait and see.

Any decision you make should be based on survival, homes can be rebuilt. If a fire starts, leaving hours before a fire can reach you will always be the safest option for you, your family or household.

Only stay and defend your home if it is well prepared and constructed, and you are capable of actively defending it. Prepare for the emotional, mental and physical impact of actively defending your property. If you have any doubts about defending your home, you should leave.

Act decisively the moment you know there is danger. Whether you choose to leave for a safer place or shelter in a well prepared and defendable home, preparation is the key for survival.


Understanding bushfire warnings

During a bushfire, emergency services will provide as much information to you as possible through a number of different channels.

There are three levels of warning and an All Clear. These change to reflect the increasing risk to your life and the decreasing amount of time you have until the fire arrives.

  • Advice
    A fire has started but there is no immediate danger, this is general information to keep you informed and up to date with developments.
  • Watch and Act
    A fire is approaching and conditions are changing, you need to leave or prepare to actively defend to protect you and your family.
  • Emergency Warning
    You are in danger and you need to take immediate action to survive as you will be impacted by fire. This message may start with a siren sound called the Standard Emergency Warning Signal (SEWS).
  • All Clear
    The danger has passed and the fire is under control, but you need to remain vigilant in case the situation changes. It may still not be safe to return home.

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Sheltering during a bushfire

When the fire front passes the heat will be extreme and you must shelter at this time whether you planned to or not.

This information will increase your chances of survival:

  • Stay in the house when the fire front is passing, this usually takes five to fifteen minutes. You need to actively defend while sheltering
  • Take shelter inside furthest from the fire front. Make sure you can easily escape from the building. It is best to shelter in a room with two exits and a water supply (eg. a laundry with a door that goes outside or a kitchen with two exits). People have died sheltering in bathrooms and other rooms without a door going outside
  • If your house catches on fire and the conditions inside become unbearable, you need to get out and go to an area that has already been burnt. Close all internal doors and leave through the door as far from the approaching fire as possible. Many people have died from toxic smoke and fumes when their house has caught fire
  • You should protect yourself from radiant heat with long sleeves, long trousers and strong leather boots. The majority of people die in a bushfire from radiant heat.
  • Use DFES's Prepare to Actively Defend Checklist (PDF)

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After the fire front passes

  • Go outside once it is safe
  • Check for and put out small spot fires and burning embers and try to extinguish
    • inside the roof space
    • under floor boards
    • under the house
    • on verandas and decks
    • on window ledges and door sills
    • in roof gutters and valleys
    • in garden beds and mulch
    • in wood heaps
    • in outdoor furniture
    • in sheds and carports
  • Keep drinking lots of water
  • Stay at your property until the surrounding area is clear of fire
  • Look and listen for information on radio, television, online and on recorded public information lines.

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Leaving for a safer place

Many people plan to leave for a safer place but leave it too late.

You need to identify and agree on a trigger with your family that will prompt you to leave early, and have a backup plan in case you cannot leave in time.

It is extremely dangerous to leave when roads are closed and full of smoke.

Bushfires move quickly, make sure you and your family know where your safer place is, how you will get there and when you will go.

Families with children or occupants who are sick, elderly or with a disability need to leave especially early.

You need to act the moment you know there is danger, do not wait and see.

Driving is very dangerous and stressful during a bushfire with smoke making it hard to see, fallen trees over the road and power lines down.

The speed of the fire could also trap you and burn your vehicle. Cars do not protect you from radiant heat.

You should know the travel time and distance to your safer place, and include this information in your bushfire survival plan.

If you are not able to leave early, staying and sheltering may be your safest option. You will need to actively defend your property regardless of what you planned to do. Preparing your property will give you and your home the best chance of survival.

Use DFES’s You and your family planned to leave but it is too late checklist (PDF - 59 KB) to see the actions you need to take to prepare your home. Preparing your property will give you and your home more chance of survival.

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Where to go as a last resort

As a last resort, a safer place is a local open space or building where people may go to seek shelter from a bushfire. This may include an area already burnt that the fire has passed through such as a paddock.

Use of a safer place may be your back up plan when:

  • Your bushfire survival plan has failed
  • Your plan was to stay and actively defend but the scale of the fire means your home cannot withstand
  • The impact of the fire and your home is no longer a safe place to shelter
  • The fire threat has got worse and is now catastrophic or extreme, and leaving is your safest option

A safer place of last resort provides you and your family some level of protection from the affects of a bushfire.

If you or a family member have special needs you should think about what assistance may be needed at a safer place.

If you plan to use a safer place as a last resort you need to consider the following:

  • They do not guarantee safety in all circumstances
  • Firefighters may not be there, they may be fighting the main fire front elsewhere
  • They may not cater for animals or pets
  • They may not provide meals or amenities
  • They may not provide shelter from the elements, particularly flying embers and hot weather

Once you have arrived at your safer place you need to:

  • Look and listen for fire information by whatever means of communication you have - on radio, your mobile phone and internet etc
  • Continually monitor your surrounding conditions
  • If you are sheltering in a building, as the fire approaches make sure all doors and windows are sealed as best as possible. When the fire has passed and if safe, check for spot fires and embers outside, put them out if possible.
  • If you are sheltering in an open space, as the fire approaches seek protection from radiant heat and embers as best you can. Attempt to cover any exposed skin with blankets or clothing. You should lie flat on the ground during the passage of the fire front.
  • Remain vigilant at all times

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Actively defending your home

Do not underestimate what is required to maintain your house as a place of safety during a bushfire.

