What Should I Do?

Approaching Fire or Extreme Fire Alert

Understanding the dangers of imminent fire risk
Thursday, July 18, 2013, 8:20 PM
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[NOTE: This article is adapted from When Disaster Strikes: A Comprehensive Guide for Emergency Planning and Crisis Survival]

After living in the States off and on for several years, in 2008 Andrew and Mary Hall moved back to their home in Buxton, Australia so they could  be closer to their aging parents. It was a modest, three-bedroom, two-bath house with exterior walls of “mud brick” (adobe) that helped keep the home’s interior cool during the hot Australian summers. With large eaves, a metal roof, and adobe-style mud brick walls, many would consider their home to be reasonably fire-resistant, but its construction proved no match for the forces of nature that turned the neighboring towns of Buxton and Marysville into deadly infernos on Australia’s tragic “Black Saturday” on February 7, 2009.

The prior week, the weather had been extremely hot, with several days recording temperatures of over 40°C (104°F). On that Saturday morning, record-breaking temperatures combined with long-term drought conditions and high winds (over 60 mph) to generate the most serious fire conditions that anyone could remember. An official “extreme fire alert” was issued along with a strict “no burning” command. Mary remembers looking at the thermometer on that day, and it read a blistering 47°C (117°F)! Around 4:30 in the afternoon, a neighbor came by and pointed out a large ominous plume of smoke rising to the southwest. Andrew dialed 000 (The Aussie equivalent to America’s 911), but it just cut out. When attempts to call the fire department also failed, they decided to pack-and-go. Knowing that they did not have enough water and other resources to stay and fight should a major wildfire break out, Andrew and Mary’s fire plan had always been to evacuate. They packed some clothes, the dog, a few files, their computers, and a couple of bicycles into the car and left their home, hoping and praying it would still be standing upon their return. 

Andrew and Mary headed for a friend’s place with a defensible piece of property that included a swimming pool and a dammed reservoir, plus an extensive supply of firefighting materials such as pumps, a tractor, and backpack sprayers. Unlike Andrew and Mary’s property, which backed up to a steeply wooded hillside, their friend’s property was mostly grassland, making it easier to hold back a bushfire. About 10:30 PM a 3 meter (10 foot) high wall of fire descended upon that property, and for the next eight hours family, friends, and neighbors fought to keep the flames and flying embers at bay. Exhausted, around 6 AM they were able to catch an hour and a half of fitful sleep before braving the drive back to their home to survey the damage. At this point, they still had hopes that a favorable wind direction had spared their home. As they walked up the hill to their front yard, they saw that all but three mud brick walls had been totally obliterated. Except for the few things they had packed in their car they day before, all of their personal belongings and the tools for Andrew’s bicycle repair business had been reduced to cinders and scraps of molten metal.

Andrew also had a commercial coffee roaster (“The Great Divide Coffee Roasting”) housed in a shed on his partner’s property just outside of the neighboring town of Marysville. The entire commercial section of Marysville, except for the bakery, had also been destroyed by the fire, but miraculously, the shed that the coffee roaster was stored in, as well as their friend’s home, had survived. Both were scorched by the flames, but were spared the destruction that had taken all but 14 of over 400 buildings in Marysville. In spite of having lost their home, one of their businesses, and nearly all their personal possessions, they fared much better than many others in the surrounding area who had lost their lives or loved ones. On what has become known as “Black Saturday,” bush fires took the lives of 173 people, wiped out whole towns, and entire families were found incinerated in their cars while trying to escape the inferno.

In addition to the details of their trials and losses, Mary also had this to say in her official statement to the local police: “I don’t believe we would have done anything any differently. As far as having adequate warning, we weren’t given any. Other than knowing that it was a high fire danger day, there was no real warning. I don’t know that having had any other warning would have made a difference. I know I didn’t hear any siren or warning sound that day.” For my friends Mary and Andrew, knowing when to stand and fight, and when to pack and run, clearly meant the difference between life and death for hundreds of folks on that blazing hot Saturday in Australia!

Extreme Fire Alert, or Approaching Fire

  • Stay tuned to local radio stations, but keep your eyes and ears open, not counting on authorities for proper warning. STAY SAFE! BEST TO ERR ON THE SIDE OF CAUTION!
  • Keep pets and children close at hand and ready for rapid evacuation.
  • Place 72-hour emergency kits in car(s) along with important documents and computer backup files (“My Life in a Box”). Park cars facing towards the driveway exit for a speedy evacuation.
  • When concerned about an approaching fire, a lawn sprinkler left running on your roof improves the chances for saving your home.
  • Hose down bushes and hedges next to your home, and trim them back if you feel it may be helpful or necessary.
  • Close all windows and doors. Block foundation and roof vents to slow penetration of superheated firestorm gases inside the building envelope.
  • Close fireplace or chimney dampers to minimize the “chimney effect” from drawing air up your chimney. Whatever volume of air draws up your chimney will be replaced by superheated air from the outside firestorm.
  • Remove drapes from windows and move furniture into center of rooms away from windows.
  • Turn off natural gas lines at the meter (you may need to contact your gas company to have a qualified workman safely turn your gas back on later) and propane lines at the tank. Place a lawn sprinkler on your propane tank.
  • Remove gas grills and portable propane tanks far from the home, as well as combustibles such as portable gasoline cans.

When a Fire Strikes Your Home

Crawl under the smoke

Remember that hot air rises, so if you step into a hallway filled with choking blinding smoke, drop to your knees to see if that will get you into a bearable level of smoke so you can speed crawl your way to safety.

Putting out a clothing fire with a blanket, or rolling on the ground

Normal types of fires needs oxygen in order to burn. When hair or clothing catches on fire, quickly smother the fire with a towel, blanket, or jacket tightly wrapped around the burning area on the victim. Alternately, get the victim to roll on the ground to smother the flames, or grab and hug the victim while using your own body to smother the flames.

Bust through sheet rock walls

In an emergency situation, realize that most homes are built with interior walls covered in sheetrock. If necessary to avoid a fire and smoke filled hallway, or to gain access to a room to rescue a family member, realize that this sheetrock can be easily kicked through to allow a person to slip between the studs from one room to another without using a door or window.

When to Make a Stand, and When to Pack and Go

The 2001 Martis Fire, which started about two miles downwind from our neighborhood.

When a fire threatens, remember the story of Andrew and Mary Hall, keeping in mind the fate of those less fortunate families that were found incinerated inside their cars after being overtaken by a fire storm during Australia’s infamous “Black Saturday.”

When it comes to wildfires, it is better to err on the side of caution than to risk all in a moment of valor!

~ Mat Stein


About the author: Matthew Stein is a design engineer, green builder, and author of two bestselling books: When Disaster Strikes: A Comprehensive Guide for Emergency Planning and Crisis Survival (Chelsea Green 2011), and When Technology Fails: A Manual for Self-Reliance, Sustainability, and Surviving the Long Emergency (Chelsea Green 2008). Stein is a graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where he majored in Mechanical Engineering. Stein has appeared on numerous radio and television programs and is a repeat guest on Fox News, Coast-to-Coast AM, Alex Jones’ Infowars, Vince Finelli’s USA Prepares, and The Power Hour.  He is an active mountain climber, serves as a guide and instructor for blind skiers, has written several articles on the subject of sustainable living, and is a guest columnist for the Huffington Post. www.whentechfails.com and www.matstein.com.

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