Would you know what to do if you saw flames heading your way? When should you turn and run from a wildfire and when is it better to seek cover?
Animals, including the human kind, have a natural urge to flee when faced with an oncoming fire. But can you outrun a raging wildfire? The answer is no, not likely, and best not to try. Not even if you’re an Olympic 100m gold medalist.
Speeds of up to 50km/h
Rob Erasmus, manager of Enviro Wildfire Services in the south-western Cape, says: “The chances of outrunning a wildfire are not good, particularly if the winds are strong; and the chances are even worse if it’s a grass fire. Wildfires, especially when wind-driven, can move at speeds of up to 50 km/h.”
Among the world's elite sprinters, few have clocked speeds of over 40km/h.
And it’s not just a matter of how fast you can run. Erasmus points out there are other factors that can further lower your chances of succeeding in a mad dash to safety, such as the terrain, the thickness of the vegetation, heat exhaustion and possible smoke inhalation.
Volunteer firefighter Ryan Heydenrych uses a beater to battle flames at Cape Agulhas. Firefighters train for months, are properly equipped and work in highly co-ordinated teams - never alone. (Photo: Nicholas Sales, Volunteer Wildfire Services)
Find an escape route
Even if you can't actually see flames, but you can smell or see smoke or a glow on the horizon at night, then a wildfire is dangerously near and you need to work out an escape route. If you can hear a crackling sound or see sparks in the air, then the fire is likely to be only a few hundred metres away and you may be at very high risk.
The best course of action is to try to get out of the path of the main fire front. Move across and down-slope to the “flanks” of the fire, or to an area that has already been burned or has no vegetation, for example rock outcrops, dirt roads or gravel fields. Erasmus recommends sticking to footpaths or roads as much as possible, and avoiding "shortcuts" as you might get lost or stuck in thick vegetation.
Many vegetation types, even if they appear lush and green, can still burn well. “Even marshy ground should be avoided. While these might be wet areas, the vegetation above the waterline can still burn. This can cause very thick smoke which will make you lose consciousness."
Remember that fires, unlike people, generally move faster uphill, because heat rises and causes vegetation upslope to catch alight. The steeper the slope, the faster a fire will move up it. “Also avoid trying to escape up gullies or ravines. These act as ‘chimneys’, channelling wind, and thus smoke and fire, up them.”
Your escape route should be clearly visible and nearby, however. If the wind is blowing the fire in your direction over a level area, or the front is moving uphill towards you, you may not have time to get out of its path.
If the fire is gaining on you: find shelter
Head for where the fire’s fuel – vegetation – is sparse. Look for a depression in the ground and clear away as much flammable material (ground cover, twigs, leaves) as possible. The bigger the area you can clear around you, the better. Lie face-down and cover yourself with anything that will help shield you from the heat, such as natural-fibre clothing, loose earth or your backpack. Synthetic clothing is often highly flammable, but still better than bare skin. Cover as much exposed skin and hair as possible.
Getting under a bank of earth or a large boulder – or getting these between you and the path of the fire – will also help shield you from the flames.
If possible, get into a stream or other body of water, but only if it’s a reasonably big one. People have also survived fires by sheltering in drainage pipes and caves: these aren’t ideal, however, as they can become filled with smoke. If you happen to be near a hut or a vehicle, get inside. Even if these structures catch fire, there will likely be a lag period before they do so, during which the front of the fire may well have passed.
If your clothes catch fire, drop to the ground, cover your face and roll back and forth to extinguish the flames.
The main killers: heat and smoke
Even if the flames themselves don’t reach you, you still need to protect yourself from heat and smoke. Most deaths caused by wildfires aren't as a result of direct burns from the flames: radiant heat (which can heat the air so intensely that it can actually sear your lungs), smoke inhalation and dehydration are the primary threats.
Use a section of fabric, moistened if possible, as a smoke filter to breathe through. Keep drinking-water with you to stave off dehydration.
What about making a fire break?
Burning a section of veld between you and an oncoming fire is a classic survival method, and wildfire fighters carry matches for this purpose. But it’s tricky even for the experienced to get right, and generally not advisable if you haven't been in such a situation before:
“One needs to be very careful about burning a ‘fire break’, and doing a ‘back-burn’. These are options, but have their own hazards. If the wind changes, or the fire changes direction, you won't be able to escape. If you back-burn, you might kill yourself in the process, or even kill someone else who was unaware of your new fire.”
After the fire
You still need to be on your guard even when the fire front has passed. The ground can still be smouldering and the heat intense in places. Watch out for burned trees falling. “Also be very careful of ash pits. These are holes filled with coals remaining after the stump and roots of a tree have burned out. If you fall into one of these…”
Make your way carefully back to where you can inform the authorities - not just about the fire, but to let them know that you've survived it and don't need to be rescued.
Don’t be a fire-starter
Most wildfires are started by careless (and sometimes seriously disturbed) people. Don’t be one. When hiking or camping, especially in fire season:
Use a camping stove for cooking instead of a fire, particularly if there’s a strong wind blowing. Make sure you know exactly how to use the stove before you leave home.
Only make a campfire in a designated fireplace. Avoid overhanging branches, thick bushes and steep slopes. You should have an area 5m wide around the fire that is clear of vegetation and potentially flammable debris. You can also enclose your fire with a ring of large stones to help contain it. Keep your extra firewood, matches and any other fuel source (like gas canisters) separate.
Keep water close by to quickly douse the campfire if it shows signs of spreading.
At least one person should keep an eye on the fire at all times.
Make sure your campfire is completely out before you go to sleep or leave the campsite: douse the embers with water, then stir them up and douse them again. You should be able to touch the doused area with your bare hand. It’s also a good idea (for aesthetic reasons too), to cover your fire spot with some soil or stones. However, do not cover it with soil until you are 100% sure the fire is completely out.
Don’t smoke… Most hiking and camping areas prohibit it anyway. If you must have a cigarette, stub out the butt thoroughly and keep it until you get back to a proper rubbish bin.
When planning an outdoor trip, find out from the authorities what the fire risk is, and if there are any special recommendations during fire season or on high-risk days. For example, many reserves will prohibit the use of campfires at such times.
- Olivia Rose-Innes, EnviroHealth Editor, Health24, updated February 2012.
Reviewed by Rob Erasmus, Manager, Enviro Wildfire Services.