Actively defending your property will take huge physical and mental effort for many hours before, during and after the fire and conditions will be unbearably hot.

You need the right equipment, protective clothing for all household members and a property prepared to the highest level.

A defendable space around your home can provide protection from radiant heat but will not keep you safe from ember attack or spot fires.

You will need to put out any spot fires that start long after the fire has passed, remain vigilant and keep checking for them.

There may be many spot fires at once and you will need to prioritise these. Anyone who cannot help you to defend your home should relocate to a safer place well before the bushfire threatens.

When the Fire Danger Rating (FDR) is catastrophic, extreme or severe it may not be possible to actively defend your home. On these days fires can be so bad that even homes prepared to the highest level and constructed to bushfire protection levels that are actively defended will not survive.

Being involved in a bushfire can have a serious and long lasting psychological and emotional impact. Think about your long term wellbeing.

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If your plan fails

Bushfires can be extremely frightening and may make it difficult to think clearly and make sensible decisions. Fires are very unpredictable and you need to be prepared to change your plans.

You need to act decisively the moment you know there is danger. Having a plan to follow will help you avoid last minute decisions that could cost you, your family or household their life. There are many reasons your plan may no longer work when the fire happens. It is okay to rethink your plan for your survival.

If your plan fails or your situation changes you must act quickly and go to a safer place. You need to identify a number of places you can go to at the last minute. This may be a shed, your home, a swimming pool, a dam or another place. If your safer place of last resort is a swimming pool or dam you must protect yourself with a woollen blanket while the fire front passes.

How to handle the emotional impact

In highly stressful situations, the human body often shows signs of anxiety, such as a racing heart, shortness of breath, dizziness and sweating. These reactions to stress usually trigger distressing thoughts such as ‘I cannot cope’ or ‘I am so afraid.’

How to feel more in control

Slow down your breathing to help calm your body’s reaction.

  • To slow your breathing down, take smaller breaths and pause between breaths to space them out. When you have breathed out slowly, hold your breath for a count of three before inhaling your next breath
  • While concentrating on breathing out slowly, say to yourself ‘relax’ or ’stay calm’ or ‘it is ok, I am managing ok. These are good words to use because they are linked with feeling relaxed and in control.
  • Replace frightening thoughts with more helpful ones
  • Try not to dwell on the bad things that might happen, instead tell yourself that the calmer you are, the better you will be at managing exactly what needs to be done

Source: ‘Don’t panic: be prepared.’ The Australian Psychological Society Ltd.

Checklists have been developed to help people who live in or near bushland areas prepare for bushfires.

Preparing your bushfire survival kit (PDF - 45 KB) – Prepare a bushfire survival kit before the bushfire season starts. This will help you get through the first few days after a fire.

Preparing your bushfire survival plan

Developing a bushfire survival plan is critical. Your plan must be prepared and practiced with all members of your family or household before the start of the bushfire season.

Where to get information

  • You can subscribe to receive DFES's alerts and warnings as RSS feeds
  • DFES information line on 1300 657 209
  • Radio, television, newspapers and news websites - each media outlet determines how often they will broadcast information
  • ABC local radio broadcasts updates at quarter to and quarter past the hour in addition to news bulletins during an Emergency Warning. You may receive an Emergency Alert if the situation is life threatening.

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You may receive an Emergency Alert

Western Australia is moving to a national system that will better deliver messages directly to your mobile or landline telephone during emergencies.

Emergency Alert is a free phone messaging service that sends you voice and text warnings during an emergency when lives may be in danger in your neighbourhood or where you are located.

Emergency Alert will replace StateAlert in November 2012 as the system used by WA authorities, such as DFES and WA Police, to send you automated messages during emergencies including fire, cyclone, chemical spills and tsunami.

Click here for more information about Emergency Alert.

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Relocation and road closures

The priority of firefighters during a bushfire is the protection of lives, and a decision may be made to relocate residents who are in immediate danger.

Once you have been asked to leave your property and relocate to a safer place, it may be several days before emergency services give the all clear to allow you to return home.

During a bushfire, roads will be closed for your safety and for safe access to the fire by emergency services. These road closures are managed by police and they will not allow you to return home under any circumstance. It is important that you take everything with you when you leave your home.

Emergency services will provide you with information on which roads are closed and, where possible, what route to take to get to a relocation centre if one has been established. The Main Roads Traffic Operations Centre is in regular contact with emergency services about road closures during incidents to ensure up to date information is available.

In regional areas roads may be closed for days. It will be extremely hot and unpleasant waiting in a car with little or no shade and no toilet facilities. If you live or are travelling in a rural area check at roadhouses and police stations if any roads have been closed in the area. You should always take water and food with you to last a number of hours.

Where to find information about road closures:

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Relocation and welfare centres

After some bushfires, relocation and welfare centres may be established and coordinated by the Department for Child Protection. They are established so that appropriate support services such as shelter, emergency accommodation, food, clothing, financial assistance, registration, personal support and other welfare services can be provided.

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