Don't flee late, experts warn - prepare your house early or prepare to leave

National media briefing

Staying to protect your home when a bushfire is approaching could also save your life, say fire experts, but you must be well prepared both physically and emotionally before making this life and death decision.

Speaking at a national media briefing in Melbourne, the group from the Bushfire Cooperative Research Centre said that new research based on previous bushfires shows that people who are well prepared for fire and stay to defend their home are more likely to survive than those who stay and then flee at the last moment.

“When a fire front is approaching, a well-prepared house can offer its inhabitants protection until the front has passed, often in a matter of minutes,” said Professor John Handmer, Director of the Centre for Risk and Community Safety at RMIT University and Program Leader of Bushfire CRC program Community Self Sufficiency for Fire Safety.

“We know from previous bushfires that if you leave at the last moment you have a greater risk of dying than if you stay and defend your home,” he said.

“It is a sad fact that a disproportionate number of women and children die in these circumstances because they try to flee their house as a fire front approaches, while the men remain to defend the home,” said Professor Handmer.

According to Alan Rhodes, Manager of Community Safety Research and Evaluation at the Country Fire Authority “most people die because of the effects of radiant heat from the fire or from car accidents while trying to flee.”

But not everyone can stay and protect their home, say the experts. “People need to consider their individual circumstances before making the decision to stay and defend or leave early. If they don’t have the physical ability or psychological readiness to stay throughout a fire, then they should consider leaving early,” said Mr Rhodes.

Deciding whether to stay and protect the family home can be a difficult decision for many people, especially given that fire authorities cannot get to every home during a severe bushfire. “Fire authorities simply cannot be everywhere at once in these situations and so can’t guarantee a fire truck to protect every house,” said Mr Rhodes. “Thus the responsibility for defending the home needs to be shared between authorities and homeowners,” he said.

According to Justin Leonard from the CSIRO’s Sustainable Ecosystems, in the 1994 bushfires in Sydney houses with at least two people in them working to protect their homes as the fire front passed all survived compared to around 60% of unattended homes.

“There is a good chance that your home will survive even a severe bushfire if you stay to defend it, but you must be appropriately prepared,” he said. This kind of preparation must be done in the months leading up to the bushfire season and not left to the last minute. “However, every case is unique and people should consult with their local brigade to develop an understanding of the unique risk that they may face,” he said.

The experts made their plea as Australia enters what could be one of the hottest and driest summers on record. “The lead-up conditions we’ve experienced this year are similar to those that led to the ‘Ash Wednesday’ fires in the summer of 1982/83 and the ‘Black Friday’ fires in the summer of 1938/39,” said Clare Mullen, a weather forecaster at the Australian Bureau of Meteorology.

The Bureau’s fire weather forecasting started 2-4 weeks earlier than before and Melbourne has seen its earliest post winter 35°C day ever, said Ms Mullen.

We now know that we have El Niño conditions this year and that we’re likely to get more extreme fire weather days this summer, she said.

NB: More information on how to protect you and your family and your home from bushfires can be found on the websites of all state fire services.

Release date

Wed, 18/10/2006